Saturday, November 17, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

The 1936 serial FLASH GORDON, in adapting the phenomenally popular comic strip, proved to be a pivot -point between the old and the new. The world of American serials, dating back to 1912’s WHAT HAPPENED TO MARY, had made only occasional use of properties from other media, such as Tarzan and Craig Kennedy. FLASH was not by any means the first serial-adaptaation of the 1930s, but its unqualified success with the public guaranteed that American serials, until the extinction of the form in 1956, would invest heavily in franchises from comic strips, comic books, and pulp-magazine stories. At the same time, FLASH was among the last productions initiated at Universal Studios by that ambitious family, the Laemmles, before they were forced out by a new (and arguably less ambitious) new regime. Finally, in one department FLASH GORDON was both first and last, for it represents the only time in the sound era that an American serial was aimed at an adult audience, before the form became totally directed at young viewers.

Given how often Hollywood played fast and loose with adaptations of any pre-existing property—and not just with pulp-franchises like Tarzan, but also with literary types like Hemingway and Faulkner—it’s impressive that FLASH hews so closely to the strip, which had only been running for the previous two years. The principal plot-lines are derived from the two sequences I’ve described in this essay, though some chapters adapt the “invisible man” plotline seen in the later “Witch Queen” sequence that had concluded in 1935. Naturally, the serial did not attempt to reproduce the “cast of thousands” battles seen during Flash Gordon’s military conflict with Ming the Merciless, which had not concluded in the strip when the serial began filming, and which would not reach fruition until 1941. Thus the serial had to write its own end for its perfidious villain—albeit leaving an opening for his possible retu rn—as well as sending the serial’s starring heroes back to their native planet.rather than keeping them marooned on the planet Mongo. (Naturally, they, like Ming, returned for the sequels.) Yet almost every change Universal’s production team wrought upon the strip proved a fulfillment of the strip’s original appeal, and sometimes the changes were substantial improvements on the original.

Given that no in-depth interviews with the production team are extant, there’s no way to know who precisely made the decision to adapt the comic strip with almost the same tone of “high Hollywood melodrama” one could also find in contemporaneous adaptations of books and plays. Henry McRae, production head of Universal’s serials, certainly deserves some credit, though credit for FLASH’s flamboyant visual style probably should go to the German-born director of record, Frederick Stephani. Stephani never directed another serial, and it’s been suggested that he probably received aid in the production grind from the uncredited but more experienced Ray Taylor. Additonally, Stephani seems to be one of the few serial-directors who collaborated on scripting, in that he shares credit with three other scribes, including the noteworthy George Plympton. All of these talents seem to be united in the desire to translate to film, with as much gravity as melodrama would allow, the world of Alex Raymond, with its Burroughsian panoramas of medieval barbarism crossbred with science fiction gimmickery.

Obviously there were physical limitations to the state of special effects in 1936. Modern eyes, perhaps spoiled by the breakthroughs of computer graphics, are unlikely to see the aesthetic success of the serial, focusing only upon minutiae, like the fact that Stephani cannot, unlike Alex Raymond, make his live-action Hawkmen look like they have living wings that give them the power of flight. Yet even these qualified failures still convey Raymond’s vision of an exotic world wherein a fearless Earthman continually contends with people who have the powers or aspects of animals, and triumphs over them.

The actors, too, reflect the production team’s decision to pursue high melodrama with great intensity but without any condescending camp humor. I’m not alone in extolling Buster Crabbe to be one of the best possible castings in the history of cinema, period, and indeed, I’d rate his portrayal of Flash Gordon as an improvement on the Raymond original. Raymond’s Flash in the earliest strips is a one-dimensional hero. Forced into an arena, Flash wades into battle and tosses around his opponents, the ferocious monkey-men, like mere dolls. In the serial, Flash is no less stalwart and resolute. Yet in the arena-scene, Crabbe registers real fear when he faces the ape-creatures for the first time, and in his battle he has to sweat blood, so to speak, in outfighting these powerful beast-men. I’m not saying that I would’ve wanted to see Crabbe play Hamlet—his talent lay within a narrow expressive range—but he even has a few sensitive moments here. When Princess Aura tearfully confesses her love to him, trying to win him away from his beloved Dale Arden, Crabbe’s Flash shows more empathy for the woman’s emotional turmoil than the Flash Gordon of the comics could.

In the serial Ming, ably portrayed by Charles Middleton, is about the same as he is in the early strips: visually arresting but not yet possessing much character. However, Priscilla Lawson’s Princess Aura is a huge improvement over Raymond’s version. Raymond shows little empathy for Aura’s amour fou toward the Earthman, and the comics-artist tended to use her as nothing more than a plot-device. But both the script and the direction of FLASH GORDON play up Aura’s doomed passion for all it’s worth. She’s also a woman of action. On four separate occasions she witnesses Flash in peril, and while Dale Arden stands to one side, weeping or carrying on, Aura uses force or guile in order to save her man. As in the comic strip, Aura is eventually given a consolation prize in the form of the rebel prince Barin. However, as if to signify the producers’ secret preference for a Flash-Aura matchup, Barin comes off as rather bland, even after facing off against Flash in a blistering tournament-swordfight.

Other minor characters are artfully cast, with highest honors going to James Lipson for his rollicking effort as Vultan, King of the Hawkmen, and next highest to Frank Shannon as the always durable Doctor Zarkov. And with them out of the way, I can at least touch on the most significant change in the serial: the rendering of the comic strip’s plucky Dale Arden into a teary dishrag. (To be sure, actress Jean Rogers plays one of cinema’s best teary dishrags, faint praise though that may seem.) As I noted in an earlier essay, Dale in the comic strip was not an experienced warrior, but she was capable of independent action, and she outshone Princess Aura so much that sometimes Raymond made them look alike. In contrast, Stephani’s team went out of their way to visually distinguish the two characters. First off, the comics’ brunette Dale becomes a platinum blonde, as if to mirror Flash’s blonde locks. But as mentioned before, this Dale becomes every bit the “helpless femme” who can only scream hysterically when her lover is in danger.

The only character-monent Dale gets—and it’s a very odd, nuanced one for an American action-serial—appears in FLASH’s first chapter. The three Earthpeople, having crash-landed on Mongo, have been brought before Ming. Ming boasts that he plans to destroy the Earth, and Zarkov slyly buys time by talking the tyrant into conquering the planet instead. Up to this point Dale, who is of course wearing the prim clothes of a “nice girl,” hasn’t reacted to much of anything. Then Princess Aura, decked out in her pagan finery, pushes past some guards to stand beside her father. For just one shot—before Aura has even looked at Flash Gordon with lust, before she’s claimed him for her own property—Dale lifts her chin and gives Aura a hostile look, as if to say something like, “trashy slut.” Of course, for all anyone today knows, the actress might have been told to react as if Aura had already propositioned the Earthman. But as the scene stands, Dale comes off as overly proper. Given that the rest of the serial downplays Dale in order to play up Aura, this scene is in any case a harbinger of future developments.

In the comic strip, Dale pretends to romance Vultan in order to gain his trust, but only with the ulterior purpose of finding some way to rescue the imprisoned Flash. In Episode 6, Aura gives Dale the idea of makng up to Vultan, and Dale allows herself to be manipulated, even though it’s abundantly clear that Aura’s doing this to clear her own path to Flash. In Chapter 10, the serial reworks an incident from the comic strip in which the witch-queen Azura strips Flash of his memory, so that he makes love to her and forgets Dale. The serial has Aura slip Flash the memory-mickey, with the result that the stricken hero actually does choose Aura over Dale for a short time. Naturally Aura doesn’t get the chance to enjoy the fruits of her deception before that meddling Zarkov administers an antidote. Dale eventually wins the romantic battle, but only by being incredible passive. Some might assume that the serial’s makers were suggesting that female passivity was a prescriptive value. But that theory hardly holds up, given how much the film emphasizes Aura’s courage and cunning as positive virtues.

My explanation for the Dale-Aura change is no more verifiable than any other, but I think it fits the facts better. Alex Raymond’s comic strip was concocted in part to compete with BUCK ROGERS, which like its prose precursor, started out by having Caucasian heroes square off against menacing Mongolians. In FLASH GORDON Raymond throws in a little bit of Oriental claptrap, like giving his villain the name of a Chinese dynasty and dressing him in Mandarin robes. However, Raymmond was primarily interested in popularing his world with weird animal-human hybrids like Hawkmen and Lionmen. Thus after the first six months Raymond no longer refers to Ming’s people as “yellow men.” By the time the serial was in production, even characters like Ming and Barin, who had once been colored with a shade of canary-yellow, were depicted with the same Caucasian flesh-hues as everyone else.

By the time the serial FLASH GORDON films, no one in it looks particularly Asian except Ming. True, Aura is, though not specifically Asian, coded as an exotic “foreign beauty.” But this visual trope doesn’t necessarily signal, as Marxists tiresomely argue, an endorsement of Caucasian hegemony.

Raymond rather indifferently propounded a standard formula designed by please white readers: Asians may desire Caucasians, but not the other way round. Stephani and his fellow writers could not change the formula of the comic strip without displeasing the film’s audience. And yet, I believe that there’s some creative agenda on the minds of the filmmakers. Why, if one is playing to a dominantly white audience, would one downgrade the role of the lead Caucasian female character, making her seem helpless and a little simple-minded, while upgrading the image of the quasi-Asian exotic competition, making her much more dynamic than she is in the original strip?

There are two possible explanations. One is that one or more filmmakers secretly disliked all the “Yellow Peril” tropes in the film, and sought to undermine them through subtext: by making the romance between white man and not-white woman seem infinitely preferable to the more vanilla matchup. However, there seems no way to prove this. The other explanation rests more on the needs of entertainers trying to reach a particular audience. Possibly the filmmakers simply felt that they could generate greater melodramatic interest from adult filmgoers if the serial played up the tragic nature of Aura’s “love that was not meant to be.” I don’t suggest that 1936 female viewers would have wept for Aura the way they might weep, say, over the travails of STELLA DALLAS. But Aura’s sufferings were a trope that would be recognizable to an adult audience rasied on high Hollywood melodrama, so that all of the preposterous fantasy-elements might become more relatable.

For whatever reasons, there was never another American serial even ambivalently aimed at an adult audience, and the two FLASH GORDON serials—whose lack of earthy sexuality looks forward to George Lucas’s cosmos—would be just as juvenile as all the rest.

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