By Don Stradley
Flash Gordon had a very specific job description. It involved keeping Emperor Ming of planet Mongo from becoming too powerful. There were plenty of perks that came with the job, including some snazzy rocket ships, ray guns, and battles with space creatures, but the main task was to keep Ming in line. Considering Ming’s all consuming plan was to destroy Earth, Flash was a busy guy.
He was a hero in the heyday of 1930s movie serials. He was true blue. He saved people from certain doom. But no matter how dangerous the assignment, he was always quick to thank the people around him for being his friends. When it came to movie heroes, Flash Gordon was without a doubt the friendliest. The Marvel and DC heroes on movie screens nowadays are too moody, while James Bond is just a horny guy with an accent. Tarzan? He's friendly with apes, I guess, but he seems surly. Han Solo? Too sarcastic. Besides, you couldn't trust him with your girlfriend. But Flash, we know, would be sure to send you a postcard after returning from Mongo. He'd apologize for not keeping in touch, and he'd promise to see you soon.
This, I imagine, is why Flash Gordon hasn't really lasted into the modern era. He remains an icon of the Depression years, when friendliness was a desired personality trait. When Universal tried to cash in on the Star Wars craze in 1980 with the campy, underappreciated Flash Gordon, audiences weren't buying it. There have been occasional efforts to bring the character back in both animated and TV series form, and there are occasional rumors of a new movie project, but nothing sticks. In the 1930s, though, when Larry "Buster" Crabbe took on the title role in a trilogy of adventure serials, Flash was a moneymaker.
The key reason Flash couldn't be a success now is that he lacks a dark side. The formula for today's hero involves fitting a brooding misanthrope with a cape, giving him a sophomoric backstory with some feeble psychological underpinning, and letting him navigate his way through an apocalyptic cityscape. These movies make billions of dollars, which suggests modern audiences relate to these self-absorbed loners. But Flash could never be as miserable as Batman or Spiderman, because he was too busy saving the world.
Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe (1940) was the final Flash Gordon serial. It arrived in theaters as the Depression era was morphing into the World War II years, and Flash's brand of clean-cut bravery was on the way out. For that matter, villains from other planets seemed quaint, considering we had some shockingly evil villains right here on Earth. Still, it's fascinating to see this third Flash Gordon entry try to fit into the times. Ming, for instance, is not just a diabolical heel as he'd been in the first two serials; he's now described as a "dictator," and though he’s seen wearing the robe and high collar of the earlier films, he also wears a white military tunic and enough plumage to look like a German general on parade. Obviously, the Universal costume designers were watching the newsreels.
The movie mines the war era in other ways: Ming's army of mechanical men lurch toward Flash and his friends like Hitler's goose-steppers, a mindless squad just following orders; Ming's bombing of various Mongo nations, including the forest kingdom of Aboria, eerily mirrored the Nazi dismantling of Poland and Czechoslovakia. Ironically, the serial debuted on April 9, 1940, the same day the Nazis invaded Denmark and Norway.
There were clear signs that the series was at its end. Where Universal had once lavished money on the franchise - the first Flash Gordon serial was as costly as one of Universal's A-list pictures — it now scrimped, recycling props and footage from both Flash Gordon (1936) and Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938). In his 1975 memoir, Crabbe recalled Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe as "nothing more than a doctored up script from earlier days."
Another big change was the recasting of several characters, including Flash's female interest, Dale Arden. Jean Rogers had played the role in the first two serials, creating a large fanbase of teen boys thanks to her skimpy outfits. When Rogers left Universal for MGM, Carol Hughes stepped in as Dale, but the role was diminished; Hughes wore more conservative costumes than her predecessor and seemed limited to only a few lines, the main one being, "Be careful, Flash!"
Of course, there were still moments of innovation, such as the opening crawl to announce each episode (which would be borrowed by George Lucas for Star Wars) and a menacing tribe of Rock people who speak a strange language (achieved by human voice recordings played backwards, a trippy idea at the time). Moreover, this serial is a stunner visually. In The Great Movie Serials by Jim Harmon and Don Glut, the authors praise the production as “aesthetically beautiful…perhaps the most ‘pretty’ serial ever made, with emphasis on costuming and set design.” The third serial also introduces Captain Torch, played by Don Owen with a smirk worthy of Leo Gorcey; he's a burly thug who seems to be Göring to Ming's Hitler. And Emperor Ming, played with sinister aplomb by Charles Middleton, remains one of the great movie heels of cinema history. If it's possible, he's more of a megalomaniac here than ever, especially in the climactic showdown when he hisses, "I am the universe!"
As is always the case in the Flash Gordon serials, the music is pure sonic uplift. As in the first two, 'Les Preludes' by the great Franz Liszt is heard soaring over the opening titles and throughout the chapters, interspersed with snatches from the Universal archives, everything from Heinz Roemheld's The Invisible Man, to Franz Waxman's The Bride of Frankenstein. Movie buffs can have fun just picking out the pieces they recognize.
But the film does seem to rehash many of the usual Flash Gordon tropes. Ming still wants to make Dale his bride, no matter who plays her, and Flash and his party encounter one menace after another. But one noticeable change in this installment is that, aside from a giant Gila monster who doesn't really figure into the plot, there are fewer strange creatures — no sharkmen, no horned gorillas — and the perils Flash must overcome are in the form of avalanches, fires, and Ming's bomber pilots. This change was likely a conscious attempt by Universal to present a more mature Flash. There's even a scene where Flash delays saving Dale and Dr. Zarkoff because he's in charge of a special antidote for Ming's "death dust" and must first drop it off atop Mount McKinley. Flash shows a steely hardness here, saying something to the effect of Dale and Zarkoff are only two people; I have many more to save! But a mature Flash wasn't what the public wanted; box office receipts were disappointing, and the series promptly ended.
Crabbe didn't spend much more time in space, spending the next leg of his career in cut-rate westerns and dramas. By the 1950s he’d left Hollywood for New York, and was hosting a kid's show on WOR-TV. Most of the time he showed his old Flash Gordon movies. The three serials were chopped and channeled into shortened versions, re-titled, and syndicated well into the 1970s and '80s. There was something comforting about coming home after a late night and seeing one of the episodes on a UHF or PBS channel. (It didn't matter if I'd missed the previous week's chapter; all I needed was to hear the hum of the old rocket ships and I'd be strangely contented.)
Crabbe was born to play Flash Gordon. He hadn’t even wanted the role – as described in his memoir, Self Portrait, he’d stopped in at the auditions to see how things were going, and was offered the part on the spot – but not many other actors had the athletic ability as well as the All-American charisma needed to play Flash. At times, Crabbe has the same sort of presence as the young Ronald Reagan, but he's more coiled, more daring. You couldn't see Reagan as Flash, especially at the end of the final chapter, when Flash parachutes from his rocket and lets it sail directly into Ming's castle, 9/11 style. Flash Gordon may have been a boy scout, but he had the nerves of a suicide pilot. Still, he'd shake your hand before every mission, and tell you what an honor it was to know you. You almost didn't mind being punched in the face by such a nice guy.
Illustrator Alex Raymond created Flash Gordon to compete with the Buck Rogers cartoon strip. (Crabbe played Buck Rogers, too, in 1939, but was forever associated with Flash.) At first, Flash was seen as a Rogers knockoff, but Depression era kids embraced him. He took you into outer space and made you forget your worries for a while. The strip continued on in various forms for many decades, but Flash was never as beloved as he was in the 1930s. At a time when America seemed on the brink of dissolution, Flash Gordon was perfectly positioned to make us look to the future, and to give us something to think about besides soup lines and shanty towns. When the Depression ended, so went Flash from our movie screens. But he was there when we needed him, and that counts for a lot.
The full Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe serial is available to watch, for free, on Film Master's Youtube Channel here.