Note: See Index for other articles by Tom A.
LINKS TO CHAPTERS:
Chapter I. THE BEST OF THE BEST
Chapter II. SERIAL SEX
Chapter III. HEROES, VILLAINS, MAGIC, AND FEET OF CLAY
Chapter IV. MONGO'S MAGNIFICENT MOUNTAINSCAPES
Chapter V. THE PRINCE WHO GOT YOUNGER AND LEANER
Chapter VI. THE VILLAIN WHO DIED THREE TIMES
Chapter VII. MUSIC OF THE SPHERES
Chapter VIII. LET'S NOT PASS THE BUCK
Chapter IX. SERIAL TO FEATURE IN EASY CUTS
Chapter X. BEST BOUNTY FOR THE BUFF
SERIAL MUSIC - WORST TO BEST
This article has been written primarily for the Flash Gordon serial buff. Its view is toward highlighting the nuances--some obvious, many obscure--of the serial formats, story lines, acting, background music, cinematography, characterizations, dialogue, special effects, etc. that strike us from the "sophisticated" perspective of our time. Movies, like automobiles, have been with us for a century. These two products of primarily American technology have evolved to a previously undreamed of state of maturity. One result has been their unparalleled accessibility to private individuals since Henry Ford's mass production techniques for the car early in the (20th) century--and since the appearance of VCR, DVD, and laser-disk recordings of movies in the century's last two decades.
The motion-picture feature also became an art form almost immediately, and--as far as popular culture is concerned--remains one today. One can argue the genre's artistic merits and can cite the preponderance of its crass commercialism; wherein turning a profit appears the all-consuming bottom line. Yet within all the negatives that critics are wont to spill (and spell) out in print, works of the cinema have, throughout their short history, ennobled the human spirit--as does any art form. They continue to remind us of our humanity in ways that are as symbolic as they are literal (or "realistic").
The so-called "adventure serial" is a genre that for various reasons had the first half of the century as its heyday, and has since passed out of existence. Yet, with the recovery and new accessibility of most serials of the sound era in the VHS/VCR tape and DVD media, many people are rediscovering them. Some glean from them a nostalgic throwback to their younger days. Others, mostly of the younger generation, feel a bemused condescension to the "stock" dialogue, the primitive special effects, and the "cheap" production values. Yet, there are a number of film buffs of all ages that derive pleasure from searching for the serials' "strong" dramatic moments, which occasionally peek out from behind their charm, naiveté, and otherwise non-stop action.
The best of the serials appear to offer elements in cinematic theater that are missing in our modern, "realistic" productions, so permeated with latter-day technical wizardry. The former are the sole subject of this piece (allowing for occasional references to others). It is the quest to find these elements and savor them that should most engage the modern serial buff, of whatever age. Determining what is elusively good about them goes hand in hand with seeing what is obviously bad, and becomes an engaging part of their exploration.
Thus, the critical discussion offered herein of plot discontinuities and other negative elements is meant not to pick on the serial producers’ efforts. Rather it is to highlight--in trivia-laden detail for those with only casual interest--what was impossible to highlight, or perhaps even observe, at the time the serials--or chapterplays--were shown chapter-by-chapter, week-by-week, in movie theaters. It is the perspective of an aficionado, resulting from seeing them repeatedly, from absorbing their contents to an extent the original movie-house viewers, and their contemporary movie critics, could not possibly have done.
It should be kept in mind that many popular movie features of our own era are at least equally laden with discontinuities, with unexplained events, with plot lines that go nowhere. Some of these are inserted for shock value: blatant gore, blatant sex, and blatant brutality. In the serials' heyday, such blatancy didn’t exist. Even if it had in adult-themed features, it wouldn’t have in what was viewed primarily as a vehicle to entertain children and teens--mostly boys--hopefully inducing them and their parents to return the following week. The fact that the best chapterplays engaged a far wider aged audience and, to an extent, appear to be doing so again further indicates that they deserve a thorough examination.
Since I've discovered a not-too-surprisingly high interest level in the background (and oft-times foreground) music for these Universal space serials, I've included more material on that topic than you are, quite frankly, apt to find from other currently available sources--either in print or on the Web.* My goal is, then, to enhance and to focus the desire in the already curious, already receptive movie and serial buff to look for himself at the nuances described in this article. Consequently, he or she might well derive from them the same aesthetic pleasure they have given me over the several decades since my introduction to the genre as a pre-teen.
There is no attempt herein to provide an episode-to-episode narrative of the plots--though selected plot details of special interest are highlighted, including dialogue. It is presumed that the reader is either already familiar with the general plots from decades back and/or through access to the available videos/DVDs--or wants to become familiar--or hopefully will want to after browsing this article. For those wishing to skip what may be viewed as digressive portions of the narrative, I've provided "jump-around" links, for which using your browser's "back" command will return you to the link's starting point. The same applies to linking to a specific "chapter" from the top.
By far, the best interactive Flash Gordon website is Tony LoBue's--one he's put a lot of work into and which has grown geometrically since he posted it, somewhat after I posted this one. LoBue has incorporated many photos, and has recorded many of the music tracks for quick sampling. He has also included much memorabilia regarding the chief players and what later became of them, posted contemporaneous magazine articles, a guest book, a discussion forum, links to other sites, etc. In fact, LoBue's discussion forum has greatly expanded and has become a good source for not only the opinions of a surprising number of aficionados but of newly revealed information regarding the actors as well as associated facts and factoids. For the casual aficionado, LoBue's site is recommended over this one. When you have absorbed all LoBue has to offer, plus having watched the serials to the point of evolving a deep interest in their trivia . . . that is the time to read this piece all the way through, preferably in segments (such as my "chapters").
For a précis description of each of the trilogy's plots--chapter by chapter--you might try Judy Harris' Web site. Harris injects her own critical views, which occasionally differ from mine. She also conveys an amusing sense of irony regarding various plot disconnects and other scripting faults and fallacies. These only dramatize items occurring with the limited budget and early movie technology today's fans easily pick up with repeated viewings--but which would never have been noticed when the chapters were shown at the time once on the big screen, week after week.
I should mention, as a final qualifier for this piece, that I'm completely unfamiliar with the Alex Raymond comic strip which in 1934 created the Flash Gordon action hero--and from which these Universal serials were spawned. I've never seen a copy of the strip at any stage of its evolution. But I've been informed and have read that much of the proceedings in all three serial plot lines were taken directly from Raymond's concurrent ones appearing in that era's daily papers. Therefore, the reader should understand that my expressed opinions are not, in any way, justified either for or against by how closely the serial plots, characterization, character appearance (e.g. hair color), costuming, and background sets match those of the strip.
-tom aldridge February 1999 - Last Updated: Nov. 2 - 2009
CHAPTER I. THE BEST OF THE BEST
Of all the cliffhanging movie serials released by Hollywood from the early silent era to 1956 (when the genre petered out with Columbia’s Blazing the Overland Trail), the one "hero" that comes most to mind from the days of his big-screen premiere to the present is Flash Gordon. Continual television exposure from the early '50s to Universal’s three Gordon chapterplays has maintained his popularity. Moreover, they have since spawned the XXX-rated Flesh Gordon movie spoof of 1972 and the campy, 1980 Flash Gordon feature starring the "fleshy," unattractive Sam Jones (who came up from nowhere and has since returned). [I am aware that the 1980 Flash is also a popular cult movie, with many Web pages singing its praises, along with those of the Queen rock group, who supplied its background music. It is safe to say that fans of the serials and fans of the latter feature inhabit two different worlds (and I don't mean Mongo and Earth) without any appreciable overlap.] These latter efforts have confirmed that this first movie space adventurer remains indelibly identified with the late "Larry" Buster (Clarence Linden) Crabbe. Though he had a successful subsequent movie and TV career, Crabbe couldn’t shake loose his identification with the young, virile, blond-headed, larger-than-life hero who blazed the trail to other worlds. In fact, today’s Star Trek phenomenon owes much to Universal’s serial trilogy of the late 30s, and to the one Buck Rogers (1939) serial--also starring Crabbe--which Universal placed in their midst (and which, as you'll see later on, was not the studio's original intent). In addition, George Lucas claimed to have used Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe as a departure point for his own Star Wars trilogy--notably in his employment of a trailing foreword, appearing the same as the serial’s rehash of previous chapters. (Interestingly this trailing-retrospective format which began each serial chapter was used in Universal serials roughly during the years 1939 through 1942--not before or after, and it included Buck Rogers.)
What stood the Flash Gordon trilogy--and, to almost as great an extent, Buck Rogers--apart from Universal's usual and other studios’ efforts in the genre were three factors: (1) special effects, laughably primitive from our perspective, but very impressive in the eyes of the original viewers, including those with a first-TV exposure in the '50s; (2) some real acting and character delineation: believable heroes and villains with their emotions on display--most prominently in the first two Gordon chapterplays; (3) exotic sets characterizing an imaginative view of other planets, replete with rocketships, ray guns, palaces, and futuristic outdoor structures; (4) the background music, which was continuous, of high quality, and repetitive enough to ingrain itself into either a subliminal or conscious part of the viewers’ total aesthetic/emotional response--effectively fusing itself into a Gestalt with the these serials’ other special elements. In plain English, the music added to and underscored the screen action and dialogue sufficiently that these four chapterplays would have been markedly diminished without it.
Yet there were differences, some significant, between Flash Gordon (1936), Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938), and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940). These have formed the crux of strongly held views that pervade other Flash Gordon Web sites, serial newsgroups, forums, and printed material as to the relative merits of each chapterplay. They typically cite the original Flash Gordon (1936) as the unique standard against which its sequels are unfavorably compared. (One discussion of the allegorical aspects of the original seems to imply, by omission, that there were no sequels.) There are also issues relating to production cost comparisons, for which some of the disseminated source data is questionable, and to comparisons of so-called "production values," which can be a subjective consideration. My own leanings and subjective views on these matters will hopefully be shared thoroughly enough herein to divulge to the reader my mindset. If I occasionally cross that diffuse line between opinion and unproven fact, it is done at least from what I consider prima facie evidence. In any case, it ought to be stressed that in operating with budgets hamstrung by the state of America's Depression-era economy, Universal should be considered to have done a rather astounding job in delivering a product from a long defunct genre that yet remains so compelling to so many.
CHAPTER II. SERIAL SEX
Frederick Stephani’s writing and direction of the first Flash Gordon may have had much to do with that serial’s presenting the greatest departure from stereotype. The most intriguing, yet in many ways dismaying, of all chapterplays Hollywood has ever produced, its many diverse qualities have made it endlessly fascinating for fans, annotators, and serial buffs. (Yet, for what may be, in hindsight, obvious reasons, Stephani’s services were never again employed.) Its 13 chapters revolve around two central and disparate conflicts: (1) the efforts of Flash, Dale Arden, Dr. Zarkov, and Prince Thun--joined later by Prince Barin, King Vultan, and finally Princess Aura (Ming’s daughter)--to thwart the evil Emperor Ming’s designs upon them and on Earth (though after the early "collision" is avoided in Chapter 2, there was no subsequent direct Earth threat); (2) the romantic entanglements: Flash is sought after by Dale and Aura--the former more demurely, the latter more aggressively. Dale is the object of Ming, Flash, and, in the beginning, Vultan’s desires. Finally, Aura is revealed as Barin’s love interest. These overlapping "triangles" play a significant role in the evolving plot, or, perhaps more accurately, involve considerable plot time, as the chapters unfold. Though the typical serial featured a chief female protagonist, it portrayed her both as a helpless victim and as an unmistakably platonic friend of the hero. Likewise, in those few serials with a female lead (e.g. Perils of Nyoka and Zorro’s Black Whip), her male co-stars dared show no more than a platonic, "let's work together to vanquish the villain" relationship with her.
To my knowledge, Flash Gordon is the only serial where one can feel sexual tension between characters. When Aura and a bare chested Flash in Chapter 2 are escaping in the tunnel together, she snuggles against him, looks longingly at him, and whispers, "Do you like the Earth woman?" Flash and Dale embrace often and kiss twice, the second time rather passionately at the chapterplay’s conclusion. Flash is seen at least once with his arms part way around Aura in Barin's rocketship as it "struggles" to get up to Vultan's Sky City (Chapter 5). In short, there's more "touchy-feely" in this serial than perhaps all others combined (or at least so it seems).
In addition, when Vultan, just introduced in Chapter 5 as a villainous ally of Ming--and during Barin's rocketship struggle--has Dale to himself in his sky-city throne room, he threatens to rape her. With his menacingly husky cackle, Vultan resembles a lecherous King Henry VIII with wings. (Stephani may have felt that the novelty of sci-fi effects would amaze and impress audiences by themselves, thereby justifying his desire for an "adult" element to intrude on a genre usually generated on action alone. This view was tempered after Ford Beebe took over the reins for the remaining Flash serials.)
Dale, played by Jean Rogers, was a beautiful, slender, longhaired blonde in this 1936 production* (and, having been born in 1916, she was only 20 at the time!), looking virtuous, yet saying at one point, "I’d do anything for Flash." At the opposite pole, there is dark-haired, lusty, busty Aura, played by 22-year-old Priscilla Lawson, who seemed anything but virtuous. Both women wore long skirts and decorative bras, showing bare midriffs (above the navel, forbidden anatomy in that era) throughout most of the serial. Their scant attire gets lots of commentary from male serial buffs who correctly observe that they present the sexiest duo in serialdom, and clearly form the most tantalizing element of Stephani's serial. Buster Crabbe's Flash, who is seen clad only in shorts several times, was meant to have a similar effect on women.
[*By contrast, Rogers, whose real name was Eleanor Lovegren, had played a platonic friend to Ace Drummond in Universal’s serial of that name, dating from later in 1936. She there was also blonde but wore throughout a woman’s "business" outfit of the time, her hair appearing short; otherwise, her character was mere cardboard. She had nothing to say other than appearing only verbally reactive--and thus had no acting challenge. She got into scrapes from which Drummond rescued her, but she failed to convey genuine concern, fear, dread, or appreciation for getting into and out of trouble. Like most of serialdom’s females, she was plastic. I had seen Ace Drummond before I saw Flash, and I didn’t remember either Rogers or her character from the former. But after Flash, I could never have forgotten the longhaired blonde, who displayed the essence of the femaleness of that era. That caveat aside, I consider Ace Drummond to be one of the studio's better "conventional" serials from the '30s. Interestingly, Rogers reappeared one more time as a blonde in the now restored and DVD released 1937 Universal serial Secret Agent X-9. She had her hair therein in a style more appealing to today's standards, and cuts a more striking standard of female beauty than she does in Ace Drummond.
Nonetheless, this mixture in Flash of overcoming the villain(s) and dealing with the romantic elements proved a dichotomy. It was ungainly, in that it failed to flesh out (no double entendre intended) the romances satisfactorily--except, in a sense, for Flash and Dale. Their inclusion as a significant plot element mostly served to slow the pace. Thus, despite the "eye candy" afforded by Dale, Aura, and several scantily clad supernumeraries, many chapters contained stretches of inaction, with the kids at the Saturday matinee having to content themselves with the special effects, the exotic appearance, and the anticipation of eventual action. Yet for their accompanying parents, feature-length movies usually did a more convincing job dealing with adult themes.
Still the 1936 Flash had poignant moments never seen elsewhere in the genre: "I’d hoped that I’d wound you sufficiently that Ming would let you go free--or that you’d kill me. Either way it would end my misery. I love Princess Aura." So reveals Barin very earnestly to Flash--well aware of Aura’s lust for Flash--after their Chapter 8 sword fight. The dialogue was one of the few times veteran heavy Richard Alexander had material for some real acting. It showed that Prince Barin valued Flash’s friendship much too greatly for jealousy to intervene. This kind of emotional complexity simply wasn’t a typical part of chapterplays.
On the other hand, the entire episode in Kala's undersea domain, comprising a good portion of Chapter 3 and all of Chapter 4, seems to me the weakest 25 to 30 minutes in the entire Gordon/Rogers tetralogy. From the moment Flash and Dale fall through the water trap into the "underground river," which later becomes the "sea"--until the shark palace rises above it at the opening of Chapter 5, the pace is leaden, the sequences repetitive, and the dialogue wooden (and sparse). Moreover, the romantic element between Flash, Dale, and Aura remains in stasis. Furthermore, the events taking place do not carry forward any plot implications for the rest of the serial. The episode appears to have been inserted to get the serial's length up to the prescribed number of chapters--and possibly to show Buster Crabbe's prowess as an Olympic swimmer. (It is reported to have followed exactly Alex Raymond's concurrent cartoon strip, and was likely the true reason for its inclusion.) As if all that weren't bad enough, the background music also reaches a repetitive stasis. (More on that most engaging issue below.)
With Chapter 5 all the foregoing suddenly morphs into a new episode. And with the transfer of Flash's party to Vultan's picturesque sky city, the serial comes to life again. The ensuing four and a half chapters form the core of the story line and provide the most pleasure--visually, in characterizations, in pacing (with the atom-furnace-room sequences and Vultan's vain attempts to woo Dale excepted), and in the considerably expanded, and much more interesting musical background. (The fact that the music was so obviously augmented at just this point suggests that the director wanted to underscore his major plot redirection.)
As suggested above, writers surveying the entire serial genre typically laud the "original" Flash Gordon (1936) as the best of the Flash trilogy. From all the considerations I've just discussed, I would have to dissent. The special, unique, sexy ambience of ‘36 (so referred to hereafter), which is solely what gives it so many plaudits in less thorough examinations, is demonstrably flawed and, in any case, could not have been repeated. And by any meaningful yardstick, F.G. ’36 was clearly exceeded by the subject of my next section . . .
CHAPTER III. HEROES, VILLAINS, MAGIC, AND FEET OF CLAY
Like James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), as compared with his original Frankenstein (1931), Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars was not only more ambitious but, by all significant criteria, better than the original.* It is also longer: At 15 chapters and a running time close to 300 minutes (meaning it averages nearly 20 minutes per chapter), Mars surely must have been among the longer serials ever produced in the sound era. Moreover, it showed that the genre could excel without being the aberration-from-type that so strongly characterizes ‘36. Directors Beebe and Robert Hill sped up the action, incorporated more "air" battles, and excised the romance, except for some allusions to Flash and Dale’s existing relationship. In doing so, they sacrificed few of the elements of quality serial making. In fact, these elements are enhanced in this one--arguably above any serial made before or since. The faster pace in Mars does not preclude a number of strong scenes, but, incidentally, provides questionable comic relief with the inclusion of reporter Happy Hapgood (Donald Kerr). More importantly, the pace is tied to a more menacing plot. The latter involves Earth’s being continuously exposed to a light or energy beam caused by the machinations of co-villains Ming the Merciless and Azura, Queen of Magic. It is true that Ming’s appearance on Mars, as distinct from his own planet Mongo--where he had apparently died at the end of the 1936 serial--is yet another of many credulity strains imposed on the viewers. But he is such a convincing villain that the studio could hardly have continued the series without him. Especially with Charles Middleton sustaining the role throughout the trilogy.
*Various sources, however, give '36's production cost at $350,000 while Mars comes in at only $175,000. Considering all the prima facie evidence to the contrary, I find this data incredulous. The questions to be answered here are: Who provided the original source for this "fact," was it truly accurate, and were all subsequent statements to this effect merely parroted second sources?
The public must have sensed the quality of the 1938 sequel as its popularity, following F.G. '36's example, was reportedly immense. One source had it that its 15 chapters, successively shown in movie houses each week, consistently drew far more patrons than any theater not showing them, regardless of which main feature was playing. By some calculations it was therefore the most watched movie title of that year throughout its 15 weeks, granting that we could not know the precise motivations of moviegoers (not to mention that this wasn’t 1939, the year The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, and Stagecoach were released). It also had to compete with two current and popular Republic chapterplays: The Lone Ranger and the made-on-the-cheap Fighting Devil Dogs (1938 proved to be a banner year for serials). Yet Mars, and perhaps '36 as well, appeared to have done more to guarantee the patrons’ return the following week than any serial before or since, with the possible exception of Columbia’s Superman, released ten years later.
But there were changes, immediately apparent, from the ‘36 original. Even though the story picks up as Flash, Dale, and Zarkov (his first name revealed as Alexis, rather than the comic strip's Hans) are returning to Earth from their first adventure on Mongo, Dale, again played by Rogers, is now a shorter haired brunette (the rationale for the change was that brown was her natural hair color and was reportedly shown all along that way in Raymond's strip, and that the Jean Harlow look-alike rage was over), still devoted to Flash but less demonstrative. She continues to yell "FLASH!" then embrace him every time he returns to her from each successive dangerous mission, but this is more overdone in ‘36. However, they are all initially shown "vaguely" in the same costuming (which their capes make hard to see clearly) they had worn at the end of ‘36. [Mars contains three flashbacks to ‘36, which of course reminds the viewers that Dale’s hair was then long and blonde, that Ming looked a little different, and that both the males and females wore more revealing outfits.]
But, inexplicably, they aren’t flying in Zarkov’s rocketship--with its "Gatling Gun" nose section and four sets of exhaust pipes at the rear of the ship--as introduced in ‘36 (and originally designed for Fox's 1930 musical-comedy farce, Just Imagine). Rather they are flying a "Ming" ship, with those three characteristic exhaust "swirls" on both sides of its nose section, leading to the two main exhausts on the ship’s underside (which Universal undoubtedly adapted from Fox's original design). And this is the only serial (in the Gordon-Rogers tetralogy) which actually shows any ship flying in outer space with nothing but stars around it. (As well as right through it, making it appear as a phantom ship. This is merely an overlay from a '36 ship onto a star field--a concession to special-effects economy). All other shots of a flying Ming ship shown in the Mars serial, including the one Barin used to fly to Mars from Mongo to aid in his friends’ cause, are stock footage from ‘36--except for those of Barin's ship taking off and landing beside the Forest kingdom, which, of course, must be new to this serial.
On Mars, the flying ship of choice is the "stratosled," the focus of many more battles than in ‘36, usually between Azura's Death Squadron and a lone ‘sled occupied by our heroes. With their narrow, wrap-around, horseshoe wings (as seen from above in a few shots), those ships appear even more toy-like while flying than the rocketships, especially when disabled and crashing (rocking ridiculously up and down like hobbyhorses). In general, the Mars production values, however, appear to be higher--despite the stated cost reduction. The classier uniforms worn by Azura’s palace guards and her Death Squadron feature capes and jeweled outfits, replacing the medieval armor and breast plates worn by Ming’s Mongo minions from ‘36. Azura’s domain is a spread-out "city," not just a palace. Her throne room is considerably larger (use of a wide-angle lens exaggerates distances, making the throne room appear vaster than reality) and more lavishly appointed--with adjacent rooms accessible through "secret" panels. The "powerhouse" replaces the laboratory. The "light" bridge, which when activated, supports people high above ground with light beams as they walk between the landing tower and the throne room (there is no visible palace, per se); it is backdropped with a quite obvious matte of Azura's city, and adds to the exotic allure.
Universal inexplicably uses a couple of shots in Chapters 1 and 2 of Ming’s mountain palace on Mongo, taken from ‘36, presumably to orient us to Azura’s city. In reality, it must have even confused the original viewers, who then couldn’t be sure which planet we were on. Thereafter, throughout the remainder of Mars, we occasionally see a "modified" palace mountain (often but not always through lots of haze), with turrets added at its base in the foreground, from which stratosleds are seen taking off and landing. Is this shot meant in any way to be symbolic of Ming’s ultimate supremacy over Azura? I doubt it; studio economy prevails over symbolism.
The Mars plots are more continuous, less episodic, and thus better constructed than in ‘36. For comparison let’s first look at the first chapterplay: We have Ming immediately established as the chief antagonist, against whom Flash prevails in Ming’s "ceremony" to wed Dale, after she is put into a trance (Chapters 2 and 3). Then two chapters (3 and 4) are taken up with the Shark Men in King Kala’s undersea domain (re: my discussion above). Aura destroys the kingdom by zapping the "pump" mechanism maintaining the air pressure that keeps the sea out of Kala’s palace. Ming then elevates Kala’s entire domain above water level by the use of a "ray," presumably to save his daughter, and Kala and his people disappear (from the story). Flash’s party then proceed to encounter Vultan’s Hawk Men flying in a valley. The former are then captured and are at the mercy of Vultan in his sky city for Chapters 5 to 9, after which they return to Ming’s domain, with only Vultan tagging along to make sure his promise to free Flash's party was kept. We never see the Sky City again--nor do we again see any Hawk Men fly after the "valley" scene in which they are introduced, thereafter making their oversized "wings" a superfluous encumbrance. (But the sky city of '36 surely inspired the Original Star Trek episode "The Cloud Minders," not to mention the final part of The Empire Strikes Back.) Nonetheless, Vultan, who was such a lecherous dolt when first encountered, remains to the end a loyal ally of our friends and a foe of Ming. His character doesn’t reappear after ‘36.
By contrast, Mars has as its main plot Flash’s continued attempt to destroy Azura and Ming’s Nitron Lamp, which has sent a beam to Earth to wreak havoc thereon--and to ultimately kill off all life (Ming’s purpose) and to extract Nitron (for Azura’s war against the Clay People). [To me, it seems fatuous to translate the fictitious term "Nitron" to "nitrogen," or even "oxygen," as we see in some commentaries--in a vain attempt to lend scientific credence to an obviously fanciful story line. "Nitron" is the only term used in the dialogue; we should give the screenwriters their "head."] The subplots involve the Clay People, who after an initial "misunderstanding," become strong allies of Flash’s party. Flash swears to free them from Azura’s "clay curse" before he, Dale, Zarkov, and Happy leave Mars. The curse is wrought, as is all of Azura’s magic, by a white sapphire she wears on her bosom. Then there are the Forest People, ruled secretly by Ming, a fact unknown to Azura. They give our heroes all sorts of trouble in the course of several visits to their kingdom, once they are introduced at the end of Chapter 6. This suggests another subplot--that of Ming’s slowly evolving treachery against Azura, of his painstaking effort to neutralize her magic powers, the only reason he fears and respects her. The scene in Chapter 12 of his wresting power from her, shortly before she is killed at the hands of her own Death Squadron, is surely one of the most intense in serialdom. (See my Chapter VII on the background music .)
All these plot elements, unlike in ‘36, form a continuous arc throughout the serial. Ming’s treachery is, for example, unveiled a bit at the opening of Chapter 4. After Flash plucks the white sapphire (discreetly) from her bosom and leads her to the "airdrome platform," he has to rescue Azura on her "landing tower" while Ming and his assistant Tarnak are destroying it with the "oscillator." This is ostensibly to prevent Flash from taking Azura to the Clay people and forcing her to free them from her curse. However, Ming, watching Flash through the "televisor," wryly comments: "The fool is going to SAVE Azura," suggesting his hope that she will be killed in the landing-tower wreckage. Later, Ming learns of the Forest People’s black sapphire and its power to neutralize Azura’s white sapphire. He then goes to great lengths to secure it from Flash’s party. By then it had become all-too-evident what his intentions are, regarding the Queen of Magic. In fact, we come to realize that Azura’s initial malevolence is primarily self-serving rather than conspiratorial. She mainly seeks the Clay people’s destruction (though why it is such a passion with her is never made clear--as she had "long ago" cast the clay spell on them such that they could never leave their caves, and were thus no threat to her), and her means to accomplish this appears to dovetail with Ming’s efforts to destroy Earth and vanquish Flash and his friends.
This makes Azura’s villainy of a lesser sort than Ming’s. It's another example of the rather more complex characterizing in Mars. The slender, attractive queen, played to the hilt by Beatrice Roberts (with an accent betraying her New York City-or-environs origin), could at one point be proud, haughty, and disdainful, and at another display a degree of compassion. That she also may have been attracted to Flash is clearly implied but nicely underplayed, often causing aficionados to infer more than is presented, or suggested (i.e. this is no repeat of Stephani's serial).
Because Azura's slaying is arguably Mars' dramatic high point at the Chapter 12/13 cliffhanger, and that the serial continues for an additional three chapters before Ming gets his just desserts, some annotators suggest unnecessary padding or dragging out of the material (in particular with our party's interim return to the Forest Kingdom). It is certainly unarguable that the producers could have ended Mars with Chapter 13 by having Ming dispatched shortly after Azura's demise, and more shortly after the clay curse was lifted, restoring the Clay People to "ordinary Martians," and their king (C. Montegue Shaw) as Mars' rightful ruler. It is also true that if properly handled (which can never be second guessed), this climactic sequence could have rendered the chapterplay more taut than it already is.
I'm more inclined toward the notion that those three chapters add richness to the plot by establishing Ming's absolute villainy, once his cohort is removed through his own treachery. The scene at the Chapter 14/15 cliffhanger of Flash's convincing the assembly of Martians of Ming's evil intent, should he become their ruler, is a telling plot point. After the Martian nobles reject him, we see him transformed from a rational schemer to a virtual madman, out of control. This, in turn, causes the mutiny of Tarnak, his trusted servant, who determines he must be killed, and proceeds to carry it out before Flash can stop him. (See my Chapter IV below.)
This constitutes yet another strongly dramatic high point (strongly augmented by the music and absent in most serials), which could not have been both included and resolved by the end of Chapter 13. Could these plot elements have then been, perhaps, compressed to 14 chapters? Probably so, with the elimination of the "extra" Forest Kingdom sequence. However, there's a minor problem with this line of thinking: It violates basic, long-established serial precepts and tenets. To wit: With the exception of Republic's 1936 Robinson Crusoe Of Clipper Island, there are no 14-chapter serials in the sound era--none (other) that I've found, at any rate. All chapterplays produced by the major studios since 1930 are constituted at either 12, 13, or 15 chapters--and this appears to be holy writ. Since Beebe and Hill clearly wanted the inclusion of all these plot elements, and Universal clearly had the budget for 15 chapters (even if it was the dubious but often quoted $175,000) . . . and (please remember) the chapterplay was meant to be seen in once-a-week installments . . . I think the results, on balance, justify the additional time and footage, even with our penetrating scrutiny--never envisioned by the producers. As a kid, I know I didn't want this serial to stop.
CHAPTER IV. MONGO’S MAGNIFICENT MOUNTAINSCAPES
In 1940, Universal produced Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, after determining that moviegoers preferred Flash to Buck Rogers. (It was reportedly the studio’s original intention to follow Buck Rogers with its own sequel. After the movie going public made known their preference, Universal reportedly planned two more Flash Gordons, but only one was produced.) As with Rogers, Universe has only 12 chapters, but no flashbacks to either of the first two Flashes. (Mars used three flashbacks to ‘36 while Rogers actually contains two "buckbacks" to earlier parts of that serial.) Ming--again apparently killed in Chapter 15 of Mars by Tarnak’s turning against him and putting him in the Disintegrating Room--reappears on Mongo as its undisputed ruler. This time, however, there is no attempt to explain how he escaped his Mars disintegration or how he returned to Mongo to assume his former position. The studio again realized he could not be equaled as a villain. [Most serial annotators are quick to point out that Universe is, in their view, the weakest member of the tetralogy--or at least of the F.G. trilogy, a view I don't share. Like Buck Rogers, it is a more conventional serial, but it incorporates most of the good elements of the genre--on top of which we have the continued exoticism of the "space" setting. My first exposure to the series on TV as a teen was out of order: Universe was shown first, then '36, and finally Mars. Buck Rogers didn't appear until the next round of showings a year or so later. I was then most taken with Universe, and used it as a standard against which to compare the others. With continued exposure through the years--and with a hopefully more mature critical insight--my view has modified considerably toward favoring Mars, Universe, Rogers, and the '36 original, in that order. What! '36 last!--when seemingly everybody else rates it first??? My discussion herein should be sufficient to justify those preferences, perspectives--or prejudices, for those who dissent.]
The other point of interest is that in none of the serials do we ever actually see Ming dead. As he walks into the sacred underground palace of the Great God Tao in ‘36, he disappears, after a big puff of steam--proving nothing. (He does not "walk through fire," as was several times alluded to--and then so shown--in Mars.) At the end of Mars, his presumed disintegrated body may have concealed the fact that he actually had escaped the Disintegrating Room before the "ray" got to him. And in Universe Flash aims the "solarite" ship directly at the tower room of Ming’s palace where Ming and his evil cohorts had gathered; the ship strikes; the top of the palace is blown to smithereens. But we aren’t shown whether Ming had made his escape just in time. This is nurtured by his Captain Sudan (secretly loyal to Barin), who states that there is only one means of escape, but "they’ll be too frightened to think of it." So that indeed Universal always gave Ming an "out" for a subsequent reappearance.
In some ways, Universe is a rehash of the ‘36 original: Ming is back on his own throne, is again seeking to unleash destruction upon Earth (though after the "purple death" is quelled in Chapter 4, he never again succeeds), again seeks to force Dale to marry him (in Mars Ming had shown no hint of an attraction to Dale). Moreover, the Chapter 1 cliffhangers of both ‘36 and Universe are identical, with Flash falling into a pit in each. And in the final chapter of each, there is a period during which Flash’s party barricade themselves in Ming’s laboratory and temporarily control the situation. Finally Zarkov has his own rocketship again, looking almost identical to his ‘36 original, except for an added "needle gun" on its nose--evidently to better match the Ming ships, which always had them. Otherwise the Ming ships look quite similar (on the outside) to those in the two previous entries. Swords, which had been entirely absent from Mars, make a reappearance in Universe, though just why they are felt to be needed along with ray guns is a bit of a mystery, especially in a serial where there are no other primitive implements. And the sexy element so prevalent in '36 is given lip service--and a different spin--with the inclusion of Ming's lightly clad "dancing girl," though it is hardly more than a few cameos. The dancer was Carmen D'Antonio, whose movie credits are as scant as her outfit. Regrettably, we never see her in close-up.
More negatively, Universe suffers similarly to ‘36 with an episodic plot: e.g. the Frigian episode, the fire-projectile episode, and the Land of the Dead episode can be isolated from the rest of the story line. In this respect, it is similar to conventional serials, wherein each chapter often contains an isolated episode (e.g. The Green Hornet and The Green Hornet Strikes Again ). However, in terms of the standard criteria by which chapterplays are or should be judged, Universe easily stands with all its partners as "a class apart."
And that, more or less, is where the resemblance with '36 ends. Universe contains none of the latter's deliberate primitiveness--the archaic, arcane, and melodramatic language ("Your meaning?"; "He shall NOT escape the pit."--"No, Father, not that!"; "If there any regrets, YOU'LL not live to see them."; "He went THAT way."), or the "romantic" atmosphere. It is much more action oriented throughout, including the oft-criticized Frigian episode, with all that stock avalanche footage in Chapter 3 (see the second section of my Chapter VIII). It begins even faster-paced (though less coherently) than Mars, with Chapter 1 going through an unbelievable sequence of events before Flash’s fall into the "polarite" pit. Moreover, it is easy to follow--for so much crammed into 20 plus minutes. The costumes are more elaborate and more aesthetically pleasing. Ming’s "biblical" robe is replaced by a white, braided uniform, completed with either a cape or white head-plumage; his palace is larger (outside and inside), especially the throne room which somewhat resembles Azura’s in Mars. The mountain palace shot of ‘36 is shown only once, in Chapter 1--to give way to a close up of a magnificent turreted palace, identifying Ming’s domain for the rest of the serial.
In addition, the rocketship flight and action sequences are all new, with the ships’ insides much roomier than Zarkov’s narrow ‘36 craft (with its little "sparkler" in the passenger area.) All the ships have bigger periscope look-out devices, showing the terrain actually moving as they fly (Mars used unrealistic, still shots; '36 didn't use any). And when on the ground, the inner door opened--with the thrust of a lever--by sliding into a recess while the outer door smoothly and simultaneously hinged outward from the bottom, revealing steps. Zarkov, Ming, and Barin's ships (the latter identical to Ming’s) all have the new feature--it must have been serendipitous.
Mongo’s mountainous backdrops (actually different views of the same backdrop) shown in Universe when the ships took off and landed are magnificent--the most impressive of all, taking on an almost surreal beauty. (It supports Harmon and Glut's statement in their 1972 book The Great Movie Serials that Universe was the "prettiest" serial ever made.) In ‘36 we see only craggy rocks, with repeated footage of a ship taking off from either a hole or a flat place in the rocks, rather like a flying insect. This footage is used a bit in Universe--with some added falling snow thrown in one or two times, to recall the Frigian episode. It is also used once or twice in Mars when Barin’s rocketship is shown taking off. Otherwise the stratosled shots therein are backdropped with "Martian" mountains looking like pointed pebbles, and is the least well done aspect of what otherwise is the best of the four serials.
In Universe, Carol Hughes took Jean Rogers’ place portraying Dale--due ostensibly to current contractual commitments Rogers had with 20th Century Fox, but in reality because of Rogers' increasing desire to get out of her serial stereotyping and become a star in feature movies. (Regrettably for her, that never happened.) Hughes was an even darker brunette than Rogers in the Mars serial, while Princess Aura, now Barin’s wife, had transformed from a long, dark-haired, very sexy Priscilla Lawson in ‘36 to a far less striking, non-sexy, easily affronted spouse--Shirley Deane. Deane had shorter, light hair--possibly red--but then serials were never filmed in color. Though quite attractive herself, Hughes had neither Rogers’ svelte beauty, her sexy voice, nor her expressive range. Hughes’ role emerged as a much more cliched serial stereotype, except that when other women pay attention to Flash (i.e. Queen Fria and Lady Sonja), she does manage to pout with blatant jealousy. Her acting was, in addition, somewhat stilted by her scripted dialogue. But at the end of Chapter 4 when she pounds on Ming to stop the wall clock's "destroying ray" from killing Flash and the shackled Zarkov, she shows some genuine emotion. In addition, Hughes asserts more of a spitfire role by engaging Sonja in several "catfights"--something Roger's character had not previously done.
A further word about Universe’s rocketships: They appear to move faster (against the perpetually cloudy-sky backdrops); their exhaust jets--and their maneuvering--look more realistic than in either of the previous serials, but especially compared with the Mars stratosleds. Zarkov’s ship has a bigger role in Universe than in ‘36, where it only serves to convey the Earth party to Mongo in Chapter 1 and return it in Chapter 13. In between it remains unseen (including in the continually used still of Ming’s palace mountain, in which the ship had been shown on its landing site in Chapter 1, but not subsequently). In Universe the ship is in several battles, one of which involved Zarkov’s use of a "disappearing screen" (the idea borrowed from the previous year’s Buck Rogers). More on that below.
In this connection, the studio allowed, in Universe, an interesting faux pas: Zarkov’s ship disappears entirely from the action between Chapters 4 and 11. In Chapter 4 the ship is last seen sitting in a valley in the "frozen wastes" of Frigia, with a smoke screen clouding the ship’s interior. Captain Torch had flown there in a Ming ship to retrieve Zarkov’s ship, unaware that Flash and Roka are still alive and awaiting them in the latter. Torch and Thong are subdued and Flash forces them to fly them back to Ming’s palace in Torch’s ship. Their goal is to catch Ming unawares and save Dale and Zarkov, previously captured by Ming’s "annihilatant" mechanical men. Thus Zarkov’s ship remains on the ground in Frigia--still smoking the last we saw it--until it "reappears" in Chapter 11 in Arboria (Barin’s domain) "all serviced and ready." During the intervening adventure with the Rock Men, Flash and his party fly to the Land of the Dead to launch a "ray" against Ming’s power apparatus in one of Barin’s ships. Yet Zarkov had "brilliantly" incorporated his disappearing screen (without telling anybody) onto that ship, using it to foil Ming’s pursuing ships. (I wasn’t fooled the first time I saw the serial, because the visible difference between Zarkov’s and the other rocketships had already intrigued me.)
A brief word on the monsters--the "iguantians"--as we hear Sonja say after being scared by one in the Land of the Dead. They are clearly all footage from the ‘36 serial (in which we also encounter a "tigron" and "octosacs," with the suffix changes from those of the real animals hardly worth the effort), where they roam freely at the foot of Ming’s palace mountain. It appears that they are nothing more than innocuous little iguanas decorated with spiny appendages and filmed at close range in slow motion to give the impression of monstrous size. Shortly after Zarkov’s ship had first landed in Chapter 1 of ‘36, we see a huge iguana’s head almost on top of a diminutive Dale and Flash--the only instance where this lizard-like "monster" and people appear in the same shot. This is one of the few places employing a cinematic overlay. There is no attempt to do this in Universe, so that the people on the ground appear to be in a rugged cliff-mesa-butte-pinnacle southwest U.S. backdrop (as they do in all the serials) while the monsters appear among the craggy rocks typical of ‘36's non-peopled Mongo backdrops.
CHAPTER V. THE PRINCE WHO GOT YOUNGER AND LEANER
The role Prince Barin plays throughout the trilogy bears commentary: He first appears in ‘36’s Chapter 5 (along with so much else that revives Stephani's serial just when it needed it) to Zarkov in Ming's laboratory, pronouncing himself as "the real ruler of Mongo. I was dethroned when a child by Ming the Merciless, who killed my father." All one can presume is that Ming tolerated his existence, and that he lived in or about Ming’s palace (no separate Barin residence is ever indicated). The delay in Barin's appearance as a major character is, like so many other plot elements, not explained (but it enhances the isolation of the Kala/shark-men episode from what follows). He has his own rocketship, which again showed unusual toleration by Ming, who logically should have viewed Barin as a threat to his throne. Richard Alexander, a large, bald, mustached, good-looking man, most noted for portraying western heavies, plays a Barin who is, from the beginning, a good guy in this series. As noted above he later admits his love for Princess Aura, and by the final chapter of ‘36 the two appear to be, as they say, an item, without demonstrably showing it, and without Aura committing herself. (Are we meant to believe she’s still holding out for Flash?)
Barin first appears in Mars in its Chapter 7, the only recurring character whose appearance and costume had not been altered from ‘36 (hence the only male principal still showing his bare legs)--except for his headgear. He had flown (as he recounted to Flash’s party) from Mongo to Mars in his rocketship to aid in his Earth friends’ cause--a selfless act for sure. And it surely was also convenient that he did so, as Zarkov’s ship is wrecked on landing in the Valley of Desolation in Chapter 2, and according to Zarkov, "The ship can’t take off. She’ll never move again." Of course it was a "Ming ship" which Flash’s party "stole" when they "escaped" from Mongo, as the story goes in the Mars serial. So that after Ming is apparently disintegrated in Mars' Chapter 15, the Earth people’s only means of returning home is to take Barin’s ship. (We can presume stratosleds weren’t designed for space travel.) Therefore Barin has to remain on Mars to "rule the Forest People." This is a selfless act in the extreme for the sake of his Earth friends as it seemingly prevents his return to Mongo to claim (or reclaim) Aura and ostensibly rule the whole planet with her.
Perhaps realizing this, and also deciding that Alexander’s Barin was out of step costumewise and was possibly too old, too bald, and too big to be a true "prince," the studio created for Universe a revised Barin persona--one who, for the first time, would appear in every chapter. The change perhaps made it easier for original theater audiences to swallow the complete discontinuity with the end of Mars. This new Barin is now back on Mongo (where he surely belonged), is younger and full-haired, is married to Aura, and rules Arboria, a forested kingdom (naturally, with that name) separate from Ming’s domain. The latter, by the way, is referred to only as "Mongo," which creates some confusion between the whole planet and a territory on its surface. (Frigia is, for example, described as "to the far north of Mongo.") Played by Roland Drew, the recycled Barin is a bit of a fop. He speaks with a cultured British/American accent, is slender and of shorter stature than even his personal aids Ronal and Roka. Otherwise all three have similar mustaches and are difficult (at first) to distinguish from each other in action sequences. Ronal claims to know Flash (and vice versa) from the latter’s previous Mongo visit. Whereas in fact he and Roka are both new characters in Universe. (The studio carries the deception even further when it has Ronal saying to Flash in Chapter 1: "Your sword, Flash. I’ve kept it for you . . . hoping someday I could give it back to you." Whereas Flash never had a sword he called his own, much less a Ronal to "save it" for him.) Barin’s medieval looking palace (stylistically another throwback to ‘36), nestled among trees and undergrowth, has a ballroom and a well equipped laboratory, but apparently no throne room, saving the studio some set money.
CHAPTER VI. THE VILLAIN WHO DIED THREE TIMES
Charles Middleton’s Ming underwent few real changes from serial to serial, other than his costume change from Mars to Universe. From ‘36 to Mars he substituted for his fake, almost seamless bald pate--a black, pointed skullcap (undoubtedly easier to put on), with an inexplicable metallic arrow attached right in the center, pointing from the rear toward his "devil’s" peak. The latter's symbolism completely escapes me, forcing me to infer more tongue-in-cheek humor. In any case, the arrow was replaced in Universe with a decorative white oval just behind his devil’s peak, which certainly was more aesthetically appropriate.
Ming’s personality as a consummate evildoer evolved from a ranting tyrant in ‘36 to a slightly more rational one, and a better defined persona, in the following two. His constant scheming throughout the trilogy to "conquer the universe" is an obvious metaphor for exercising satanic power over all human beings--whatever planet they may live on. Yet, his apparent cleverness never really worked for him in the short term, as he always appeared to be outwitted by Flash and/or Zarkov. It was nonetheless the power at his command that Ming held over his Earth foes, which the latter had, in the end, to subdue. They accomplished the task in radically different ways in each chapterplay, though it seemingly resulted each time in Ming’s death. Middleton’s acting contained just the right degree of melodrama to make his part convincing. As Ming he was serialdom’s greatest villain, and was perhaps one of the greatest in the history of motion pictures. (He was arguably equaled by Darth Vader in Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back--who was far more menacing than his look-alike progenitor, the Lightning in Fighting Devil Dogs--then was clearly surpassed by the "Emperor" in Return of the Jedi.) It should be noted that Ming’s appearance was practically copied in the chief villain of the Original Star Trek episode "The Gamesters of Triskelion." In fact his likeness has been more than implied in countless subsequent movies and TV adventure series.
[For example, in several Star Trek Voyager episodes, now in syndicated reruns,Tom Paris and Harry Kim were clearly satirizing Flash Gordon in a holodeck simulation (which was even shown in black and white), wherein the hero was "Captain Proton" and the villain was the evil "Chaotica." The latter more than superficially resembled Ming. Even the background music stylistically resembled that of the "stürm und drang" of the 30s, but was vapid, inane, cliched, and devoid of any intrinsic interest--a further indication that the quality musical material that often came from the Universal serials of that era was the product of composers with a high creativity level--even when they were paraphrasing the classics. But more on that topic shortly.]
Having said that I’m forced to comment on an unconscionable lapse in pronunciation that not only Ming committed (he erred by far the most), but also Flash once or twice--mostly in the final three chapters of Universe, but elsewhere as well (including in '36): the use of "attact" in place of "attack." For Ming it was downright blatant in the scenes prior to his ships’ gas bombing of Barin’s palace, and in the final chapter. It was at first difficult to believe directors Beebe and Ray Taylor allowed it as an oversight, but the more instances of the slip I've discovered, the more I've come to the notion that this is exactly what happened.
CHAPTER VII. MUSIC OF THE SPHERES
As I've indicated, the most undervalued element of these chapterplays has been the role their background music played in making them special, both to the genre and to the "meaning" and the continued attraction of the individual serials. In order to help provide belated justice to its contribution, I offer a brief discussion of film-music origins and how it serendipitously had such an impact on the Universal space serials in particular, as well as some of the studio's conventional serials in general. It should be realized that this singularly important factor was unacknowledged at the time they were produced. Yet, I suspect that a significant amount of it resonated with those having receptive ears that attended the original theater showings. For those readers preferring to skip this slight digression, please click here.
First, music as background to any feature ought to add a dimension not otherwise realizable. It was necessary in the silent era to provide impromptu accompaniment--piano, organ, or small orchestra--to the screen action to fill the aural void for a theater audience. In the smaller theaters, a keyboard soloist would usually improvise, whereas in the opulent movie "palaces" orchestras would play music sometimes written for the feature shown. And full scoring was used for "latter day" silent features using the newly developed sound-on-film techniques. When the early "talkies" provided that missing dimension, some (Carl Laemmle Jr. of Universal for one)--but not all--producers felt that music would be intrusive, whether as recorded on the soundtrack or played by on-the-spot performers. So that a number of feature-length movies, as well as serials, used orchestral music on their soundtracks only for the title and credits. When the action began all the music ceased. For Universal this was best exemplified, first, by Tod Browning's Dracula, then Whale's Frankenstein--both classic products of 1931: no background music whatever after the credits (and for Dracula, no original music anywhere--and at its conclusion no music at all).
However, shortly after the talkies were inaugurated, most studios began to add accompaniment to small parts of the action. Oft-times it would simply be a studio orchestra recording of a classical excerpt, or a "paraphrasing" (essentially a rearranging) of a classic, which was legal for any music in the public domain. A few pictures used original conceptions, with the prerequisite that the music always underscore the action. By the early-30s,with the pioneering efforts of Max Steiner in King Kong (1933), scoring for sound motion pictures had already come into its own. Not only did Laemmle Jr.'s views begin to modify, but he was blessed with having composers who managed to produce some of the studio's most inspired music of any decade in the sound era.
Still, the mere presence of music throughout a typical feature did not necessarily enhance the latter beyond its "sonic" effects--a fact more true today than in the talkies’ first few decades. Most adventure features of the last 20 years, even--or perhaps especially--the big budget ones, with lots of realistic, computer generated special effects: car and plane crashes, explosions, property destruction, natural disasters, and general mayhem--all saturate the viewers’ sensibilities, mostly negatively. Their accompanying original scores provide no more than window dressing--if they have any impact at all. This music, ground out in mass-production fashion, would never stand on its own, much less produce, on its own, any kind of aesthetic or emotional "quivers" within the movie viewer. It’s there--and it’s ignored.
Of course excellent scores for movie features have been composed, and recognized across the 70+-year span of sound motion pictures. Some of these get academy awards, and they all comprise originally composed music for the picture in question. Movie serials have, regrettably, been neglected as far as recognition of their musical backgrounds’ contribution--especially those from Universal’s "golden" serial era--1935 to 1944 approximately. The reason for this neglect gets to the heart of the matter. That studio’s best serial music wasn't original, but was reused (or borrowed) from earlier produced Universal features, and occasionally excerpted from classical music scores. The latter selections were often paraphrased, rearranged, or thinly disguised for their original use in feature sources; otherwise the classical excerpts were employed unchanged. Though one or two of Universal's conventional serials of that period used original music (a few of their composers are discussed below), the studio more often used the same excerpts from serial to serial. While I admit to its financial advantage, I see no problem with the practice; the driving factor in reused serial music is its repetition. The exposure of interesting motifs, phrases, passages, sections, etc. gets into your gut more thoroughly if you hear them a number of times--and if they accompany similar scenarios on the screen. With the serials’ great length--about that of an opera--if you combine all the chapters--musical repetition accompanying scene repetition is not only practical, but when highly inspired, the excerpts are anticipated . This is the nearest thing in popular culture to Richard Wagner’s use of leitmotifs in his mature, 19th-century operas (which he appropriately called "music dramas").
Nevertheless, whether borrowed, original, or used in a number of chapterplays, the music’s intrinsic quality counts for everything. Universal’s biggest serial competitor at that time was Republic. The latter, by contrast, lavished money on original scores for each of their serials. For example, one of their most heralded chapterplays is Adventures of Captain Marvel from 1941. [I do not share, nor can I understand Marvel's undeservedly high praise among many annotators as "the greatest serial ever made." Actor Tom Tyler plays his title character like an automaton: You can't see the person behind the hero--and have no idea what motivates his actions. Furthermore, Marvel's introductory appearance--seemingly from out of nowhere--to the principals in the first two chapters was accepted by them with incredulous nonchalance, robbing the viewer of sharing with the protagonists any vicarious wonderment. Worse than that, the overly lauded Witney/English directing team "allowed" the invulnerable Marvel to kill several ordinary bad guys. At one point, he simply tossed one of the Scorpion's henchmen to his death off the roof of a building--when the man clearly presented no threat whatever to the World's Mightiest Mortal. And we complain about today's heroes' not being good role models!] Its background music, composed solely for the serial by Cy Feuer (and others non-credited), who has a modest amount of film music to his credit from 1938 through 1947, is moderately interesting--mostly for its string writing. But it's through-composed, meaning it wouldn't survive as a species of concert music; it needs the screen action to be fulfilling. At the opposite extreme is Universal’s Don Winslow of the Navy (1942). Its music is so interesting, so motivic, so memorably tuneful, so lyrically atmospheric in evoking a south sea island setting (including use of Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave Overture, which had found its way into several contemporaneous Universal serials) that a suite of it could not only survive quite well on its own, but could be captivating in the same way as the accompaniment for the four space serials. [It is, for example, considerably more arresting than Richard Rodgers’ overrated, often-vapid Victory at Sea]. Most of Navy's cues are from the track of Universal's 1941 sea-faring adventure of the early 19th century, This Woman is Mine, with an academy-award nominated score by Richard Hageman (and commercially unavailable).
[The most popular chapterplays of the early sound era were made by Mascot, a small producing company and a forerunner of what was to become Republic Studios, which, from 1930 to 1935, unleashed a barrage of classics that today remain attractive to the pure serial buff. Last of the Mohicans, Mystery Mountain, Lost Jungle (with Clyde Beatty), and The Mystery Squadron were among those which gave way to two of Mascot’s best in their last year: Tom Mix’s farewell to the movies in The Miracle Rider, and the almost simultaneous debut of Gene Autry as a star in Phantom Empire. Though the latter blended a modern western scenario with sci-fi (an underground, futuristic city--Murania--which itself was introduced as part of the "cast"), the missing element in this, as well as all the other Mascot chapterplays, was music--which certainly eliminated a production cost item. Once the credits were given--or shortly into Chapter 1, the music disappeared completely. In Mascot's earliest serials a verbal chapter foreword brought the viewer up to date with a dry, lengthy narrative lasting well over a minute--accompanied by past scenes--practically recounting everything that had happened prior to that chapter.]
To get back to the music sources for the Flash/Buck tetralogy: In the horror-movie category (in which Universal was then dominant, and from which the lion’s share of Flash Gordon’s musical passages were "borrowed"), consider first The Invisible Man, a product of 1933, and applauded today as the movie which elevated Claude Rains to "scarcely visible" stardom (as well as featuring a young Gloria Stuart, who 63 years later was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in James Cameron’s Titanic). Its title and credits were accompanied by music composed for the movie. And this introductory material gave way in the opening scene to a piano pounding from the nearby Lion’s Head pub, toward which Rains, fully clothed and bandaged over his face to conceal his invisibility, trudged through the swirling snowdrifts. The movie’s background then remained silent until its final reel. As the protagonists were hunting Rains to ultimately shoot him to death, the music returned, having the flavor of, and using motifs derived from the opening. Both parts of the score were the work of Heinz Roemheld, a prolific composer for Universal, and other studios from 1929 through 1969. [Of all Hollywood film composers, Roemheld, a Wisconsin native born of German parentage--at more than 600 films--appears to hold the record for the number of features (including serials) for which he contributed scores. Many of these were uncredited, many were reused (tracked) from earlier features, but a few of his earliest efforts (when he was at Universal) were truly inspired at the highest levels of creativity. All of the latter, as I discuss below, were incorporated into many of the studio's serials, especially the F.G./Rogers space tetralogy.]
Roemheld's seemingly innocuous bit of score writing for Invisible‘s title and credits has served, in the ensuing decades, as the signature motto for Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, being prominent in all four serials--to the extent that every chapter therein uses it a number of times. It accompanies every chapter foreword in Mars and the majority of them in Buck Rogers, and also is typically interjected as a rocketship or stratosled takes off. (Its "atmospheric" identification with the space serials is absolute; to my knowledge it is not used in any other contemporaneous Universal serial.) It is introduced in Chapter 1 of F.G. ‘36 as the scene shifts from Professor Gordon’s observatory to the "transcontinental" plane carrying Flash (and Dale, whom he is about to meet) back home to "be here with us . . . before the end." (This is true only in the original 13-chapter serial--not in its subsequently released feature version Rocketship, in which the music was changed (after the title and credits) to provide smoother segues through the extensive cuts to get the serial from four plus hours down to a 68-minute feature length. More on that below.)
Of all the music used in the Flash trilogy and Rogers, the only original scoring composed for the series accompanies the title, credits, and chapter forewords for ’36, and was the work of Clifford Vaughan, who also was an orchestrator and a conductor. Moreover, this music is never heard within the episodes, nor ever again in any of the ensuing chapterplays. Yet, it is rather interesting for its "modernistic" lack of tonality--i.e. the absence of a home-key center, which helps establish the mysteriousness sought in this first sci-fi chapterplay. On top of that, Vaughan interjects a "yearning" (and well-played) saxophone solo in the chapter forewords, which suggests the romantic element pervading Stephani’s conception.
As the "Planet of Peril" chapter begins, the first music we hear, which will be characteristic of originally composed scoring throughout, is taken from Universal’s 1935 feature (from a fight scene, in fact) Werewolf of London, composed by Karl Hajos, and accompanies the montage of Earth cultures showing "great distress" over the supposed pending collision of Earth with Mongo. Then The Invisible Man motto, and then after Flash and Dale’s parachute landing we hear an interesting paraphrasing of Wagner’s music from his last opera Parsifal, inserted by W. Franke Harling into his own score for the presently unobtainable 1933 movie Destination Unknown.* As Zarkov’s rocketship travels between the planets, the Parsifal music (with the very familiar "Holy Grail" and "Dresden Amen" motifs) continues, with Harling juxtaposing into it his own material, along with the theme from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 1.
*[Since Destination Unknown had remained hidden for decades, even from film buffs, before finally receiving a showing in a 2004 Syracuse film festival, it is easy to infer that the music we hear in this section of the serial, sounding quite a bit like that from the opening scene of Universal's Invisible Ray (1936), came, in fact, from the latter feature, which lists Franz Waxman as providing the score. A careful listening, however, to that part of Waxman's material reveals that the sequences are only similar--not the same, and that Waxman omits any references to the two Parsifal motifs, while retaining the reference to Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody. Waxman, in fact, merely paraphrases a portion of Harling's original Destination material after the latter had been directly "tracked" for use in F.G. '36 since it is unlikely that Invisible Ray was released prior to the serial (as the latter appeared early in that year). The practice of paraphrasing parts from older scores is common in film music. I, too, was originally misled on this issue.]
The somewhat "exotic" music accompanying Flash’s party’s entering Ming’s throne room and escorted forward a little later in the chapter is used in various guises not only throughout Flash and Rogers but is interpolated occasionally in a few contemporaneous Universal serials (e.g. The Green Hornet  and Radio Patrol ). Its source is another Roemheld-scored feature, Bombay Mail (1934), after Lawrence G. Blochman's train-mystery novel (1933-1934)--set in India. This feature, also presently unavailable on video, has music representing Roemheld at his most tuneful, lyrical best. Were it not for the serials, this very substantial score would have remained completely obscure.
During the first four chapters of '36, we hear principally all the music from Invisible Man, much from Werewolf of London, more sections from Bombay Mail, as well as various snippets of lower quality. Interestingly Dale and Ming’s 13-gong wedding ceremony (during which Flash stopped the critical 13th from sounding early in Chapter 3) at the end of Chapter 2 is accompanied by the stirring "transfiguration" music (borrowing another leaf from Wagner) from Werewolf’s concluding scene (or "end title"), it only appearing again in Chapter 13 as Ming is walking to his "death" in Great God Tao’s Underground Palace. In Mars, it is only heard in the first chapter, as Ming and Azura first appear and eulogize over the "sacrifice" of the two strange looking Martians who established the Nitron Beam’s Earth connection. On the other hand, this excerpt (or "cue" in movie jargon) is used quite often, almost as a motto, in Buck Rogers, and accompanies each of that serial’s chapter conclusions (except for its Chapter 10, which inexplicably uses Bombay Mail's end title). No Werewolf music is heard at all in Universe. But by the end of Chapter 4 in '36, we presume that the studio has introduced all the music we expect to hear--certainly all the most musically significant excerpts. Furthermore, with the repetitiveness of the best material, that which we do hear begins to wear out its welcome.
However, at the opening scene of ‘36's Chapter 5 we find that the music sources have suddenly expanded to include much newly heard and first-rate stuff. It first introduces music from The Black Cat (1934) [Universal’s first feature to co-star Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff]. Here Roemheld's ample score is deliberately derived from classical sources. With a 30-second original introduction, he orchestrates and liberally paraphrases the recap section of Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor. In later chapters we hear that the opening of Brahms’ Rhapsody in B Minor, Op. 79 No. 1 (which Roemheld had first orchestrated from a piano piece) bridges into it with about a minute or so of original Roemheld material (which he had titled Allegro Appassionato)--the second half of which is the above referred introduction. The whole sequence, lasting about five minutes, becomes quite memorable with successive exposure. Besides its being scored for Black Cat and tracked in F.G. '36, starting in Chapter 5's opening scene, it was also tracked in the climactic portions of The Raven (1935) and Werewolf of London--and reappeared in Mars (from Chapter 2 onward). Elsewhere The Black Cat score paraphrases the love theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture in several guises.
This chapter also introduces another signature motto for the space serials--a striking, march-like one often used to accompany tramping guards through the palace catacombs or welcoming guests into a throne room. It subsequently appears with prominence--like Invisible Man's title music--in all four serials, but in nothing else in the Universal genre. Its origin is, again, Bombay Mail--wherein the cue is entitled "Inspector Theme." Also borrowed from The Black Cat score are small, slightly paraphrased snippets from Liszt’s symphonic poems Les Préludes and Tasso, Lament and Triumph. The Préludes excerpt is heard in every subsequent chapter (5 through 13) of ‘36. It is not used at all in Mars or Buck Rogers. Whereas in Universe . . . more on that below.
Nothing else that is noteworthy (no pun intended) is introduced in ‘36. The quieter parts of the Werewolf music continue to be given prominence (including its title and credits theme). Especially after Flash and Ming’s party return from Vultan’s sky city to Ming’s palace in Chapter 9--from whence the balance of the serial mostly takes place, and during which there’s an abundance of "slow" interludes. Though the material is quite strong, as music goes, some of it is excessively repeated. The one characteristic three-chord Werewolf brass call, for example, definitely wears out its welcome. I should also point out that all the music used in ‘36 (except, of course, for its title, credits, and chapter forewords) derives directly from the sound tracks of its feature sources. These were not, in other words, new performances of old material. That didn’t happen until Buck Rogers. And from then on, because of newly enforced contractual stipulations on tracked music in 1938 by the American Federation of Musicians on the studios for their players, new performances and re-recording of previously used material became standard practice (though tracking occasionally continued, even though studio contracted musicians now had to be paid for "new" recordings, whether or not they were used). In fact, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars was Universal's final serial to use entirely tracked music.
The title and credits music for Mars was tracked directly from the title for The Black Cat. It combines a recast, orchestrated Liszt B Minor Sonata opening theme with the love music from Romeo and Juliet--as though the two belonged together. Then at the chapter heading we hear the, by now, quite familiar Invisible Man motto, which has already become irrevocably entwined with Flash, Buck, rocketships, futuristic devices, other planets, etc. It appears that Heinz Roemheld has, thus far, become the dominant contributor to Flash Gordon music.
But then . . . as we join Flash, Dale, and Alexis in their now "stolen" rocketship, we hear the first excerpt from the most famous original music of that era commissioned by the studio, and one of the great scores in all movie literature: that of Franz Waxman’s for The Bride of Frankenstein. This began an association to fans of that music with Flash and Buck that has also been irrevocable from that day to this. Especially as more of the score is audible in the latter three serials than in Universal’s Gothic paragon of horror movies. [Despite what you will read in many Web sites which discuss or list the music sources for the Flash Gordon serials, NO Bride music appears anywhere in the '36 serial--in its original 13-chapter format.] As the ship lands--in a farmer’s melon patch--we first hear Waxman’s famous "Bride" motif. What makes it famous is that it "anticipates" the first three notes of Rodgers’ song "Bali Hai" from South Pacific by 14 years. Otherwise, the Bride music is heard to cover an unbelievably wide range of action and emotions throughout Mars. By itself, it enhances the musical dimension and the dramatic value of the whole serial--over that of ‘36.
Let me exemplify the range: (1) perfect background for the scenes in the Clay caves, with an organ and light percussion doing a macabre umpty-ump--its melodic line rhythmically identical to Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre (which is, in fact, this cue's title), which evolves into a statement of the "bride" motif--taken from the movie scene where the Monster wanders into a large crypt and encounters Dr. Pretorius, who calmly invites him to have a smoke and a drink; (2) a special background for the Forest People scenes--a mysterious interrupted melodic fragment with lots of whole-tone intervals--taken from the moment of Dr. Pretorius’s first appearance at the Frankenstein manor-house door; (3) a heroic march-like figure usually accompanying Flash in action (the villagers’ gathering to chase the Monster), followed by, (4) a nimbly accompanied chase or other rapid action scene (the villagers’ chasing and capturing the Monster). (5) The "Creation of the Female Monster" music, used to perfection in creating an atmosphere of other-worldliness through the use of organ, tinkling bells and other high percussion riding over the "bride" motif--much of which was concealed in the feature by the "thunderstorm,"--is fully revealed multiple times in the serial, enough to embed itself into our consciousness; (6) a quiet interlude (as the Monster wanders away from the blind fiddler’s burning house) accompanying the death scenes of both Azura and Ming--remarkable for its projection of an equivocally sad mood. This section appears several times elsewhere in Mars and is most effective in heightening those scenes’ dramatic element. It is never used in the space serials after Mars.
In fact more of the Bride music is heard in Mars than in any of the other serials, though more restricted portions of it are used just as often in Buck Rogers (and to a lesser extent in another 1939 Universal serial, The Phantom Creeps, with Lugosi, an interestingly campy effort in the genre). Otherwise, Mars retains most of the music from ‘36--though it uses the Werewolf cues far less often. And it is the only one of the tetralogy that contains a paraphrase of Elgar’s famous Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1--part of Bombay Mail’s contribution, with its allusion in that feature to India's Governor of Bengal under the British Commonwealth. The Brahms B Minor Rhapsody/Allegro Appassionato/Liszt B Minor Sonata recap cue sequence reappears in Chapter 2 and is heard throughout with a frequency similar to that in '36 (beginning with the latter's Chapter 5, of course). There are, in addition, a few instances of what appeared to me as obvious but "liberal" paraphrases of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, this material having been used extensively in the jungle serial Tim Tyler's Luck (1937). It turns out, however, that this cue is from a suite, Noure et Anitra, by the virtually obscure Russian composer Alexander Iljinsky--sometimes spelled "Ilyinsky" (1859-1920), whose writing was more than subliminally influenced by Mussorgsky. Iljinsky's excerpt is a brief bacchanal entitled "Orgy of the Spirits," and was acquired by Universal for use first in its 1935 feature East of Java (where, in accompanying a shipwreck in a storm tossed sea, it is all but inaudible). As in '36, all of Mars' music derives directly from its source-feature sound tracks.
Another "mysterious" cue (not from Bride), heard throughout the latter chapters of Mars, accompanies and intensifies one of the strongest scenes in serialdom--that of Ming’s wresting power from Azura--in Chapter 12. It is another Roemheld cue, this one entitled "Transylvania" from Dracula's Daughter (1936), which arguably possesses the composer's best original score from the Universal horror pantheon. [Dracula's Daughter was the 12th in the series of Universal horror features that began so auspiciously with Dracula in 1931--and, perhaps appropriately, the last one produced by the studio under Laemmle ownership. For that matter, F.G. '36 was the last Laemmle serial. For several years thereafter, the studio was hailed as the "new Universal."] The dialogue is worth quoting. First the background: Flash has just removed Dale’s "leethium" (spelled phonetically) induced amnesia ("She has stood in the incense of forgetfulness!") by administering an antidote he had forced Tarnak to give him, this taking place in a chamber off Azura’s Throne Room. Using her magic, Azura transports herself to that chamber from the Powerhouse where she and Ming had discovered the location of Flash’s party, via one of their "televisors." Ming follows on foot. After threatening Flash and Dale with her magic, she dismisses Dale and Tarnak so that she can talk with Flash alone. Ming finally arrives, bringing in Dale and Zarkov. Ming congratulates Azura for subduing Flash--something even he was never able to do.
Ming then turns to Flash and says: "Earthman! Youuuu have defied the Imperial Ming. Annd forr THAT you shall die. . .Tarnak, call the guard."
Azura responds: "Wait Tarnak. Flash Gordon will NOT die. I have other plans for him."
Then Ming, feigning being taken aback: "Other plans, your magnificence? OURR plan was to conquer the universe. So long as that Earthman lives, that plan is in danger . . . Tarnak, call the guard."
Azura interjects forcefully: "STOP Tarnak! I COMMAND the GUARDS HERE!" Then to Ming: "Since you take that attitude, be warned . . . I will protect Flash Gordon with ALL the magic at my command."
Ming then pulls his trump card: "MAGIC!? Heh! Heh! Heh! Whyyy youuuu haaave no magic . . . " Then in a whisper (with "Transylvania" suddenly intervening): "So looong as I possessss this." He opens the previously concealed jewel box containing the Black Sapphire.
Azura, shuddering: "The Black Sapphire!"
Ming, venomously: "Call upon your magic, Azura. Call upon ALL the powers that youuu once had at your disposal. This sapphire makes you JUST an orrrrdinary Martian." Then, after a pregnant pause: "annnnd from NOW on you’ll take your orders fromm the Imperial Ming!"
The melodrama contained in that dialogue is made powerful by Roemheld's music--one of the most complete and convincing creations of a Gestalt in the tetralogy.
Dracula's Daughter was also the source of Roemheld's paraphrase of yet another Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet excerpt: the turbulent Capulet-Montague clash. This is given numerous times throughout Mars, and two or three times in Rocketship, but not elsewhere. It proved to be another first-class "cue" for fight music.
CHAPTER VIII. LET’S NOT PASS THE BUCK
With Buck Rogers, we enter the era of re-recordings and the cessation of tracking--with the credits acknowledgement of Charles Previn as musical director. (No musical references were given in any of the Flash trilogy's credits.) This turned out to mean that new performances of the familiar music of the first two Flash Gordon serials, using a different orchestra, were recorded for Rogers’ soundtrack. And though much of the material is the same as in Mars, there are a few interesting additions--as well as a significant omission: Regrettably, none of The Black Cat cues are used at all--nor are they in Universe. But the Werewolf of London score is used more often than in Mars, as well as familiar--and a couple of new--sections of Bombay Mail (except that the Pomp and Circumstance paraphrase was neatly excised from Roemheld's surrounding material.) In addition, Waxman’s Bride music, especially the Female Monster Creation section, is used liberally in every chapter. Many will notice, in all these newly recorded cues, obvious tempo changes from what we had been used to--both faster and slower in all the familiar sections--as well as subtle differences in orchestral color--not to mention some additional paraphrasing here and there. To this we must add the tunefully engaging Rogers' title music, often commented on by aficionados. It was re-recorded (at a notably faster tempo) from the title music of Universal's 1935 feature, The Great Impersonation, after having been tracked as Tim Tyler's title. This cue is directly followed, in Rogers' credits, by most of the title music from Dracula's Daughter--with the juxtaposing proving a good fit. Both cues are, of course, by Roemheld.
The Bride music also underwent a slight resequencing (in the "creation" section) and a change in scoring--the most obvious difference being that the constant drum beat (simulating "Elsa Lanchester’s" heart before she was brought to life) is now absent--and that Previn's orchestra lacked an organ, used with telling effect in "creation," as well as very prominently in the Clay People excerpt. In addition, the latter is now much faster, and slightly altered in other ways. (It underscores Kane’s "robot battalion" on Earth and the low-intellect Zuggs--an "inferior" Saturnian race in Rogers--as well as accompanying the Rock Men episode in Universe.) I should point out that the studio owned the copyright to Waxman's score, a contractual standard, which was more enforceable then than now, and could do anything with his material they wished. Of course, the Invisible Man motto is just as prominent as it was in the trilogy, with its new, livelier performance also used in Universe. Waxman’s "Forest People" music also reappears in both Rogers and Universe, in more lively presentations.
In any case, for Buck Rogers, the music helped considerably to make the serial. Otherwise, the characterizations are slightly inferior to those in the Gordon trilogy. For example, Constance Moore played Wilma Dearing, Buck’s female protagonist, and she was dressed in the rather severe Hidden City uniform worn by all the good guys. With headgear resembling a misplaced swimming cap, she looked nearly as unfeminine as Air Marshall Kragg (on reflection, I think that's perhaps a stretch). Moreover, her relationship with Buck was decidedly platonic and thoroughly business-like throughout the 12 chapters--following the typical standard of the genre. Anthony Warde, a prolific, well known serial actor (appearing in a goodly number of concurrent Republics) who had played the Mighty Toran, King of the Forest People, in Mars, added a mustache for his portrayal of the "leader" Killer Kane, Rogers’ chief villain. He and his councilors’ uniforms are quite elegant, as are the sets for his "palace" and council room. The backdrop for Kane’s "city" is also picturesque, with the overall production values at the level of Mars and Universe, and therefore superior to ‘36. The rocket/space ships, perhaps demanding to be distinct from those in the Flash Gordon trilogy, are ugly and angular, looking in flight profile like either skinny parallelograms or trapezoids or tank-shaped with a see-through hole in their middles--the variation not distinguished between the Hidden City and Kane's ships (though a number of sources report that the rocketships in the "Rogers" comic strip looked practically identical to those in the Flash Gordon serials). "Curiously" they made exactly the same sound as Zarkov and Ming’s visually pleasing ships.
Still, as measured against the typical genre production, Rogers more than holds its own, combining exotic sets, beautiful costuming, well paced action, consistently serviceable dialogue, special "futuristic" effects that were state-of-the-art for 1939, and especially captivating music (nicely avoiding the overuse of any single cue) throughout. What it lacks are the dramatic high points integral with Mars' plot, and, to an extent, with that of '36. If this had been the only space serial produced by Universal in this era, it would have stood out like a beacon--and been regarded as one of the studio's best.
The choice of Saturn as the "exotic" planet, to which Buck, his teen-age sidekick Buddy Wade, and Wilma traveled back and forth during the 12 chapters, is curious. In truth a "giant" planet, with a diameter nine times that of Earth, its composition even then was known by astronomers to be mostly gaseous. Obviously the studio (listed on the title screen in every copy I've seen as Filmcraft, but that was an independent distributor which released many of the Universal reissues. Most current Flash Gordon videos, however, retain their original Universal title screens) couldn't use Mars again, nor did they wish to create another fictional planet like Mongo. Saturn was most likely the planet locale in the Rogers comic strip of the time (which was before my time). (Outside scenes of Rogers and Kane’s parties on foot on the Saturnian surface had, remarkably, that same, unmistakable Southwestern U.S. appearance common to the tetralogy.)
Buck Rogers may have been the originator of both the "transporter" and the "cloaking device" made famous in Star Trek. The Hidden City had glass cylindrical devices into which several people could step, and then be "teleported" to another cylinder in another location in the city (with their "atoms reassembled," etc.). For all the effort and "technology" presumably involved in developing such a device, the "transportees" apparently didn’t get moved very far, as the Hidden City wasn’t that large; it appears they could almost as easily have walked--and/or taken an ordinary elevator. As for cloaking, Dr. Huer developed a machine which generated a "light" beam which, when projected from his laboratory onto an outside flying rocketship, made it disappear completely--even to those inside it--including those inside it. Clearly Zarkov’s disappearing screen in Universe improved on Huer’s version--as the latter was generated from inside the ship, effectively shielded it from outside view, but did not make the ship disappear to the "insiders."
In any case we had the peace loving Saturnians, governed by three "elders" who presided from behind an elevated bench inside a spacious but starkly unadorned "forum" as large as the much more opulent throne rooms of Ming (in Universe) and Azura. The middle and chief elder was named, appropriately, "Aldar." The left elder was played by Cyril Delevanti, a slowly enunciating British character actor, prominent in the Universal serials Red Barry (1938) and The Adventures of Smilin' Jack (1943), and having a lesser role in the feature Night of the Iguana (1964), starring Richard Burton and Ava Gardner.
It was from these people that Earth’s Hidden City inhabitants, headed by Scientist-General Dr. Huer and Air Marshall Kragg, sought aid in overthrowing Earth’s dominant ruling force of "racketeers" (an often-used generic term for evildoers in the 30s and 40s), headed by Kane. "Colonel" Rogers amazingly picked up the science and technology advancements of half a millennium in Chapter 1, after he and Buddy had been frozen in time (inside the dirigible "Shandral") for 500 years from the 20th century. And he immediately took a pro-active leadership role in pursuing the Hidden City’s goal to remove Kane from power. (Interestingly, in the occasionally excellent [in its first season] but short-lived "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" NBC TV series of 1979-81, Princess Ardala’s chief advisor was also named Kane--surely not a coincidence.)
Crabbe reverted to being brown haired in Rogers, his natural hair color, but it was a light enough brown that it didn’t appear dramatically different from blond-haired Flash, the resemblance being aided by a similarity in costumes. The use of "futuristic" parting doors, with enmeshing square projections and operated by turning an adjacent wheel, became a feature of all three serials after ‘36; it produced yet another resemblance between Flash and Buck. The exception was that in Mars some of the doors featured a mating series of "S" curves. As for ‘36 . . . just ordinary hinged (albeit heavy-duty) wood doors, with knobs and latches. (primitive!)
DESPITE the above references to the music in Universe, that serial is virtually dominated by Les Préludes--not an arrangement or paraphrase, but excerpts directly from Liszt's orchestral score. Its dominance is immediately proclaimed, as its march-like and heroic concluding sections accompany the title and credits (i.e. "main title," in movie parlance) of each chapter, and then appear throughout much of the serial proper. And its concluding section is "abbreviated" and used for the chapter conclusions (i.e. "end titles"). Most of the musical material in Franz Liszt’s 15-minute symphonic poem is, in fact, used. Posterity has generally viewed its use in Universe as excessive, as well as something of a cop out. Yet for those who, like myself, grew up in the ‘40s and ‘50s with both a musical ear and an ear for adventure, being exposed to Universe for the first time would likely have brought instant recognition of the music, as two quotes from it framed the half-time commercial break in the then long running, thrice weekly Lone Ranger radio program. Furthermore, in this sci-fi fantasy setting, its thrill of "newness" produced the kind of awe that first exposures in a new setting can instill in youthful aesthetics. However, from my present-day perspective, the Liszt piece was, in fact, considerably overused, much as was Hajos' Werewolf signature in '36, and Waxman's "Forest Kingdom" motif in Mars. (What enhanced my intrigue for Les Préludes was that I knew the music long before I discovered its title and composer.)
However . . . Universe’s chapter forewords, with that familiar text format trailing up and away, are accompanied by the familiar march theme (the "Crucifixion" March) from Waxman’s Bride score--slightly altered in this re-recording, this cue previously heard only in Mars. Understandably (given Les Préludes' prominence), far less of this score is used in Universe than in either Mars or Rogers. In fact, the "Creation" section, used so frequently in the latter two, is represented in this one only by its last part. In addition, it appears much less often--and was again re-recorded, with the bride’s "heartbeat" reinserted. Of course, the Invisible Man motto is heard, as always, when a rocketship takes to the air, and during action-in-flight sequences--being "tracked" from its Rogers re-recording. Yet, several of the familiar Bombay Mail excerpts are present in new performances, with the "Inspector Theme" again prominent.
Still there is a fair degree of new music, some examples of which are intriguing in themselves. After Flash and his party first land in Frigia (Chapter 2), they begin their trek up the mountain (with winds howling like a high-speed vacuum cleaner that are meant to sound "unearthly." Interestingly, Universal's 1932 feature, The Old Dark House, used these identical "wind sounds" for its all-night thunderstorm). Their goal is to find "polarite," the antidote for the Purple Death dust with which Ming is plaguing Earth. Accompanying this trek is a solemn march never heard prior to this point in the series. The thump-thump-thump motor rhythm is a perfect accompaniment to the roped-together party clambering up the mountainside; it leads to a captivating tune which, though sounding quite Wagnerian, is, once again, by Roemheld, from a full score he wrote for the American release (by Universal, of course) of the silent German movie, White Hell of Pitz Palu* (1930)--now obtainable on DVD via Grapevine Video. Note: The feature is now also available in more complete, more pristine versions from other distributors that do not use Roemheld's score. The latter version is only available from Grapevine. (A variant of the march, heard a little later in Pitz Palu, was directly tracked in the chapter forewords of Tim Tyler’s Luck three years earlier. Interestingly the distant footage of the roped-together party, as well as the avalanche footage, also comes from Pitz Palu, a fact that disturbs naysayers of Universe to no end. Simply put, the visual starkness accompanied by the stirring music makes for stunning scenes, no matter where they are used. Universe offers those scenes to those who aren't inclined to purchase silent features.)
*This feature, highly lauded by silent-movie collectors of 16 and 35mm prints for its dazzling cinematography, starred the controversial Leni Riefenstahl, who--born in 1902--died at age 101 in September 2003. She became the first great female director in the film medium, and, though professing to be apolitical, was greatly admired by Adolf Hitler. Because of this association, including some later films now regarded as beautifully shot but then as Nazi propaganda made with Hitler's "encouragement," she was never allowed to work in Hollywood, though she reportedly led an active, fruitful life. Universal, adding Roemheld's masterly score (largely unknown and completely disregarded today in the annals of "recognized" film music), cut the German release to half its original 150-minute length for stateside presentation.
It is with this thought that I must take exception to at least the fervor of those who state that Universe dawdles too long in Frigia and uses too much stock footage of snow scenes and avalanches. (Some commentary leads you to believe it dominates the whole serial.) A careful viewing of the Frigian episode reveals that the avalanche footage is presented in sections, with each lasting only a few seconds. It is repetitive, and it’s interspersed with brief scenes of distant mountain climbers or of Flash and his party. The only valid critique here is that there’s no sense conveyed from the avalanche footage that the snow mounds are ever going to stop cascading down the slopes and cliffs. Although when switching to Flash’s party after they have survived and are trapped in a chasm, the event has clearly stopped. The search by Zarkov’s party for Flash and company is again underscored by the Pitz Palu march (or "March of the Torches," to use its cue title; its re-recording by Charles Previn for the serial is more impressive than in its original Palu track, as comparing the two in Tony LoBue's web site will show), again with great effect. The excerpt is occasionally heard elsewhere throughout the serial, but never quite so tellingly. Though the protagonists remain in Frigia for the rest of Chapter 3 and part of Chapter 4, there is considerably more action here than in most of Chapters 9 and 10 of ‘36. There, as you may recall, director Stephani bogs everything down on the issue of Flash’s drug induced trance, and the question of which--between Dale and Aura--Flash is going to pick for his bride. Allowing for the brief "Fire Monster" interlude as a cliffhanger, the pace crawls almost like a soap opera. What makes the Frigian episode appear slow to some is an exotic but Earth-like locale--for a space adventure--and all that unrelieved white. By the measure of any common serial setting, this remains exciting, intriguing stuff.
CHAPTER IX. SERIAL TO FEATURE IN EASY CUTS
Later in 1936, Universal released a scaled-down version of the first Flash Gordon serial. What resulted was the feature-length movie, Rocketship, the title finally emerging after two or three incarnations. It turned out to be one of the most convincing and successful serial condensations ever made. Though lasting only 68 minutes, it should be recalled that the minimum standard for feature lengths in those days was around an hour, rather than today’s 90 minutes. (Most present-day references to Rocketship, including videos, title it Flash Gordon: Rocketship, to identify it immediately for those browsing video lists or catalogues. Its release date is sometimes mistakenly given as 1938.) To anyone familiar with the 13-chapter original, the editing, which cuts material as short as parts of a sentence to as long as 2 1/2 chapters, was quite well done. The few cliffhangers that remained were, of course, immediately resolved with the material beginning the following chapter.
Getting a coherent story from over four hours of serial condensed to a little over an hour was not so difficult with a chapterplay containing the isolated plot lines of '36. For example, the entire episode with Kala and his shark men was completely (and mercifully) cut, and Barin’s reference to them when Zarkov first met him was neatly snipped. After Flash and Thun aborted the Ming-Dale wedding ceremony, and Flash carried off Dale, who remained "entranced," Ming’s order to "prepare to open the watertrap" remained in Rocketship. However, it was never explained, as Aura chased after Flash, Thun, and Dale from the wedding chamber. Then we jump from Chapter 2 to Chapter 5 and Zarkov’s first encounter with Barin--then Flash’s party emerging from an underground passage--as though they’d just left the wedding chamber. Whereas in the serial they had just escaped from Kala’s crumbling, waterlogged domain.
During the sky city episode, Vultan’s many time-consuming attempts to woo Dale’s affections while "still" a villain were removed (mercifully including most of his cackles), as well as most of the footage in the "atom furnace" room, which tended to drag in the serial. However, Flash’s destruction of the atom furnace, per Zarkov’s instruction, was not only preserved (being a plot milestone), but as Flash tossed his shovel into the furnace and yelled, "Run for the wall, men!" it was Crabbe’s own voice--restored! In the serial, another man’s "deeper" voice had inexplicably been dubbed in--the only instance I can recall this happening while we could see the person talking. (In the last of the three Mars flashbacks to ‘36, this scene is repeated, with the same wrong voice--and the ‘36 background music, indicating that the Rocketship remake was not used therein. This is admittedly puzzling, as Mars could have employed Crabbe's voice by tracking its flashback from Rocketship, rather than from the serial. We'll never know the answer to this piece of historical minutia.)
Other cuts made in Chapters 6 through 8 were the elimination of Flash’s ordeal with the "static machine" and his "Tournament of Death" sword fight with a masked Barin (shown in the second Mars flashback to ‘36). His ensuing fight with the horned "orangupoid" (i.e. "Crash" Corrigan in a gorilla suit--not an orangutan suit) was abbreviated, as were a number of sequences that appeared padded in the original--after watching the feature.
After the parties’ return to Ming’s domain (Chapter 9), wherein Aura begins to make her long extended move to wrest Flash away from Dale, the feature preserves Aura’s viewing--unseen--Flash and Dale’s first kiss. The High Priest* then suggests that Aura slip Flash a pair of drugs that will render him unconscious, and when he awakens, cause him to lose all memory of the past--allowing her to use her wiles to ensnare his devotion. After she agrees, the feature then shifts to Ming’s Throne-Room ceremony to "award the heroes of the tournament for their valor"--having skipped the administering of the hypnotic, the Fire Monster cliffhanger, Flash’s awakening, his being given the "drops of forgetfulness," and his ensuing amnesia--nearly a chapter’s worth of material. Since the feature only showed Flash’s orangupoid encounter, we’re left puzzled as to who the "heroes" were, whereas from the serial we knew them to be Flash and Barin.
Nevertheless, these are minor caveats; the feature preserves the essence of the love triangle, but truncates the details enough to keep the action ongoing. Ideally, the studio should have allowed maybe 75 minutes running time, which would have provided just enough additional detail to eliminate the unresolved references.
*[Up until recently, I've not seen it pointed out in discussion that there are two portrayals of the High Priest, both in Rocketship and in the '36 serial. In the latter's first three chapters the character is played as stuffy, straight-faced, and monotoned by Lon Poff (1870-1952). From Chapters 3 through 7, our friends are mostly away from Ming's palace, and we don't encounter Tao's emissary. However, beginning with Chapter 8 we see an identically dressed priest--clearly meant to be the same person, played by the better known Theodore Lorch (1873-1947). Now we have a character with a sinister sneer, an evil cackle, a demented schemer, and thus a much more defined persona. Lorch is who we think of in that role, and it is startling to discover that someone else had it when we were paying less attention in the serial and feature's early part. I speculate that Poff was originally cast for the first three chapters, and that the writers then decided that Lorch could make the character more substantive in his later appearances. But since the Poff chapters had been shot, Universal didn't want to spend the money to reshoot them with Lorch. The studio may correctly have thought that with five weeks between the character's appearances, the movie patrons would not have noted the change, even as many haven't with our present-day scrutiny.]
As I mentioned earlier, the use of a different music track allowed a continuous background across the cuts, making the latter seem less obvious, especially to those not so familiar with the original. It was only possible because the music and voice tracks were, at that time, still available as separate entities.
The feature contains a number of musical excerpts not heard in the tetralogy, most of which are intrinsically rather less interesting. For example, in the opening scene in Professor Gordon’s observatory we immediately hear scurrying string work (the Monster escaping from his jail cell)--leading to the repeat of the "chase" cue from Waxman’s Bride. The latter is only used, along with the first chase cue, in Rogers. However, the second chase is often used in several of the studio’s more conventional serials of the period (e.g. Red Barry , Radio Patrol , Gangbusters ). In fact, Rocketship uses several other Bride excerpts not heard in the serial tetralogy. As in Mars, all are tracked from the movie. One of them is from the end of Bride, where the watchtower explodes, killing the Monster, his ersatz "bride," and Pretorius, while Henry F. and Elizabeth (the true bride) are saved. Another is a bit earlier: the wedding-chimes motif ("Bali Hai") accompanying Pretorius’s pronouncement, "and now behold the Bride of Frankenstein," used, most appropriately, in Rocketship during Ming and Dale’s aborted wedding ceremony. Earlier in the latter feature, after Zarkov’s rocketship first lands and the iguantians are encountered, the Clay People music is heard. That cue is, in fact, used excessively throughout the feature, and not always appropriately. A number of excerpts from that Roemheld mainstay Bombay Mail are given (the "Inspector Theme" just once)--these remaining the most engagingly tuneful of any of the Gordon/Rogers music sources. And towards the end of the feature--during Flash's invisibility sequence--we hear a good portion of Iljinsky's four-minute plus "Orgy of the Spirits"--a piece that under different circumstances might have become a concert favorite, but remains hidden in the vaults of film library music.
However, we hear nothing from The Black Cat and very little from Werewolf of London, both of which had been prominent in the 13 chapters. Even the motto from Invisible Man is given in full only twice. Interestingly the tenor of some of this background communicates a campier mood, rather than the totally serious one conveyed by the original '36 tracks.
A similar scaled down feature version of Mars, with the title finally emerging as Mars Attacks the World, was released in late 1938. Though its music tracks were also distinct, they more closely adhered to those of the serial, including a few more cues not heard in the chapterplay versions. Otherwise, the condensation was far less successful than with Rocketship because of Trip to Mars' plot line being more continuous and more relevant throughout. At this writing, DVD versions of both feature length condensations are available. Other featurized versions of the serial tetralogy have been made in subsequent years, after separate access to the voice and music tracks was lost. These do not hold as special a place in the hearts of collectors.
CHAPTER X. BEST BOUNTY FOR THE BUFF
A brief discussion is in order regarding the several versions and editions of the Flash Gordon trilogy that were generated for TV audiences--mostly in the 1950s--and from which many of the currently available video versions have come. To gain TV distribution rights in the mid-50s--and to avoid conflict with a TV-produced Flash Gordon series (starring Steve Holland; it went nowhere), "Space Soldiers" had to be incorporated into the serials’ titles. That name has more or less stuck, having worked its way into some videocassette versions. (My copies of Mars all have the original studio titles, except for some Chapter 13s, which begin with the tacked on title, "Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers’ Trip to Mars." Its chapter foreword adds a voice narrative to the elaborate martian-turning-the-pictograph screen narrative, with a tinny sounding Invisible Man motto in the background. When the foreword transitions to the action, the music comes up full again.)
Because these serials remain the most popular of anything in the genre, the video quality available to us has remained surprisingly high, especially considering that Universal made little effort to preserve its first decade of sound films for archiving or posterity. (It should be pointed out that most features and all serials were viewed, at their release time, as items for first-run showing; there was little or no thought given to their legacy value to later generations.)
As it happened, the Flash Gordon serials--followed by Buck Rogers--were among the first serial releases on digital video disks (DVDs), with their attendent higher quality. However, the limiting determinant for quality had, from this era, more to do with the quality of the source print than the video medium on which it was transferred. 16mm print "sources" were not likely to be as good as 35mm ones; it was therefore regrettable that the only extant sources in the serial genre were often from non-first-generation 16mm prints, many with lots of missing frames and attendant splices. Fortunately the Flash Gordons benefitted from good-to-excellent source prints from King Features, which Bridgestone has made available for VHS video versions, and which have been transferred and "restored" by Image Entertainment to DVD. Buck Rogers didn't fare quite as well on DVD--its transfer made by VCI (a marketer of many VHS-version serials)--as any of the Flash Gordon trilogy, but yet remains above most of the remaining available Universal serials--the VHS versions of which are often times atrocious in both video and soundtrack quality.
By contrast, Republic's highly lauded chapterplays from their concurrent golden era--1936 to 1945--have been preserved with excellent to outstanding video quality, but often with somewhat distorted sound (Adventures of Captain Marvel being an example). Universal's most recently released-on-VHS serial, The Green Hornet Strikes Again (1940), comes from an excellent 35mm print, and equals the Republic efforts, but with better sound, and to date remains the highest quality VHS chapterplay from our "favored" studio. Among the highest caliber of all VHS serials available at this writing is Columbia's 1948 Superman, with its videos ironically marketed by Warner Bros., who has owned the rights to the character since acquiring them from Alexander Salkind in the early '90s, after the latter produced his four Christopher Reeve movies--and just prior to Warner's releasing the Lois and Clark TV series. Columbia's superior-to-the-original sequel, Atom Man vs. Superman (1950), softer in focus and with a less bright soundtrack, still remains aurally and visually better than the lion's share of chapterplays. (It also employs one of the most compelling post-WWII cues of any adventure/suspense music track, Marlin Skiles' 10-minute "Mine Scene," originally scored for the climactic scene of Columbia's very engaging [and remarkably unavailable as a video] 1948 Technicolor western, Relentless--starring Robert Young before he became a father figure--and reused in many Columbia serials--e.g. Batman and Robin of 1949, now DVD available--and westerns of the '50s.) At this writing, both Superman serials are available as a two-serial package in DVD, released by Warners in the summer of 2006, to hype their release of the new Superman Returns feature. At this writing--several weeks after this feature's release, the two Columbia serials remain only in limited VHS availability.
But I digress; back to Flash Gordon: Some older VHS versions of all three serials were of inferior sound and picture quality --appearing as though the set had been made from an X-generation 16mm print (a copy of a copy of a copy, etc.). At least one version of '36 had all its chapter forewords accompanied by a voice narrative essentially reading the plain, unadorned, white-over-black screen printing, with the saxophone wailing in the background. The voice was probably added to compensate for the sometimes difficult-to-read visuals, especially where the source film quality was this poor. None of the Universal originals used voice narratives, as they would have been quite redundant. And, at least one version of Mars had dubbed-over (and inferior) music appearing in one of the later chapters and continuing through the end. This partially drowned out even the dialogue and other sound effects, rendering any rationale for this act wholly inexplicable--not to mention being an abomination. It would thus behoove the buff, the collector, the purist to acquire either the Bridgestone VHS or the Image DVD versions of the F.G. trilogy--plus the VCI DVD of Buck Rogers. He or she should settle for nothing less.
ADDENDUM. SERIAL MUSIC - WORST TO BEST
Up to the present, I've concentrated this article on Universal's four "space serials," with occasional, digression-type comments about other serials. I've now decided to update my experience with all those serials that have interested me in any way--meaning principally the intensity their music stirs my aesthetic response. This is as opposed to how artfully employed the music ties with plot. As I've previously noted, practically all serial music is lifted from earlier feature movies the studio had produced; ergo the composer essentially set the feature plot to music--scene by scene. It therefore cannot match as "artfully" with a multi-chaptered plot, which was created after the music was written. The special attraction of serial music results from a multiple exposure to its various cues, making it similar to the manner in which you respond to classical music. Often, the features from which these serial cues come create one-time exposure to the elements of the score. Also often, some of those features' most stirring cues are too far in the background, under loud talking or noise, to be heard, much less appreciated. Whereas each cue's multiple use in serials affords a good chance of hearing it uncovered, with enough repetition to get it into your gut--if it's an inspired one to begin with. So I'm sharing with you what cue collections inspire me the least through the most.
I intend to rank their music serial-by-serial through a series of concatenated
links--with several serials named and discussed in each--from the worst
to the best, while within each link except for the first one, they'll be
ordered from best to worst (a reminder is supplied with each link).
In doing so, I admit to a full awareness that the exposure I had to a briefer
group of chapterplays from my youth seem to emerge generally as higher
in my ranking of their music than those I've been exposed to since the
era of videos, both VHS and DVD. Aesthetic response to music is,
of course, largely subjective, but I submit not entirely. Those with
early exposure and receptivity to any given musical form will tend to agree
with one another on a broad, generalized basis of the "selections" they
survey--even as they are likely to disagree on explicit rankings.
For those aficionados getting exposure to the music of the Flash Gordon
serials via direct exposure to their video recordings and to their emerging
familiarity with the excerpted cues (including their names) available from
LoBue's most-complete Flash Gordon website, I will add some other cue-names
from other serials where I have learned them. These names all come
from the feature movies where the cues-in-question originated, their names
usually referring in some manner to the specific scenes under which they
were used (e.g. "Mine Scene"). Some of what you'll read has already
been mentioned above, but most of these bits-of-trivia haven't. I
will so state when the cue in question derives from a feature unknown to
me, but will crudely attempt to describe something of its musical structure.
And now, let's start with the
group and work upwards from there.
*Acknowledgement: I'm indebted to Richard Bush (email@example.com) for his direct contribution to my detailed discussion of the Gordon/Rogers music sources. Bush had personally researched the sources of all the cues in the tetralogy over many years with the enthusiasm of an aficionado, following which he contributed a chapter on that music in the book Film Music I in 1989, now regrettably out of print but available in libraries. Bush also supplied the liner notes for the Silva America CD of the complete score of Waxman's Bride of Frankenstein in a modern symphonic performance, which at this writing remains available.
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