Flash Gordon (1936) – Chapters 1-4 [50 Films Older Than Me #11a]

Recently, as part of my Fifty Films Older Than Me series, I watched Flash Gordon, the original science fiction serial from 1936, starring Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers, Priscilla Lawson, and Charles B. Middleton, and directed by Frederick Stephani.

Except I didn’t quite watch it. I actually watched the much later television edit, which reduced the story down to about 100 minutes (from an original of close to 400).

Then I discovered that I could watch the whole serial on Youtube. So I’ve been doing that, one episode a day, making short notes about each episode as I go along, especially in comparison to my (quite negative) view of the abridged version of the story.

You can read my original review here.

Here are my notes, each written as I went along on the first four episodes (of thirteen) of the full serial:

Chapter 1 – The Planet of Peril

Well, this is significantly better.  It doesn’t change any of the fundamentals, of course.  It’s the exact same plot, the exact same dated effects (not surprising—they are 85 years old), and the exact same awkward storytelling…but somehow it all feels more immersive.  Maybe my frame of mind is just different, but with the slightly less rushed pacing there is just time for the characters (and the audience) to breathe.  So instead of just rushing pasts one bizarre happenstance after another, I feel like I’m getting to experience them.  Retaining the cliffhanger ending also helps to give the story some much-needed structure.  Dale’s screams don’t feel quite so random when they are used to punctuate the end of a chapter.

Cliffhanger:  Princess Aura’s attempts to save Flash fail when the guard she shoots falls over on the lever he was pulling anyway, opening up a trap door and plunging Princess Aura and Flash to their doom….

Cumulative Runtime at ending:  20:26

Runtime of Spaceship to the Unknown at same point: @15:20

Chapter 2 – The Tunnel of Terror

Apparently, some of the sets of this film were reused from previous productions, including Frankenstein.  We get a lot of that sort of thing in this episode, especially with extensive shots of Ming’s lab.  There is a great shot of Ming which highlights how tall and big this place is, and a lot of neat angles that show Ming through the “high tech” equipment.  Again, the extended run time is helping things, as well as the presence of the cliff-hanger endings. 

Cliffhanger:  Flash is confronted by a big, upright monster with lobster claws that is too much of a match even for someone with his macho physique and grappling skills. …

Cumulative Runtime at ending (counting recaps):  39:15

Runtime of Spaceship to the Unknown at same point: @28:10

Chapter 3 – Captured by Shark Men

Up until this point, the plots of the original Flash Gordon and the edited down Spaceship to the Unknown have been running pretty parallel—the differences have just been in the pacing and details.  But with this chapter, a lot more has been excised for the shorter version—an entire subplot which lasts to the end of the episode which involves Flash and Dale struggling to survive in the water and being captured by Planet Mongo’s Shark Men, and their leader King Kala. 

If you are going to lose something, this is not a bad idea—the Shark Men basically look like a relay team from the local college swim club, complete with swimming caps.  More interesting is all the “giant” aquatic animals that are on display, including an octopus that Flash wrestles with in the cliffhanger.

In a rare bit of plot, King Kala turns out to be secretly working for Emperor Ming, planning on returning Dale to him and killing Flash.  Dale overhears this at one point and is potentially in a position to actually help Flash, so I was excited to see her take a more active role in the story.  Unfortunately, that active role consisted of her sneaking up behind King Kala, and then…asking him what he’s doing.  At the sight of Flash being potentially 1) drowned and 2) killed by an octopus, she lets out one of her more pitiful screams and then turns away helplessly.  Oh well.

Cliffhanger:  Flash is trapped in a tank full of water and attacked by a giant killer octopus.

Cumulative Runtime at ending (counting recaps):  58:56

Runtime of Spaceship to the Unknown at same point: @31:55

Chapter 4 – Battling the Sea Beast

Man, I was really hoping that this was going to be Dale Arden’s chance to shine.  The last episode ended with Flash being drowned by a giant octopus while Dale looked on helplessly.  It’s time to stop being helpless, Dale!  But when the moment comes, Dale goes to one of her go-to responses when there’s danger…she faints.

Instead, it’s Princess Aura who, along with Thon the Prince of the Lion Men, comes along and pulls off the rescue.  Aura gets to threaten people with guns and to even indulge in a little hand-to-hand combat (with another woman, of course) in order to rescue Flash.  I’d recommend her over Dale as a romantic partner except that she’s so toxic about it…she destroys the equipment that keeps the Shark Men city alive, potentially killing everyone, including Dale and Thon, all it seems to get Flash to come away with her.

This whole episode takes place as Flash and his friends are trying to escape from the kingdom of the Shark Men, and thus none of it is in the shorter Spaceship to the Unknown.

Cliffhanger:  Shark City floods, with Flash, Dale, Aura and Thon all trapped inside

Cumulative Runtime at ending (counting recaps):  1:16:00

Runtime of Spaceship to the Unknown at same point: @31:55

So that’s about 44 minutes saved in creating the abridged version at this point. I reckon if I was one of those editors with this job, I’d be feeling pretty darn proud of myself at this point!

More soon!

2 thoughts on “Flash Gordon (1936) – Chapters 1-4 [50 Films Older Than Me #11a]

  1. That picture for “The Tunnel Of Terror” brings back the atmospheric feeling for sci-fi of the 1930s. Thanks again for your review.

  2. The thought of how women could only have hand-to-hand combat sequences with other women during that time, same for men of course, can be most strangely nostalgic for how much of it has irrevocably changed for both sci-fi and action entertainment today.

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