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.
Here are the next round of notes, each written as I went along during chapters 5-7 (of thirteen) of the full serial:
Chapter 5 – The Destroying Ray
With this chapter, the story again presents material that we’ve already seen in the abbreviated version of the story in Spaceship to the Unknown. It’s a big episode, in which we are introduced both to Prince Barrin (the so-called rightful ruler of Mongo) and Vultan, ruler of the Hawkmen (a pretty clear inspiration for DC Comics’ Hawkman). Both help to flesh out the world-building of the story, albeit in its paper-thin way.
Vultan is creepy at all get out, looking like he’s about to fully sexually assault Dale, and laughing like a lunatic as he does so
The extended runtime gives us a bit more of an opportunity to see Ming operating as actual Emperor of Mongo—he actually works hard to save the Shark Men’s city. It also gives a huge amount of run time to watching Prince Barin’s ship being fired upon by the titular “Destroying Ray,” or more specifically a Heat Ray. The process seems to take forever before the cliffhanger finally comes along.
Cliffhanger: Prince Barrin’s ship is struck by Vultan’s Heat Ray and begins to plummet from the sky…
Cumulative Runtime at ending: 1:32:54
Runtime of Spaceship to the Unknown at same point: @41:00
Chapter 6 – Flaming Torture
The episode begins with quite the run-on sentence in its recap text: “With a powerful electrical force, Ming raised the doomed shark city above the water, saving Flash, Dale Thun and Princess Aura, who attempt to reach the kingdom of Thun’s father, but are attacked hawkmen who carry Dale and Thun prisoners to their city in the sky.” That’s like four dependent clauses in there.
The editing of the recap at the start of the story is quite different than the original cliffhanger—the previous episode ended with Barin’s ship getting knocked out of the, after we’d seen Vultan menacing the hapless Dale Arden. This time around the events are reversed, meaning that Dale ends up being saved when Flash and the others arrive as prisoners.
Not a lot happens in this episode. Basically, Flash and Barin are sent to join Thun in Vultan’s below-decks furnace, where Flash makes one attempt to lead a slave revolt which gets quickly quashed. Princess Aura tells Dale that she must join her in scheming against Vultan, and that she must do this by pretending to be in love with the King of the Hawkmen. As far as we can tell, Aura is sincere in this advice.
Dale makes a brief effort to pull off this deception, and it’s nice to see even a tiny glimpse of more to her character than we normally do. But it doesn’t last—as soon as Flash suffers any harm, Dale turns to her normal screaming / fainting double-act, and the jig is up.
Cliffhanger: Flash is tortured in Vultan’s “Static Room”…
Cumulative Runtime at ending (counting recaps): 1:49:50
Runtime of Spaceship to the Unknown at same point: @52:00
Chapter 7 – Shattering Doom
With Chapter 7, we reach and pass our mid-point for this serial, and get one of the more character-based moments that the story has offered us. It’s all to do with Princess Aura and her subplot of her constantly scheming to win Flash Gordon’s love. When Flash rejects her, she picks up a torch and threatens to burn his eyes out if he doesn’t leave Dale and marry her instead. Of course, she can’t do it, and breaks down in tears. It’s not exactly a progressive presentation for a female character, but it is more personality than anyone else has had in the story, and the scene also gives a chance for Flash to show a bit of emotion beyond indignation.
Meanwhile, Dale Arden gets to make her most helpful contribution to Flash Gordon’s life–she yells, “Flash, look out!” to warn him of an attacking guard. Big step up there, Dale.
Unfortunately, much of the story takes place in the furnace room, which is really one of the least convincing sets for the whole serial. The idea is that this is where all the slaves shovel all the radioactive material into the furnaces in order to keep the Hawkmen’s city afloat (it’s one of those big round cities which sits high in the air on either a cloud of air or a central column–it’s hard to tell). But its far too sterile to be believable, and the guards repeatedly whip the prisoners in the most unconvincing of ways, to apparently no effect whatsoever.
However, the chapter does bring us to one of the better cliffhangers we’ve had so far, where Flash throws the jury-rigged shovel into the furnace to cause an explosion. It’s a cool action scene which represents an exciting turning point in the plot, which builds excitement for the next chapter.
Most of all of this made it into the abridged Spaceship to the Unknown, but I’m pretty sure they let out a bit where Vultan tries to impress Dale by making shadow puppets. Really.
Cliffhanger: Flash throws the shovel into the furnace as the guard throws the lever—a big explosion results.
Cumulative Runtime at ending (counting recaps): 2:06:56
Runtime of Spaceship to the Unknown at same point: @1:03:36
So now, the abridged version of the story has managed to cut out over an hour of material. There are six episodes left, which have a total runtime that is approximately the same as the entirety of Spaceship to the Unknown…so there’s obviously a lot of material I have not seen yet.