While flying off on my aforementioned holiday, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Air Canada’s in-flight entertainment included the first three installments of the 1940 serial “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe“.
This is just one of the dozens of 12 part film serials produced in the 30’s and 40’s. They were made in a very short length of time, on tiny budgets. Frantic in pace, they needed the hero to end up in mortal danger at the end of each week – this often involved a cliff face, leading to the term “cliffhanger”…
(There’s a nice summary of the characteristics of the serials here)
While I remember the serials being repeated on TV during the summer holidays in the 80s, I’d never seen FlGCtU before. It was actually better than I’d expected, although very strange.
The plot, such as it is, consists of Ming the Merciless causing a plague of the Purple Death on Earth by dropping death dust from his rocketship. Flash and his friends set off to the Planet Mongo in their rocketship to find a cure. 12 episodes of fist fights and people falling off precipices to their apparent doom then follow.
But it’s the strange baroque-ness of the whole thing that really strikes you. Not for Flash the lycra or tinfoil suits of later sci-fi. (Admittedly lycra hadn’t been invented yet.) He and his friends dress in a succession of 19th century Mittel-European uniforms (complete with big fur hats and swords) that may well have been left over from The Prisoner of Zenda.
Meanwhile Ming hangs around his extravagant palace, wearing his own flamboyant uniform, ogling dancing girls and ordering caped and masked flunkies to capture (but not kill) Flash. (The flunkies are doubtless the inspiration for Imperial Stormtroopers – they definitely went to the same marksmanship school.)
Occasionally Ming descends to his sinister laboratory, which comes complete with a sinister mad scientist. The set was apparently left over from the Bride of Frankenstein, which means that the lab looks a lot better than one would expect from a serial. (It even has a mysterious chasm. Which, unsurprisingly, someone falls down.)
The rocketships were also left over from a film: the musical, sci-fi, comedy Just Imagine. (The comedy being provided by that long forgotten comic archetype, the Drunken Swedish Immigrant.)
While Just Imagine may not sound appealing, the rocketships are art deco stunners.
Admittedly, the special effect of a sparkler on the ship’s tail to represent the rocket blast isn’t so impressive, but it was 70 years ago…
But the oddest thing is how sincere this strange, baroque-cum-art deco world is. It’s not afflicted with the knowing campness of its 1980 successor (although I’m very fond of that film and it’s just as ornate in its sets and costumes).
And with that sincerity is pace. Flash races from space battles to fist fights, through avalanches to the menace of the Anniladroids (“They’re walking bombs!”) without stopping for breath.
In fact, recalling my earlier comment on Stormtroopers makes me think that it’s the serial’s resemblance to the early Star Wars films that makes it so appealing to me (it even has an opening scroll). In a way, Flash was really Luke’s father…