Release Date: April 6th, 1936 (first chapter)
Directed by: Frederick Stephani, Ray Taylor (uncredited)
Written by: Basil Dickey, Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Frederick Stephani
Based on: Flash Gordon comic strip by Alex Raymond
Music by: Clifford Vaughan
Cast: Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers, Charles B. Middleton, Priscilla Lawson, Frank Shannon
Universal Pictures, 245 Minutes total (13 chapters)
Flash Gordon is a character that has lived on in American culture for decades. This 1936 serial by Universal Pictures is the first time that the famous comic strip hero was presented in a live-action format. Needless to say, it was a hugely popular serial for Universal and spawned a franchise that still has life all these years later.
The serial stars Buster Crabbe, who is the only actor to play the top three syndicated comic strip heroes of the 1930s: Tarzan (Tarzan the Fearless), Buck Rogers (Buck Rogers) and Flash Gordon (Flash Gordon, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe).
Having dark hair, Crabbe had to bleach his hair blonde to play Flash Gordon, which he was very self-conscious about. He’d actually wear a hat whenever he wasn’t filming.
Co-star Jean Rogers, who played Dale Arden, also went blonde even though her character was a brunette. This was supposedly done to capitalize on the popularity of “platinum blonde” Jean Harlow, another actress.
Charles B. Middleton played the infamous villain Ming the Merciless. This was also where Ming got the look of a Fu Manchu type character.
There was a claim that Flash Gordon had a budget of over a million dollars, which was absurd for the time. Supposedly, the real budget was $350,000 and Universal Pictures recycled a lot of their elements and props from other films. Most notably the use of the watchtower sets from 1931’s Frankenstein, a statue from 1932’s The Mummy, lab equipment from 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein and other sci-fi and horror classics. The serial also recycles musical scores from The Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and other productions.
From a style standpoint, it should be obvious that this had a similar vibe to the classic Universal Monsters franchise of films.
Overall, Flash Gordon is fairly exciting with decent cliffhangers and twists. It has better acting than most serials and the action is top notch for this style of production.
The serial ended up being Universal’s second highest grossing release of 1936, behind the film Three Smart Girls. Some people were critical of the “revealing” costumes of the woman characters and future Flash Gordon serials had to dress women more modestly.
This is one of my favorite serials and my favorite of the Flash Gordon series. Crabbe would play Gordon two more times.