Cliffhanger Corner: ‘Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe’

By Bob Bloom

In my musings about serials, I have written little about serials from other studios beside Republic Pictures.
But today, I want to discuss a serial made by Universal Pictures.
I should, at least, offer my reasons why I am not such a big proponent of the majority of that studio’s chapterplays.
• First: Too much talk and not enough action. The Universal serials rely more on plot than those of the other studios. Consequently, more dialogue and exposition is needed, which calls for more talking.
A typical Universal serial begins with action — the chapter resolution — then proceeds to about 13 minutes of dialogue before revving up the action again for a cliffhanger.
• Second: Sloppy editing. Serials were shot in a hurry and on very cheap budgets. Still, the shoddiness of the editing is evident in mismatched shots and dubbed-in dialogue to cover-up gaffes.
• Third: An overabundance of newsreel and stock footage in lieu of special effects. This goes back to the lack of money dedicated to the serials.
It is jarring to see the same newsreel and stock footage in serial after serial without it having a negative impact on your views on the studio’s overall quality and commitment to its product.
• Fourth: Cheats. While not as bad as, say, Columbia Pictures, Mascot or some of the independent companies, Universal was not adverse to cheating in its cliffhanger resolutions.
And it is not so much as changing the situation as much as having a hero survive a building collapsing around him (or her) or just being buried in dust by an explosion.
Of course, exceptions can be made. Which brings me to one of my favorite Buster Crabbe, Carol HughesUniversal serials, “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe,” a 12-chapter 1940 production that, despite containing a majority of the flaws mentioned above, remains a pleasing and very entertaining production.
Though not necessary for serial fans, some background is called for: “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe” is the third serial based on Alex Raymond’s famed comic strip character produced by Universal.
The first, “Flash Gordon,” made in 1936, was a 13-chapter serial that grabbed the public’s imagination. That was followed in 1938 by the 15-chapter “Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars,” which, while not as breathtaking as the original, still offered many thrills — as well as a few chills (the first sight of the Clay Men appearing from the cave walls — backed by music borrowed from Franz Waxman’s “Bride of Frankenstein” score — is truly spooky.
Finally, we get to the third and final “Flash Gordon” adventure. It surely is one of the prettiest serials ever made, with costumes and sets that look like the love child of “The Prisoner of Zenda” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”
The serial’s production values compensate for the usual Universal cheapness of stock footage and newsreel sequences.
Also complementing the ambiance is the musical score comprised of themes from earlier Universal features. They help propel the action and supplement the illusion of an increased pacing for the serial.
The chapterplay opens with newsreel footage of surging crowds as a voice-over narrator explains about the Purple Death, an affliction that is killing thousands around the world.
We cut to a group of scientists who are debating the source of this killer disease. When it is mentioned that Dr. Zarkov believes it is interplanetary, others scoff until they are reminded of Zarkov’s first-hand knowledge of other planets.
In a spaceship above the Earth, Zarkov, Flash Gordon and Dale Arden spot a ship from the fleet of Ming the Merciless that is discharging some sort of dust into the atmosphere.
Zarkov immediately declares it the source of the Purple Death and tells Flash to attack the ship.
After a quick exchange of fire, the Ming ship flees after believing it has shot down Zarkov’s rocket.
Of course, it was a ruse by our heroes, who then head for the kingdom of Arboria on Mongo. Arboria is the home of Prince Barin and his wife, Aura, the daughter of Ming.
Most serial fans are very familiar with the story as “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe” is one of the most accessible of serials, through its release on DVD and its many airings on various television stations.
I first saw it more than 40 years ago when it aired in New York under its King Features Syndicate title of “Flash Gordon Space Soldiers Conquer the Universe.”
One of the attractions of the serial is that it is feels more open than its predecessors, which were heavily set-bound. “Conquers the Universe,” with its forays into the Land of the Dead, home of the Rock People, offers some action in Bronson Canyon.
Plus, the sets appear to be more opulent and not as cheap looking as in the earlier serials.
The cast, as well, seems streamlined, with Roland Drew making a leaner and more dashing Prince Barin than the beefy and somewhat wooden Richard Alexander.
Even Charles Middleton’s Ming appears less larger-than-life, which makes his villainy more realistic, if that is a word you can apply to a serial.
Overall, “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe” is one of my favorite serials because it has a magical and majestic quality that seems to set it apart from other chapterplays.
And while it does contain many, if not all, of the drawbacks that plague the vast majority of Universal serials, you are able to overlook and forgive them because of the serial’s many endearing qualities.

Bob Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. He reviews movies, Blu-rays and DVDs for ReelBob (ReelBob.com), The Film Yap and other print and online publications. He can be reached by email at bobbloomjc@gmail.com. You also can follow Bloom on Twitter @ReelBobBloom and on Facebook. Movie reviews by Bloom also can be found at Rottentomatoes: www.rottentomatoes.com.

FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE
3 stars out of 4

FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE
1940, Universal Pictures
Chapter titles

  1. The Purple Death
    2. Freezing Torture
    3. Walking Bombs
    4. The Destroying Ray
    5. The Palace of Terror
    6. Flaming Death
    7. The Land of the Dead
    8. The Fiery Abyss
    9. The Pool of Peril
    10. The Death Mist
    11. Stark Treachery
    12. Doom of the Dictator
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