Flash, Zarkov, Dale, and Happy face the Clay People
in
Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars.

(© King Features Syndicate, Inc. All rights reserved.)

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While Flash Gordon is filled with sexual triangles, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars is almost chaste. The difference between these two serials reflects the varied reactions to Alex Raymond's Sunday comic strip and the first Flash Gordon serial. While the comic strip and serial were phenomenally popular, a backlash began to develop. Church organizations in particular complained about the violence and the scantily-clad women--not to mention the hawkmen, who looked suspiciously like angels.

We don't know for certain if the comic strip's distributor, King Features, felt the mounting pressure and ordered Raymond to tone down the serial, but a form of self-censorship becomes apparent in the Flash Gordon comic strip panels of 1937. While Raymond's artwork reaches new heights this year (he was just 25 years old when he started Flash Gordon in 1934 and his artwork improved with each arc of the story), the story also loses much of its punch.

The same thing also happened when Universal filmed the first Flash Gordon sequel--Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars. In place of the sexual shenanigans, we get a wise-cracking comic relief stowaway, Happy, a newspaper reporter who accidentally becomes part of Flash's team of heroes, and a villainess named Azura, Queen of Magic, who doesn't have a third of Princess Aura's fire and determination.

With a reduction in budget (from $350,000 for Flash Gordon vs. $175,000 for Trip to Mars), there is also a noticeable reduction in the number of creatures. While Flash Gordon has a vicious crab monster, a wrestling gorilla-like orangopoid, a sea beast called an octosac, a sacred fire dragon, and a tiger-like tigron, Trip to Mars is virtually devoid of creatures.

However, some serial lovers consider Trip to Mars superior to Flash Gordon. It's not hard to see their logic: Flash Gordon's emphasis on sex was very unusual for serials. While serials were made for adults in the silent era, they were eventually handed over to kids in the sound era. So Flash Gordon appears to be a camp-filled anomaly--whereas Trip to Mars seems well normal. No more bare midriff for Dale. No more lustful stares from Princess Aura aimed at Flash (she disappeared entirely until the next sequel). No more Ming the Merciless pawing at Dale. No more scenes where Flash's shirt gets ripped away to reveal his oiled biceps. The sequel looks much like any other respectable serial aimed at an audience of popcorn-chomping kids.
 

from
Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars

[click photos for larger versions]

In the process of toning down the serial, much of what made Flash Gordon such a remarkable property was drained away. Trip to Mars is still a cut ahead of most all other serials, but without the jealousies and sexual desires as prime motivations, the serial's plot machinations reduce Ming to simply a power hungry tyrant. Before, he was a lust-crazed despot willing to sacrifice his own daughter in return for making Dale Arden his wife. This go round Ming attempts to extract "nitron" from Earth and he won't stop until Earth is dead. It's a rather hollow mania.

While Trip to Mars pales in comparison to Flash Gordon, it nonetheless includes several fine developments. The Clay People, for example, are one of the finest creations of the entire Flash Gordon series. The Clay People were not a creation of Alex Raymond. They were created by the Universal screenwriters. In the scene where the Clay People make their first appearance, time lapse photography allows them to magically emerge from cave walls. It's a simple but highly effective trick that gets repeated several times over the next several episodes. Trip to Mars also features the effective use of an eerie forest set ruled by a race of dwarfs, the Forest People. They live in a stark environment of leafless tress with gnarled branches (although the effect is occasionally ruined by a ridiculously phony forest model used for long shots).

For fans of Jean Rogers' Dale Arden, Trip to Mars contains a surprising change. While Dale was a blonde in Flash Gordon, she appears as a brunette in Trip to Mars--without any explanation whatsoever for the change. In fact, when the serial opens, Flash, Zarkov, and Dale are still on their way back to Earth after their exploits on Mongo in Flash Gordon. However, during the flight, Dale's hair has apparently turned color. Dale was indeed a brunette in Alex Raymond's comic strip, so the change does make some sense. But her hair is also cut short. Now she looks like a library assistant. Needless to say, her fans were disappointed.

In 1939, Universal dropped Jean Rogers from their roster of up-and-coming talent. Subsequently, she signed with Twentieth Century Fox. So when Universal began production of the final Flash Gordon serial in the fall of 1939, they had to find a replacement for the role of Dale Arden. Carol Hughes won the role. When compared with the sexy Dale Arden of the first Flash Gordon serial, Hughes seem bland. But when compared with the demure Dale Arden of Trip to Mars, Hughes fares well. She's a more forceful presence than Jean Rogers--and equally beautiful.
 

from
Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe

[click photos for larger versions]

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe returned to Alex Raymond's comic strip for inspiration. It draws upon the celebrated "Ice Kingdom" story arc from the spring of 1939. The screenwriters also appropriated a character who had appeared earlier in the comic strip--Sonja. She would become the serial's requisite bad girl, following in the footsteps of Princess Aura in Flash Gordon and Azura, Queen of Magic, in Trip to Mars. While the comic strip Sonja threw herself at Flash, the serial's Sonja follows the chaste attitude of Trip to Mars. Sonja isn't interested in Flash. She's just interested in serving Ming.

Conquers the Universe also brings back two characters from the previous serials: Princess Aura and Prince Barin, who are now happily married. In the person of Priscilla Lawson in Flash Gordon, Princess Aura chased Flash unabashedly. But Anne Gwynne in Conquers the Universe is given the unenviable task of playing a colorless Princess Aura. Any fire in the eyes of the original Aura has long been replaced by blissful complacency. And while Prince Barin was played by the balding, portly (but powerful) Richard Alexander in both Flash Gordon and Trip to Mars, in Conquers the Universe, Barin suddenly loses 50 pounds and most of his muscles. In comparison to Alexander, Roland Drew's Barin looks meek and hardly capable of corralling the troublesome Aura.

While Conquers the Universe follows the pattern of Trip to Mars by eliminating creatures and utilizing ample stock spacecraft footage from Flash Gordon, it also benefits from a change of locale. For several episodes, Flash, Dale, Prince Barin, and Doctor Zarkov brave the chilly conditions of Frigia--a frozen land in Northern Mongo. This sequence provides one of the best cliffhangers of all serialdom: our heroes are caught in an avalanche as they attempt to scale a mountain. Well-integrated stock mountain-climbing film footage shows climbers being hurled down mountain slopes. Eventually two people slide over the edge of a crevasse. We hear Dale scream as they fall into the crevasse's shadowy depths. How can they survive? Of course, they do survive, but by 1939, serials were widely lying to their audiences. A fall over a crevasse in one episode becomes nothing more than a close call in the next chapter. But in Conquers the Universe the serial makers play fairly: Flash, Dale, Zarkov, and Barin do indeed fall into the crevasse and they barely escape with their lives. As the episode opens, Flash slowly rises from a bank of snow. Stunned, he shakes his head and brushes snow off his shoulders. He eventually arouses Zarkov and Dale, but Barin is seriously injured. And soon afterwards, we're given a doozy of a development as Ming sends mechanical men after our heroes. With spastic motions and foot-long fingers, the robots lurch across the frozen terrain.

In addition to the mechanical men, Conquers the Universe also features a race of men from "The Land of the Dead" who wear costumes that make them look like pointy-headed walking rocks. Unlike most serial characters, they don't speak English. They speak an obscure, strange-sounding tongue. Their speech is realized by playing their dialogue backwards. (Of course, Zarkov not only identifies the language of the Rock Men -- he can speak it!)

While Conquers the Universe is generally considered the weakest of the Flash Gordon serials, it's preferrable in many ways to Trip to Mars. Its cliffhangers, for example, are a noticeable improvement. Neither sequel comes close to capturing the delirious excesses of Flash Gordon, but these are superior examples of the American serial form.

 



Flash Gordon, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars, and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe now make their debut on DVD in prints culled from the archives of King Features Syndicate. The DVD cover for Flash Gordon bears the sub-title "Space Soldiers," but these words appear nowhere on the print itself. This was the re-release title given the serial when it was reintroduced to theaters in the '50s. In order to differentiate the serial from the Flash Gordon television series (starring Steve Holland), King Features added the "Space Soldiers" sub-title.

Image Entertainment's DVDs contain no extras. The video transfers were not created from restored materials. Low-circulation theatrical prints were used. However, the prints were in decent condition, notwithstanding some dust and minor scratches. This is the best looking Flash Gordon to ever be released on video. (The same prints were evidently used for the Image Entertainment laserdisc release of these titles in 1996.)

Each serial chapter is presented in its entirety with chapter stops for each serial episode. Suggested retail price: $29.99. For more information, visit the Image Entertainment Web site.

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