Manic Monday Apocalypso: Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe!

My parents were of the Saturday matinee generation, where a nickel (or was it a dime?) would get you into the movies at the crack of dawn and entertain you till dusk. (And, oh, where to begin with the analysis of cultural shifts in that slice of Americana?)

My mom was a big fan of Buster Crabbe, though she surely must have seen the reruns of the serials since she was too young (or not born) for the originals. And when I was young, we had a UHF channel that would show a variety of old, old, really old or unpopular stuff like the late ‘50s black and white “Felix the Cat” cartoons (compared to the bigger stations’ WB and MGM ‘toons), the “Life of Riley” (versus “I Love Lucy”), silent movies (I watched Nosferatu and Metropolis this way) and serials like “Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe”.

I loved this show. Even as part of the Star Wars generation–or perhaps especially because–I loved the rockets on strings, with sparklers in the back, the cheesy composed shots with giant geckos sorta-kinda chasing tiny humans, the guys with the vampire fangs or gorilla suits.

I have this box set of the serial, though if you dig around at Archive.org, I’m sure you can find it. (And feel free to notice that the #1 staff pick is an anti-Bush film by MoveOn.Org. There’s no escaping this crap, is there.) I should say that I’m referring here to the original Flash Gordon serial, not really “Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe”.

In the original serial, the planet Mongo is flying through the universe and headed on a collision course with the earth, which it will apparently destroy at no significant harm to itself. Burning meteors are dropping from the sky (at alarmingly slow speeds) and this causes the plane that champion polo player and Yale man (really!) Flash is on with Dale Arden to, uh, be in danger somehow.

Fortunately, they all have parachutes except Flash who hangs on to Dale on the way down. (Pleasure to meet you, ma’am!)

They happen to land on the lawn of crazed scientist Zarkov who has built a spaceship that he’s going to use to land on the renegade planet and try to talk some sense into the driver.

At the helm of said planet is Fu Manchu’s twin brother, Ming the Merciless, who very practically decides to put Zarkov to work in his labs (and in a space-onesie!), give Dale the “fate worse than death” and kill Flash. (Can’t use you, man! Got enough dumb thugs in security as it is.) The princess, Aura, has other ideas and rescues the hunk of man from various fates worse than–no, that actually are death.

From there on, Flash meets the other colorful members of Ming’s empire. And, I don’t want to give anything away, but he does get out of a lot of tight spots.

I think what entertains me the most about the serial is probably the Art Deco influence. Just like the original “Star Trek”, where everything is all hippied out in post-modern (?) style, and the ’80s series features oodles of big hair and, well, very ’80s-looking design. I don’t know if it’s just the lapsed time between Art Deco and now, or if it’s that Art Deco is just that much cooler than all the intervening styles.

I mean, seriously, the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s styles have their moments, but there’s a lot of ugly in them, at least to my eyes. And my opnion hasn’t changed much over the decades. ’70s style, of course, was both uniquely ugly at the time and still ugly today. I am painting with broad strokes, of course, as there are always good things around, but to my eye the Art Deco style of the serial–the curved ships, the rays coming off Ming’s throne, etc.–give it a flair that outshines the cheapness of the sets. (And is completely missing from the ’50s version, to its detriment.)

I actually liked the 1980 remake, which was surprisingly faithful to the original. It’s campy, of course, but intermittently so. Sometimes it is genuine in its earnestness. It also captures the strangely small feeling of space in the series, and eschews realism for a more colorful, interesting “space”.

Of course, these days, most people remember Freddy Mercury’s song more than anything, and probably with good reason. Mercury could sell it.

Well, until next time, mutants, stay radiated!

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