Flash Gordon


(7/10) In a nutshell: This hugely influential 1936 film serial was more or less the first American outer space adventure brought to the screen. It is high camp, silly and loads of fun, and boasts high production values for a serial, as well as an unusually imaginative and original script, derived straight from the pages of Alex Raymond’s comic strips. That the spaceships are obviously held by strings and the dragons look just like men in rubber and cardboard suits just adds to the fun.

Flash Gordon. 1936, USA. Serial film. Directed by Frederick Stephani, Ray Taylor. Written by Basil Dickey, Ella O’Niell, George H. Plympton, Frederick Stephani. Based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond and Don Moore. Starring: Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers, Frank Shannon, Charles Middleton, Priscilla Lawson, Richard Alexander, Jack ”Tiny” Lipson, James Pierce, Ray ”Crash” Corrigan. Produced by Henry McRae for Universal. IMDb score: 7.3

Buster Crabbe (middle) and Charles Middleton (right) as Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless on the cult classic serial Flash Gordon frpm 1936.

Buster Crabbe (middle) and Charles Middleton (right) as Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless in the cult classic serial Flash Gordon from 1936.

The story of one of the most influential science fiction adventures of all time – Flash Gordon – starts in 1928 with the pulp magazine Amazing Stories. In particular the short stories Armageddon 2419 A.D. and The Airlords of Han, which featured a central character called Anthony Rogers. In 1929 Philip Nowlan and Dick Calkins adapted the character, renamed Buck Rogers, as a comic strip, that soon featured in many of the prominent newspapers in the US, quickly becoming one of the most successful comic strips of all times. The futuristic world of the 25th century with its strange space crafts, jet packs, weapons, robots and designs, the outlandish and quite politically incorrect Mongolian villains, and of course the handsome, brave hero Buck Rogers instantly inspired a whole range of similar science fiction comics. Some failed, others, like Brick Bradford, became highly successful. But few were able to touch the popularity of Buck Rogers – save one, which came hurtling along like a runaway planet Mongo on a collision course with Earth in 1934. Flash Gordon quickly surpassed the popularity of Buck Rogers, and stands to this day as one of the most highly regarded and influential comic strips of all time. Note: I will not be reviewing the 1938 Buck Rogers serial, as it is basically just another Flash Gordon season under a different name – it even starred Buster Crabbe. Continue reading

The Vanishing Shadow


(4/10) In a nutshell: Mature direction and script, quality effects, a good lead actor and a whole heap of Strickfadens make this early sci-fi serial a relatively entertaining outing – but it is nonetheless a pretty cheap exploitation of The Invisible Man and earlier crime dramas.

The Vanishing Shadow. USA, 1934. Serial. Directed by: Lew Landers. Written by: Basil Dickey, George Morgan, Ella O’Neill, Het Mannheim. Starring: Onslow Stevens, Ada Ince, Walter Miller, James Durkin, Richard Cramer, Lee J. Cobb. Music: Edward Ward. Cinematography: Richard Fryer. Editing: Saul A. Goodkind. Alvin Todd, Edward Todd. Special effects: Elmer A. Johnson, Raymond Lindsay, Kenneth Strickfaden. Produced by Henry McRae for Universal. IMDb score: 6.1

Original poster for the early sci-fi serial The Vanishing Shadow.

Original poster for the early sci-fi serial The Vanishing Shadow.

The Vanishing Shadow (1934) was one of the serials riding on the wave of newfound interest from studios in serial-making. After sound cinema bloated the budgets of filmmaking, most studios quickly dropped their serials, and only Mascot and Universal hung on – and this of course opened the door for many smaller studios to cut in on the action. Serials were again on the rise after western star Tim McCoy fronted the hugely successful The Indians Are Coming in late 1930, and after this stars like John Wayne, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi (The Whispering Shadow, 1933, review) and the dog Rin Tin Tin all helped to further drive the format forward. The Vanishing Shadow had no real big-name star, but in this serial it is Kenneth Strickfaden’s electrical sci-fi gadgets and the special effects created by director Lew Landers and cinematographer Richard Fryer, along with editor Saul A. Goodkind, that shine. Continue reading