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Flash Gordon (1936-1940) Wonder

First Science Fiction series in movies

Flash Gordon (1936-1940) Wonder
Balthasar, Apr 21, 2018
    • Balthasar
      Flash Gordon wasn't the first 'space opera'. That honor goes to Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars, first serialized in magazines in 1912. That was later followed by Buck Rogers, who was first introduced in 1929 by Philip Francis Nowlan in the novella Armageddon 2419 A.D, and which was serialized in Amazing Stories, and soon afterward appeared as a popular Sunday comic strip and serialized radio program. In 1933, King Features commissioned one of their best comic strip artists, Alex Raymond, to come up with a Sunday Comic strip to compete with Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and Raymond (and ghostwriter Don Moore) came up with Flash Gordon, which soon became even more popular than Buck Rogers.

      Though there were some built-in features of the Flash Gordon strip that helped it build an audience (it "was wittier and moved faster," wrote Stephen Becker), most often credit for the strip's success is attributed to Alex Raymond's artwork, which is variously described as "incomparable" and "virtuoso". Raymond swiftly became "among the most highly-regarded—and most imitated—in all of comics" for his work on the weekly strip. Flash Gordon's (and Alex Raymond's) popularity was peaking at about the same time that the 'golden age' of comic books was about to begin, and his sumptuous illustrations are credited by the creators of Batman (Bob Kane) and Superman (Joe Shuster) as well as by Jack "King" Kirby (who, with Stan Lee, created and drew many of the classic Marvel heroes) as being a major influence on their own drawing and character designs.

      Since the earliest days of cinema, serials had been staple fare for movie theaters, usually "one-reelers" (10-12 minutes for sound film) or "two-reelers" (15-24 minutes) shown between feature films. The market was lucrative for these, as folks might head to the movies several times a week in the days before television, and theaters wanted to keep their shorts in constant rotation. Major studios often packaged their short films and serials along with their features. Universal, which had been a 'poverty row' studio before the arrival of Frank Capra, had based much of its cash flow on the creation of serials, and even after it started turning major studio-sized profits, it continued to do so, only with better source material. In 1934 Universal purchased the film rights to the most popular of King Features newspaper comic strips. Besides "Flash Gordon," "Secret Agent X-9," "Ace Drummond," "Tailspin Tommy,"and "Jungle Jim" were also included in the package. Tailspin Tommy (1934) was the first movie serial ever to be created from a comic strip, for which Universal made 12 two-reel episodes of 20 minutes each. It was the 97th serial of the 137 released by that studio (and the 24th with sound).

      For Flash Gordon, the first science-fiction serial ever made, Universal pulled out all of the stops, giving the production a (for its time and genre) a lavish budget (one million dollars by some estimates, likely closer to $350,000 - still 3 times the amount usually allotted to a serial) and packaging it with their 'A' features in the hope of keeping adults, as well as kids, in their seats. In addition, the serial played at evening performances, not just matinées, the usual time period to run 'chapter plays'. They cast Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon: Crabbe was best known for his roles in the serials King of the Jungle (Paramount,1933) and Tarzan the Fearless (UA, 1933) and was getting press as a rival of Johnny Weissmuller, as both had been Olympic swimming gold medalists before getting into the movies. The role of love interest Dale Arden went to actress Jean Rogers, who had played Bettie Lou Barnes in Tailspin Tommy and would later appear in serializations of comics characters Ace Drummond (also 1936), and Agent X-9 (1937) and reprise the role of Dale Arden in Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars in 1938 before leaving the franchise.

      Flash Gordon was Universal's second-highest-grossing film of the year, after Three Smart Girls, a musical starring Deanna Durbin. However, the Hays Office objected to the revealing costumes worn by Dale, Aura and the other female characters, so in the two sequels, most of the female characters were dressed more modestly. The serial film was subsequently released in a 72-minute feature version in 1936, which was reissued in 1949 as Rocket Ship. A different feature version of the serial, at 90 minutes, was sold directly to television in 1966 under the title Spaceship to the Unknown. For syndication to TV in the 1950s, the serial was renamed Space Soldiers so as not to be confused with the newly-made, also syndicated TV series, "Flash Gordon".

      In 1939, Universal finally serialized Buck Rogers, casting Buster Crabbe again in the title role, and it achieved the same devoted following that the Flash Gordon series had. The enormous success of both Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers made serials based on comic strips and science fiction themes a staple in theaters thereafter until the 1960's, and were a direct influence on George Lucas' later Star Wars (1977) franchise. From 1936 to 1945, Universal almost made more serial adaptations of comic strips than both of their rivals, Columbia and Republic, combined, paving the way for the comic book-inspired films and franchises of today.
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