Thursday, 29 March 2018

Serials: Captain Marvel, The First Super-hero Movie

FOR ME AND THOUSANDS OF OTHER KIDS, Saturday morning pictures at the local ABC or Odeon was the highlight of the week. And the most anticipated items on the programme were the serial chapters. Every week, a few hundred of us would gather in the darkness to cheer the heroes and boo the villains as the decades-old adventures unspooled onscreen.

A couple of years before the dreaded Batman tv show, I'd heard that there would be a Batman film shown at my local ABC Minors and rushed to be first in the queue. This being 1964 and me being a fairly undiscerning 10 year old, I thought the weekly screen adventures of Batman, starring Lewis Wilson, were just brilliant.

A lineup of the top comic characters of the 1940s who successfully transitioned in the serials - Captain Marvel, Batman, Spy Smasher, Captain America and Superman. Click image to enlarge.
At the time, I had no concept that movie serials were shown at every cinema during the 1930s and 1940s, far less that they regularly featured characters from the newspaper strips, comic books and pulps. The first and most successful was Flash Gordon (1936), based on a hugely successful America newspaper comic strip that I'd never seen, covered in some detail last time. But as the rights to all the best-known newspaper strips were snapped up by the main serial production units at Universal, Republic and Columbia, the producers began to look elsewhere for popular properties to adapt into serials and their baleful eye alighted on the most popular comic book character of all... Superman.

Republic Studios was the best known producer of serials in the USA during the 1930s, but hadn't fared so well in the great comic strip landgrab of that decade. Universal, with its deeper pockets, had done a deal with the most successful purveyor of newspaper comic strips, King Features Syndicate, and had locked up the rights to Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, Secret Agent X-9 (all Alex Raymond-drawn strips), Radio Patrol, Tim Tyler's Luck, Ace Drummond, and Red Barry. The other top comic strips, including Mandrake the Magician, The Phantom, Terry and the Pirates and Brenda Starr Reporter had been licensed by Columbia Pictures ... leaving Republic out in the cold.

Republic's solution to portraying Captain Marvel flying in a live action film was to construct a slightly larger-than-life dummy and suspend the figure from a zip-wire. This footage could then be intercut with the actor portraying the flying superhero against a back-projected sky.
So Republic approached National Comics in 1940 with an offer to buy the film rights to their wildly successful character, Superman, probably after noticing the success of the syndicated Superman radio show that began in February 1940. The negotiations appeared to be progressing smoothly, and Republic began production of their serial, getting scripts written and coming up with an ingenious way of portraying Superman's flying powers. What Republic didn't know was that National were hedging their bets and also talking to Fleischer Studios and Paramount. In the end, Paramount won an exclusive licence to portray the Man of Steel on-screen and Republic were again out in the cold.

Admittedly, the screen version of Superman produced by Paramount was pretty cool. Max and Dave Fleischer -  who had created ground-breaking cartoons like Betty Boop and Popeye, and had invented the Rotoscope - brought the technically superior animated Superman to the screen, and no expense was spared, costing $30,000 each, twice the cost of the Popeye cartoons of the same period.

The Fleischer's approach was quite epic and treated the character completely seriously. The Rotoscope method was used extensively, tracing the animation art from live footage to give the figures weight and realism.
Unfortunately for the Fleischers, their relationship with Paramount went south after over-runs on their first animated feature Gulliver's Travels (1939), and the second tranche of eight Superman cartoons were made without the Fleischers' input.

But all of that was cold comfort to Republic, who were left with a Superman script and a whole pile of expenses researching how to make a man fly, and no project to write them off against. So producer Hiram Brown simply called Fawcett Publications and made an offer for their top character Captain Marvel. Fawcett were delighted and threw in the rights to the Captain's Whiz Comics stablemate Spy Smasher as a sweetener.

With the rights to a suitable headline character secured, Brown turned his attention to getting the serial made. Costing a tad over $145,000, the production's budget was about average for the period, but probably cheap for a serial with so much special effects work. As the production went before the cameras, National Comics tried to use legal means to stop the project, but the judge threw the case out.

Interestingly, the costume in the serial matches the uniform worn by Captain Marvel in the first four issues of Whiz Comics. By issue 5, the military-style button-up flap across the character's chest had been replaced with a smooth, leotard-style shirt, like Superman's. For the serial, the Captain's costume was made in blue, as that colour photographed better than red, which appeared very dark on B&W film. Click image to enlarge.
The directors were the Republic dream-team of William Whitney and John English (who really was English). Serials involved around three hours of on-screen action and were shot on punishing schedules - fourteen-hour days were the norm - stretching over six weeks. It really wasn't sensible to have serials shot by just one director - though some were.

Republic found themselves in the strange situation of having to cast two actors for the role of the hero. For the hero's civilian identity, the studio cast Frank Coghlan Jr, due to his physical resemblance to Billy Batson. For Captain Marvel, Republic hired Tom Tyler, a champion weightlifter and cowboy bit player. Tyler had started out in B-westerns, then graduated to small roles in several John Ford movies like Stagecoach (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), before being cast as The Mummy in The Mummy's Hand (1940) due to his slight resemblance to Boris Karloff.

The cast (l-to-r): Dwight Fisher (played by Peter George Lynn), Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan Jr), James Howell (Jack Mulhall), Betty Wallace (Louise Currie), John Malcolm (Robert Strange), Prof Bentley (Harry Worth), Tal Chotali (John Davison) and Dr Lang (George Pembroke). No idea who the guy at the back in the white shirt is.
Since every serial has to have a "damsel in distress" Republic cast Louise Currie as Betty Wallace, the feisty secretary to the Malcolm Archeological Expedition that's targeted by the mysterious hooded menace known as The Scorpion. The roster of suspects includes Robert Strange, Harry Worth, John Davidson and George Pembroke.

The plot has the members of the Malcolm Expedition, accompanied by radio reporter Billy Batson, come under attack by restless natives when they excavate a tomb in a remote area of Siam (now Thailand). However, it turns that that the tomb is actually the hiding place of a golden artefact shaped like a scorpion that holds five lenses. When these lenses are aligned, the device can either disintegrate matter or transform base materials into gold.

As Billy Batson is the only member of the expedition to respect the sanctity of the Scorpion Temple, he is chosen by the guardian Shazam to wield the power of Captain Marvel to keep the Golden Scorpion safe.
The uncovering of this deadly device triggers the appearance of an ancient immortal wizard - Shazam - to appear and appoint Billy as the super-powered guardian of the Scorpion device. All he has to do is utter the Guardian's name and he will be transformed into Captain Marvel. At his fingertips shall be the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury. With these powers, he is to prevent the Golden Scorpion "falling into the hands of selfish men". He'll be kept busy, as one member of the Expedition is the hooded villain, The Scorpion, who intends to have the device for himself and Rule the World.

John Malcolm explains to Billy that tampering with the Golden Scorpion caused an explosion inside the temple, injuring Professor Bentley and almost causing the collapse of the building.
The major obstacle to The Scorpion's ambitions comes when the leader of the expedition, John Malcolm (Robert Strange), decides that each member should hold one of the Golden Scorpion's lenses, thus preventing the device being used unless all agree. So keeping one for himself, he hands the others to Professor Bentley (Harry Worth), Henry Carlyle (Bryan Washburn), Dr Lang (George Pembroke) and Professor Fisher (Peter George Lynn). The slightly sinister expedition advisor Tal Chotali (Jon Davidson) doesn't get one, but as he returns to America with the rest of the expedition, he is also a suspect. This effectively sets up the motivation for the fights, chases and subterfuge that begins the moment the expedition returns to American soil.

WHO WAS THAT MASKED MAN?

The Hooded Villain was a common device of the serials. It allowed a simplistic mystery to be planted at the beginning of the proceedings that would, at least in the film-makers' estimation, ensure that the audience returned every week until the final chapter, when the identity of the masked menace would revealed.

Clockwise, from top left - The Black Hangman from Adventures of the Flying Cadets (1943); The Wizard from Batman and Robin (1949); The Scorpion from Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941); The Ghost from Dick Tracy vs Crime Inc (1941); The Gargoyle from The Spider Returns (1941); The Lightning from Fighting Devil Dogs (1938); The Wasp from Mandrake the Magician (1939).
Any number of serials included weird masked and be-gowned baddies, designed for the sole purpose of eliciting boos and hisses from the enthusiastic and youthful audiences that the serials attracted. The trope was a hangover from the pulps, where the masked and be-gowned goodies - like The Shadow and The Spider - would battle their criminal counterparts who would often conceal their identities in a similar manner. The Hooded Villain would invariably turn out to be one of the heroes, or at least a significant supporting character, and the film-makers would cast suspicion of various characters from week to week as the chases and fist-fights unspooled.

The Perils of Penelope Pitstop's Hooded Claw was, in reality, Penelope's Uncle Sylvester who, every week, would try some outlandish scheme or deathtrap to do away with his niece so he could grab her inheritance.
Even as late as 1969, the cliche was still in use in the form of the villain of Hanna-Barbera's Wacky Races spin-off, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, in which the villain trying to do away with the heroine was The Hooded Claw.

MEANWHILE, IN AMERICA

With the members of the safely back on US soil, The Scorpion can begin his campaign to gain the other four lenses. One by one, he targets his fellow Expedition members, starting with Henry Carlyle ... As is usually the case in the serials, the hooded villain has a cohort of henchmen, mostly inept, who stand by to do their every bidding. In this case, thug-in-waiting Barnett (Kenne Duncan) is tasked with wresting the first lens from Carlyle's safe. Then, when the Scorpion's henchmen manage to kill Carlyle while trying to get the lens from him, the arch-villain targets the Expedition's secretary Betty Wallace.

Over and over again, The Scorpion gazes lovingly at the Golden Scorpion in its own custom-built alcove and tells his henchman Barnett, “My friends think they can keep me from getting Carlyle’s lens — they do not realise the power of the Scorpion!”
The baddies concoct an elaborate plot to kidnap Betty, using the old "car in the back of a truck" ruse that, in all fairness, was probably a fresh idea back in 1941. Betty demonstrates that she's not just a damsel-in-distress by turning on the car's two-way radio, so Billy can overhear the thugs demand the combination to Carlyle's safe and Betty mentioning the name of the trucking company, Acme Storage, painted on the side of the lorry.

The standard "screaming female" role in Adventures of Captain Marvel was filled by Louise Currie, who would go on to play a similar character in The Masked Marvel (1943) as well as a walk-on role in Citizen Kane (1941). 
It's quite telling that the serials of the period used exclusively male casts, but for the one female character, usually the kindly professor's secretary, or sometimes daughter, who was hardly ever the hero's romantic interest. They were mostly there to be rescued by the hero, or to be a handy hostage for the villain. Occasionally - though not often enough - they would prove to be feisty and resourceful. In the Captain Marvel serial, Betty is given a little more to do than just make coffee and agree with the male characters, but still finds herself lashed to the steering wheel of a runaway truck or - when she investigates the Acme Storage Company on her own - car, and needing Captain Marvel to rescue her.

Chapter 5: One aspect of the serial is how brutal Captain Marvel seems. When crooks shoot guns at him, his grin as he walks towards them is quite menacing. And in Episode 4, after saving Betty from certain death in a runaway car, he coldly hurls one of the perpetrators from the roof of the multistorey garage.
By episode five, Billy has figured out that The Scorpion seems to know just about everything that goes on with The Expedition, ergo The Scorpion must be one of The Expedition. But when he puts this to the scientists seated round their meeting table, they all act insulted. Not long after this, they allow themselves to be bluffed by the Scorpion who tells them over a radio link that he has all the lenses bar one (he doesn't). This sends the scientists skeedaddling to where they hid their lenses, followed closely by The Scorpion's henchmen. Scientists they may be, smart they are not.

Chapter 6: After dusting the room, Bentley's butler Hawks (stuntman Ken Terrell) has a dust up with two Scorpion thugs, and comes off second best, though not for want of trying. Here, Captain Marvel checks he's all right before going after the henchmen to retrieve the lens, leaving Hawks to tidy up the best he can.
Bentley is the next to lose his lens to the thugs, despite the valiant fight put up by his butler to protect it. Captain Marvel retrieves the lens, hands it back to the battling butler then flies off to offer aid to Fisher. But Fisher is being threatened by The Scorpion in person and, while trying to help Marvel fight off the arch-villain, he shot dead.

A little while later, Betty redeems herself a little ... kidnapped by the Scorpion's goons, the hapless secretary is dragged before hooded menace, who demands her cooperation. Far from being fazed, Betty wrests a gun from one of the goons and shoots The Scorpion in the hand. Though they leave Betty in yet another deathtrap, she is rescued by Captain Marvel. By this point in the serial, I was expecting Betty to start rescuing Captain Marvel. And surely the wounded hand will uncover The Scorpion's identity at the next meeting ... 

Billy produces a paper he's faked up and asks each of the Expedition to sign it. The only one with a bandaged hand is Dr Lang. While Betty keeps Lang busy after the meeting, Billy disguises himself as Lang and takes the scientist's car to search his house for incriminating evidence. 

Chapter 8: Billy, in his unconvincing Lang disguise, is cornered in a garage by two of The Scorpion's followers. They clock him and leave him to be gassed by carbon monoxide fumes. Luckily Captain Marvel is invulnerable.
At Lang's Billy is cornered by two waiting criminals in the garage. Billy puts up a fairly poor show of resistance and is knocked unconscious by the thugs, who close the garage doors and leave Billy to suffocate from the fumes of the car's running engine. He Shazams just in time and batters the hoods senseless. He changes back to Billy just as Whitey and Lang arrive. Billy confronts Lang with his suspicions, but Lang denies all changes, then gasses Billy and Whitey and makes his escape. Could he really be The Scorpion? Unlikely as it's only Episode 8.

In the following chapter, Lang and Billy are snatched by Scorpion goons and the Doctor is dragged before ... The Scorpion! Who doesn't have a bandaged hand! What a cheat! The evil mastermind puts Lang in a torture cage to make him more cooperative and not surprisingly Lang gives up the combination to his safe. Meanwhile, in the basement, Billy has Shazamed and is putting the strongarm on a thug to reveal where Lang is. In the scuffle, Marvel bats the thug's gun away, which hits a wall and goes off, killing the thug.

Chapter 9: No point in shooting him, you'll just make him angry. Scorpion thugs never learn. This one thinks he'll get the better of Marvel with a gun. But he ends up shot in the back by his own weapon. And Marvel displays not a hint of remorse.
Marvel stalks up the stairs to deal with The Scorpion. In the sumptuously appointed lounge/torture chamber, the hooded villain is tormenting Dr Lang, because he can. Captain Marvel orders him to leave Lang alone and advances menacingly. The Scorpion has figured out what his men haven't. There's no point in shooting Marvel. So the megalomaniac levels the gun at Lang long enough to make his escape through a secret door.

Captain Marvel gives chase through some secret tunnels under the house, and at one point, the baddie loses his mask (though we don't see his face). Cunningly, the Scorpion doubles back to the house to retrieve the Golden Scorpion and Lang sees him unmasked. "So you're The Scorpion," he gasps, before the evil mastermind plugs him with a .38 bullet and escapes.

Chapter 9: Callously shot by The Scorpion for being the only witness who can identify him, Dr Lang manages to gasp out a warning to Captain Marvel. His mission: save Betty.
Too late, Captain Marvel arrives on the scene. Lang tells Marvel with his dying breath that the lens is in his safe guarded by a death-trap and that Betty is on her way there. Marvel flies to Lang's, mops up a waiting villain and changes back to Billy to intercept Betty. Together they make to open Lang's safe and a concealed panels opens to reveal a brace of automatic machine guns trained on Billy and Betty. That has to be illegal, right?

Barnett and two of his thugs show up and knock our intrepid heroes out and set about opening the safe themselves. One thug falls victim to the Tommy guns, but Barnett dodges and reaches into the safe to pull out ... a map of Siam. Lang never brought the lens back to the States, Barnett realises. It's still in the Temple.

Chapter 10: Bentley and Tal Chotali look like they want to eat the map at the final meeting of the surviving members of the Expedition. Only Malcom doesn't seem that bothered. Could he be The Scorpion?
When Billy tells what's left of the Expedition (Malcolm, Bentley and Tal Chotali) that Lang's lens is still in Thailand, Malcolm determines that they must return to the Temple to retrieve it, and sends Betty off to book passage on the first available steamer to Bangkok. He also tears up the map and give a piece to each person, though if we all know the lens is at the Temple, I didn't really see the point of that.

As luck would have it, the steamer they're travelling on runs into some bad weather and is driven onto some rocks off the coast of Siam. While everyone is lining up for evacuation, Betty claims to have left something in her room. In her cabin, Betty grabs her handbag from a cabinet as The Scorpion creeps up behind her and clonks her over the head with his gun butt. Why is never made clear.

Chapter 10: So important is Betty's handbag to her that she risks almost certain death to go below decks on a sinking ship to get it. As it goes, the sinking ship is the least of her worries as hooded villain The Scorpion is waiting for her.
On the shore, Billy spots that Betty's missing and has the crew send him back along the zipwire to look for Betty (when he could have more easily ducked behind some shrubs and Shazamed). Finding Betty unconscious in her stateroom, Billy scoops her up and swims back to shore, through the raging tempest. Betty confesses that The Scorpion was probably looking for her portion of the map, but it wasn't in her handbag, it was pinned inside her jacket. Hope it's waterproof.

After overnighting in the Khandapur Hotel, the Expedition sets off for the Temple, their every move watched by The Scorpion's hill-tribe minions. When they get to the Temple, they consult their map and quickly find the missing lens, just as the local volcano erupts and causes a cave-in, trapping them in the Temple. Except for Tal Chotali and Billy, who once again refuse to enter the sacred building. With the eruption, the hostile natives sound a gong, a signal to kill the foreign interlopers. Billy pleads with Tal Chotali to intercede with them while he tries to dig the expedition out. Or rather Captain Marvel will. With a quick Shazam, the transformed Billy tears away the fallen granite blocks from the entrance to the tomb and carries Whitey and Betty to safety. Inside the Temple, Malcolm finds a back way out and makes to leave. But Bentley pulls a gun and shoots him. It's true. Bentley is The Scorpion! And to prove the point, when he emerges alone into the daylight, he's in his Scorpion outfit, and just in time to witness Captain Marvel transforming back into Billy.

Elsewhere, in a cave, Tal Chotali is calling on the tribesmen to let the foreign devils alone. But The Scorpion enters the chamber to rally his troops. "The white men," he cries, "must be destroyed." Cue for much cheering and spear-waving. The evil madman orders Tal Chotali restrained and the Expedition members captured and brought before him, so the tribesmen set off to do his bidding.

Presently, Billy and the others are tied and gagged in the cave, surrounded by jeering hostile natives. The Scorpion threatens to kill Betty unless Billy tells him how the transformations to Captain Marvel work, and foolishly removes Billy's gag to hear the one-word answer. In a puff of familiar smoke Captain Marvel appears and mops the room with the Scorpion's minions. But not before The Scorpion's own chief tribal follower accidentally fries his evil leader with the Golden Scorpion.

Chapter 12: And that's the end of that. With the Golden Scorpion melted in a river of lava and no further need for the powers of Captain Marvel, Billy, Betty and Whitey are able to return home and live normal lives.
It only remains for Captain Marvel to toss the Golden Scorpion into the volcano's lava, where it will never menace mankind again - what's that you say? Wasn't Captain Marvel supposed to protect the Golden Scorpion? Then maybe that's why the disembodied voice of Shazam says, "Shazam" and transforms Marvel back to Billy permanently.

Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan Jr) runs to his plane to reach Carlyle's house before The Scorpion's henchmen can get there and secure the precious lens. What he doesn't realise is that the baddies have planted a time-bomb in his plane. He also hasn't figured out he could probably get there faster if he changed to Captain Marvel.
Though I'd happily recommend Adventures of Captain Marvel as a rattling good example of a movie serial, it shares a problem common in the genre - it's a regular b-movie script padded out to three and a half hours with plot loops and sequences - like those endless Expedition meetings - that don't actually advance the story. Then there's the scenes that just don't make sense. A prime example of this is after The Scorpion's henchmen kidnap Betty and wrest the combination of Carlyle's safe from her, Billy says he'll be able to reach Carlyle's ahead of the Scorpion's men by flying there in his plane. He doesn't know that the baddies have cut the plane radio's wires and planted a time bomb on the craft, all of which leads into a "how will Billy escape?" cliffhanger. But the real question is, why did Billy need to be in the plane at all? He could have Shazamed into Captain Marvel and flown there under his own power. But of course, if he'd done that, no cliffhanger ending for Episode 3.

But despite all that, even though movie serials were no longer being made in the 1960s, whole generations of kids could still enjoy the efforts of Tom Tyler and his supporting stunt players as the serials continued to unspool at Saturday Morning Pictures all over the UK.

And in the same way that Flash Gordon had created the trend for space-going (and newspaper strip) serial heroes, The Adventures of Captain Marvel demonstrated that there was a place for comic book heroes in the weekly chapterplays. Because right behind that one came Captain Marvel's Fawcett Comics stablemate Spy Smasher (1942): 

The far-too-complicated-to-go-into-here plot of Spy Smasher (1942) features Marguerite Chapman (as Eve Corby, Alan's brother's fiancee) and Kane Richmond (Alan Armstrong, the Spy Smasher). The serial was one of the better examples in the 1940s.
This was followed by a slew of comic character serials, mostly adapted from DC books, but Marvel was represented by Captain America (1944) - presumably The Human Torch and The Sub-Mariner would have been far too difficult to put on the screen because of the limitations of 1940s special effects technology. The full list is:
  • Batman (DC, 1943)
  • Captain America (Marvel, 1944)
  • Hop Harrigan (DC, 1946)
  • The Vigilante (DC, 1947)
  • Congo Bill (DC 1948)
  • Superman (DC 1948 - finally!)
  • Batman and Robin (DC 1949)
  • Atom Man vs Superman (DC, 1950)
  • Blackhawk (DC, 1952)
  • King of the Congo (ME, 1952 - starring Buster Crabbe as Thun'da)
... all of which must have been quite successful, because when the studios couldn't license any more characters from DC, Fawcett or Timely, they began making up their own comic characters.
  • Copperhead, in Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940)
  • The Masked Marvel (1943)
  • King of the Rocket Men (Rocket Man, 1949)
  • Radar Men from the Moon (featuring Commando Cody in the Rocket Man flying suit, 1952)
  • Zombies of the Stratosphere (Rocket Man suit, 1952)
  • Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (Rocket Man suit, 1953)
... all of which I loved and all of which had never appeared in a comic.

I'll cover some of these in future blog entries, but it's time for me to return to writing about the core subject ... Marvel Comics in the Silver Age.

Next: Marvel's cowboys (or, Oh how I hated westerns)



Sunday, 4 March 2018

Serials: Flash Gordon, The First Comic Movie

WAY BACK IN THE EARLY 1960s, my first exposure to actors dressed up as comic characters was in the movie serials I saw at Saturday Morning Pictures. I've mentioned here already that for a 10-year-old comics fan in the Sixties, there wasn't a great deal of choice when it came to superhero movies or tv shows. But we were able to see b-movie actors playing a couple of our favourite comic characters in serials like Captain Marvel (1940) and Batman (1943), and fake comic characters like Copperhead in The Mysterious Dr Satan (1941) and Rocket Man in King of the Rocket Men (1949).

King of the Rocket Men is a perennial favourite and the flying suit turned up in further Republic serials during the tail end of the serial cycle - Radar Men from the Moon (1952), Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952) and Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1953).
Movie serials were mostly made by the b-movie divisions of the smaller, cheaper film studios, like Universal, Columbia and Republic - even poverty row's Monogram managed to churn out a few cliffhanger serials - and routinely comprised of 12 or 15 chapters running about 20 minutes. The first five minutes would recap the previous episodes, the remaining running time would be taken up with breakneck chases and lengthy gun battles or fist-fights in which no one would lose their hats, and each episode would end with the hero in some kind of completely inescapable trap, which we all knew he would escape from in the very next episode.

The earliest example of a comic character in a serial that I could find was Universal's Tailspin Tommy (1934), based on Hal Forrest's newspaper strip of the same name. I wouldn't have been familiar with the character as a kid - partly because we didn't really get the classic America comic strips in British newspapers, but mostly because Tailspin Tommy, lasting from 1928 until 1942, was finished long before I was born.

Grant Withers (as mail flyer Milt Howe), Maurice Murphy (Tailspin Tommy) and Charles Browne (Paul Smith) in a scene from Chapter 6 of Tailspin Tommy (1934). Below: An example of an earlier daily strip, written by ex-newspaperman Glenn Chaffen and drawn by Hal Forrest. Forrest would later take over writing the strip himself.
Trading on the public fascination with flying in the wake of Charles Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight in 1927, the strip told of the ambitious kid from Littleville, Colorado who gets a chance to be involved in aviation when mail pilot Milt Howe crashlands near his home. Landing a job at Three Point Airlines, Tommy eventually becomes a pilot and with his friend Skeeter and girlfriend Betty-Lou gets involved in all kinds of adventures.

The serial pretty much followed the strip's storyline and did well enough to spawn a sequel the following year, Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery (1935). It's not something I would have been much interested in as a youngster, with its corny situations and its "Aw, shucks" characters and anyway, by the 1960s, air travel had become commonplace.

No doubt encouraged by the modest success of its two Tailspin Tommy serials, Universal then struck a deal to buy a parcel of newspaper strips from market leader King Features Syndicate, and set about making one of the most expensive and successful serials of all time, Flash Gordon (1936).

It was the exotic locations coupled with Alex Raymond's extraordinary draftsmanship that made Flash Gordon an instant hit with the newspaper-reading public. Small wonder that Universal had bought the movie rights within a year of the strip appearing. Click image to enlarge.
Though far better remembered today, the Flash Gordon comic strip was created to cash in on the success of the Buck Rogers newspaper strip. King Features first tried to buy the rights to John Carter of Mars from Edgar Rice Burroughs but, unable to reach an agreement, finally turned to staff artist Alex Raymond and asked him to create a space opera character. The resulting strip takes its inspiration from the Philip Wylie novel, When Worlds Collide, later a George Pal movie, appropriating the ideas of a planet on a collision course with Earth, and an athletic hero and his girlfriend, accompanied by an elderly scientist, travelling to the planet in a rocket. The strip debuted in January 1934, scripted by Don Moore, though only Raymond's signature appeared on the strip. 

Former Tarzan Buster Crabbe was inspired casting for the lead in Flash Gordon, and Jean Rogers made for an effective and pretty Dale Arden ...but because of my well-documented preference for dark-haired bad girls, I was a lot more interested in Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson).
For the serial's hero, Universal initially considered Jon Hall (who would later star with Maria Montez in several "Arabian Nights" type fantasy movies) but then cast Olympic swimmer Buster Crabbe. Crabbe had appeared a couple of years earlier in one of the first Tarzan serials, so with his hair bleached blond, he made the perfect Flash.

Buster Crabbe wasn't naturally fair-haired, so when the studio bleached his hair blond to more closely resemble the comic strip Flash, Crabbe was very self-conscious about this and kept his hat on in public at all times, even with women present. He especially didn't like men whistling at him in the street.
Crabbe had gone along to the audition for the role, with no expectation of winning the part. Watching Hall and others try out for the role from the sidelines, Crabbe was noticed by the serial’s producer, Henry MacRae. After a brief conversation, and with no audition at all, MacRae surprised Crabbe by offering him the part. Under contract to Paramount at the time, and not happy about it, Crabbe said he wasn't really that interested. “I honestly thought Flash Gordon was too far-out, and that it would flop at the box office. God knows I’d been in enough turkeys during my four years as an actor; I didn’t need another one.” But MacRae persisted, and finally Crabbe told him that it was up to Paramount. “If they say you can borrow me, then I’d be willing to play the part.”

The other bit of inspired casting was Charles Middleton as Ming the Merciless. So successful was Middleton in the role that although his Ming dies at the end of Flash Gordon, he would return to play the character twice more in Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940). 

Yet for all his physical resemblance the the Emperor of the Universe, Middleton is a little wooden in the role and speaks his lines as though he doesn't really understand what's going on. There's a scene in Episode 4 where Dr Zarkov, who has been forced to work in Ming's laboratory to ensure the safety of Flash and Dale, says to Ming, "I've discovered a new ray, which can be of great help in furthering your plan."

"H'mm," responds Ming. "Tell me about it."

"The ray is a variation of the one you've been using, but being of a higher frequency, it's much more flexible. It is picked up from the negative side rather than the positive."

"I see," says Ming, though it's pretty apparent that he doesn't.

Veteran character actor Charles Middleton was the perfect actor to play Ming the Merciless. Interesting fact - Middleton was the son of a millionaire and didn't have to work to pay the rent, he became an actor for the sheer love of it.
The rest of the cast was rounded out by Jean Rogers as Dale Arden, Priscilla Lawson as Princess Aura and Frank Shannon as Dr Zarkov.

Rogers, real name Eleanor Dorothy Lovegren, had gotten into the movie business almost by accident, after winning a beauty contest at the age of 17 and being offered a movie contract at Warner Brothers. A year later, she moved to Universal and appeared in several of their series, including Secret Agent X-9 (1937). In Flash Gordon, she wasn't given much to do apart from squeal in terror and faint rather a lot. She did make a fetching Dale, though, styled in a series of brief outfits and her naturally dark hair dyed blonde.

Though Universal took Rogers out of the serial unit and gave her roles in a string of b-movies, the spunky actress didn't feel they were handling her career very well and went to 20th Century-Fox in 1939. Two years later, Rogers still wasn't happy with the roles she was getting and secured a contract at MGM, the Rolls-Royce of Hollywood movie studios.
Priscilla Lawson (b. Priscilla Shortridge) had been a professional model before winning the Miss Miami Beach content in 1935 and being offered a contract at Universal. Most her roles were bit parts, playing "Hatcheck girl (uncredited)", "Maid (uncredited)" and "Native girl (uncredited)" in a string of b-movies. Her breakthrough role as Princes Aura didn't do much for her career, and after leaving acting five years later she signed with the armed forces in WWII. The rumour that she lost a leg in an accident on active service has been denied by co-star Jean Rogers. Lawson died in 1958, aged 44, due to complications with a duodenal ulcer.

Serial historian Roy Kinneard recounts that Priscilla Lawson's notable physical assets were responsible for incurring the wrath of the censors. Jean Rogers claimed that the the producers were ordered to re-shoot some scenes of episode 1 with Lawson "wearing slightly less revealing garb".
Frank Shannon started off in silent pictures around 1913, in The Prisoner of Zenda, but quickly took to stage acting. He didn't return to movies until 1921, where he would play a long succession of cops and cowboys, until making a cult name for himself as Dr Alexis Zarkov in the first Flash Gordon serial. He would go on to play in all three Flash Gordon serials, along with Buster Crabbe and Charles Middleton. He also had a continuing role as Captain MacTavish in the Torchy Blaine movie series, as well as appearing in the Batman and The Phantom serials.


Frank Shannon was born in Ireland in 1874. A pioneer of silent pictures, he would enjoy successful careers as a stage actor and later as screenwriter for the tv series, Tales of the Texas Rangers (1955-58). He died in 1959.
Other names that turn up are Carroll Borland (the sexy vampiress from Mark of the Vampire, 1935) as a hand-maiden in Ming's throne room, Ray Corrigan (who went on to star in Undersea Kingdom and was later the monster in It the Terror from Beyond Space) as the Orangopoid, Eddie Parker (who was a stunt player in nearly every serial ever made and doubled for Lon Chaney as The Wolf Man in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man) and Glenn Strange, who plays the Robot, Gocko and one of Ming's soldiers, was later famous for taking over the role of Frankenstein's Monster in House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

This serial's budget of $360,000 was three times more than was usually spent on a cliffhanger movie in the 1930s. Yet despite its comparatively large budget, the serial was shot in six weeks with the cast and crew working many fourteen hour days, with an average of 85 set-ups a day. 

"They started shooting Flash Gordon in October of 1935," said Buster Crabbe in a later interview, "and to bring it in on the six-week schedule, we had to average 85 set-ups a day. That means moving and rearranging the heavy equipment we had, the arc lights and everything, 85 times a day. We had to be in makeup every morning at seven, and on the set at eight ready to go. They’d always knock off for lunch, and then we always worked after dinner. They’d give us a break of a half-hour or 45 minutes and then we’d go back on the set and work until ten-thirty every night. It wasn’t fun, it was a lot of work!"

The producers also saved money by re-using many sets from other Universal films, such as the laboratory and crypt set from Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the castle interiors from Dracula's Daughter (1936), the idol from The Mummy (1932) and the opera house interiors from The Phantom of the Opera (1925). In addition, the outer walls of Ming's castle were actually the cathedral walls from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923).

The brief scene of dancing girls swarming over an idol with moving arms, which Ming views over a TV screen and also plays under every episode's title card, was lifted from the 1930 sci-fi comedy Just Imagine (1930). And Zarkov's rocket was originally constructed for the same film.
There's a few things that don't make sense about the plot. Why does Ming need Dr Zarkov's scientific ability to conquer the Universe, when he must have had his own scientists to build the technologically superior laboratory.

Ever cost-conscious, Universal would re-use much of the equipment Ken Strickfadden had made for Frankenstein (1931) and Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) for Ming's laboratory.
Much of the equipment in Ming's lab is Kenneth Strickfadden's static electricity machinery re-used from Frankenstein (1931). The equipment had also been used in the earlier Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), which Flash Gordon resembles in many ways.

Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) had the villain's beautiful daughter Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy) showing an unhealthy interest in the clean cut hero Terry Granville (Charles Starrett), Flash Gordon's Princess Aura seems unusually obsessed with Flash. The earlier film had a crazed megalomaniac seeking to rule the world by scientific wiles, Flash had villain Ming bent on ruling the Universe via advanced weapons.
Also, with all the technology as the disposal of the Hawkmen, for example the radium-powered engines holding their entire city suspended miles above the ground, you'd think they would have a better way to get radium into the "radium furnaces" that human slaves shovelling the ore in.

Captured by The Hawkmen, allies of Ming the Merciless, Flash is forced to work in the radium furnaces, shovelling ore into the fission fires that power the floating Hawk city. Not much Health and safety going on here, I'll wager ...
The sound effect of the rocket ship's propulsion sounds just like a propeller aircraft of the period. Jets hadn't been invented in 1936, so the producers reasoned that no one in the audience would know what a rocket engine would sound like.

The plot is pretty convoluted, and characters seem to switch allegiances from one episode to the next. Trying to keep score requires a checklist. Here's what I managed to figure out on a recent viewing:
  • Prince Barin: rightful ruler of Mongo - enemy of Ming
  • Prince Thun of the Lionmen - enemy of Ming
  • King Kala of the Sharkmen - ally of Ming
  • King Vultan of the Hawkmen - ally of Ming, but switches sides (distinguishable by his bellowing laughter just like the Brian Blessed's Vultan in the much later Dino de Laurentiis version, though both are following the characterisation from the original comic strip)
Also, within the story, Flash does seems pretty ruthless when it comes dispatching Ming's guards or his allies. Most of them he throttles, though some are stabbed and others are shot with ray-guns. As Flash and Dale are escape from the crumbling undersea palace of Kala of the Sharkmen, Dale asks, "What about Kala and his people?" Flash replies dismissively, "It's too late to worry about them now." Cold, much?

Though by today's standards the serials may seem especially creaky - their production values are terrible, the acting is uniformly bad (though I would allow an exception in Buster Crabbe's case) and the special effects are far from convincing - they can also be enormously entertaining. And Flash Gordon is no exception. It's probably the best known serial of all, probably the most successful, and certainly the most influential.

For example, George Lucas originally wanted to make his next film after American Graffiti (1975) a remake of the Flash Gordon serial. However, unable to secure the rights from King Features (they'd already been optioned by Dino DeLaurentiis, and we all know how that turned out), Lucas was forced (no pun intended) to come up with his own story - and we also know how that turned out.

Sam Jones is horribly miscast as Flash ... they really, really should have got an actor. Ornella Muti did, however, make an eye-popping Princess Aura. Max von Sydow was clearly having the time of his life as Ming - shame the same can't be said for the audience. And Brian Blessed, criticised for his camp performance as Vultan, was actually giving an accurate rendition of the original comic strip character.
In the event, the Dino de Laurentiis version of Flash Gordon (1980) probably ranks as one of the worst movies ever made. It's wrong-headed on every level and it's pretty clear that neither de Laurentiis, nor director Mike Hodges, had any idea what made George Lucas' version of the space opera work. You'd have thought that given the source material, the budget and (some of) the talent involved, the movie version of Flash Gordon should have been pretty entertaining ... but sadly not. And for the most part, I blame the screenwriter.

Though Lorenzo Semple Jr did do a few decent movies later in his career - Papillon (1973), The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975) - he continued to write campy scripts for projects he considered beneath him - King Kong (1976), Flash Gordon (1980) and Sheena (1984).
For some reason, Lorenzo Semple Jr had become the go-to guy for comic book screen adaptations after he created the format and approach for the excreable Batman tv show in late 1965. Until Batman, Semple had been a jobbing tv writer with few teleplays of note on his resume, contributing to Kraft Suspense Theatre ("Knight's Gambit", 1964), The Rogues ("Death of a Fleming", 1964) and Burke's Law (three episodes, 1964-5).

Around the same time, he'd been hired by producer William Dozier to write a pilot for a new tv show called Number One Son, which would have featured the adventures of Charlie Chan's eldest boy, as a detective in San Francisco. Then, according to an interview Semple gave, at the eleventh hour network ABC decided they didn't want to run a show that had an ethnic lead. Dozier was apologetic and told Semple, "I owe you one." Well, that "one" was as the developer of the Batman show.

Lorenzo Semple Jr might have made a hash of the approach to the Flash Gordon screenplay, but at least we have Ornella Muti as Princess Aura.
Despite the horror of Semple's campy approach to the only superhero show on television, he was suddenly the writer you went to if you wanted to a comics adaptation. And even more incredibly, though projects like the 1976, Semple-scripted King Kong remake bombed at the box office, producers still lined up to have Semple knock off contemptuously jokey scripts for projects that deserved better. And just in case you think I made the "contemptuously" bit up in my head, here's Semple's own thoughts on the subject.

"I have moderately short shrift for serious comic book fans," Semple told Starlog magazine in 1983. "It depends on how serious they are. Collecting comics is one thing. Reading them on a serious level is quite another. Collecting comics isn't much different from collecting old orange crate labels, it's part of American pop culture.

"But to think that comics are a legitimate form of artistic expression is utter nonsense. Nobody involved in the field in the early days looked on it as such. Comics are like primitive art. They should be read for fun. To pretend they're anything else is a gross exploitation of people who don't know any better.

"Being a comic book fan is a harmless neurosis, but it is one. And for those who live comics books, and would coin the term 'panelology' to describe their study of the form, you need say very little more to me about their intellectual tastes."

Killer Kane's thugs get the drop on Wilma Deering (Constance Moore) as Buck (Buster Crabbe) and Buddy (Jackie Moran) look helplessly on, in this scene from Chapter 1 of Buck Rogers (1939).
Not only did the first Flash Gordon serial spawn two sequels and a terrible 1980s remake, but Universal also cast Crabbe as the star of their serial adaptation of Flash Gordon rival Buck Rogers, which one can only surmise was green-lit because of the success of the Flash Gordon films. Ironic, eh?

Also part of the King Features package bought by Universal were:
  • Ace Drummond (1936, based on another aviation strip, this time by WWI flyer Eddie Rickenbacker)
  • Jungle Jim (1937, based on the Alex Raymond comic strip)
  • Radio Patrol (1937, based on the police strip by Eddie Sullivan and Charles Schmidt)
  • Secret Agent X-9 (1937, based on the strip by Dashiel Hammett and Alex Raymond)
  • Tim Tyler's Luck (1937, based on the global adventure strip by Lyman Young)
  • Red Barry (1938, based on the detective strip by Will Gould)
  • Don Winslow (1942, based on the naval intelligence strip by Frank Martinek, spawning a sequel Don Winslow of the Coast Guard, 1943)
  • Adventures of Smiling Jack (1943, based on the aviation strip by Zack Mosley)
But Universal's newspaper strip based serials weren't a monopoly and other newspaper characters that escaped the Universal net reached the screens courtesy of Republic:
  • Dick Tracy (1937, based on the hugely successful police strip by Chester Gould)
  • King of the Royal Mounted (1940, based on the strip by Stephen Slesinger. The sequel, King of the Mounties, 1942, appears to be uncredited and unauthorised)
  • Adventures of Red Ryder (1940, based on the Western strip drawn by Fred Harman)
... and by the efforts of Columbia:
  • Mandrake the Magician (1939, based on the long-running mystery strip by Lee Falk)
  • Terry and the Pirates (1940, based on the legendary adventure strip by Milton Caniff)
  • The Phantom (1943, based on the jungle superhero strip by Lee Falk)
  • Brenda Starr (1945, based on the newspaper reporter strip by Dale Messick)
  • Bruce Gentry - Daredevil of the Skies (1949, based on the aviation strip by Ray Bailey)
By 1940, the film rights to all the best newspaper strips had been bought by the three main serial producers ... and though Columbia did make three serials based on pulp characters, there was nowhere else to turn for much-needed source material than the comics.

Next: More superheroes on-screen