Shattering Doom

FLASH GORDON — a source of deep joy, yet also bitterness. It was AFTER my encounter with the first serial on BBC TV that the bitterness began. The Beeb would schedule the serials — FG, TRIP TO MARS, CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE and BUCK ROGERS — daily during the school holidays. But the holiday times in Scotland and England were slightly different, so that I’d still be going to school during the first few episodes, much to my annoyance.

This is clearly enough to turn one into a radical Scottish nationalist. In fact, though, BBC Scotland has always programmed slightly different listings from the BBC south of the border. Most of the times are the same, but variation is allowed. So it’s the shiftless idiots at BBC Scotland back in the seventies who are to blame for not looking at the school calendar and making a simple change.

I am forced to conclude, based on this and other evidence, that the purpose of BBC Scotland is to provide an inferior viewing experience to the square-eyed TV viewers of Hibernia.

Still, to keep things in perspective, I may have experienced a flaming torture and a shattering doom of the spirit when forced to miss two-to-four episodes of a 1940s serial, but Flash is experiencing them for real as we begin episode 7. Truly, there’s always someone less fortunate than yourself, and it’s always Larry “Buster” Crabbe. Dale Arden responds by doing what she does best — passing into a dead faint, pretty much her signature move. This kind of damages her pretense of not loving Flash, though I guess the argument that she didn’t eat enough chicken at dinner is still applicable.

Poor Jean Rogers! A perky, game gal who’s a lot of fun in the Red Skelton movies. When she was dating or fooling around with Cary Grant she would entertain him with hilarious stories about the FG serials’ filming, and about Larry “Buster” Crabbe’s inadequacies as a thespian. (From Marc Eliot’s bio Cary Grant). I wish we had those stories.

Princess Aura manages to persuade Vultan to stop Flash’s Flaming Torture — she does this in a couple of ways, using stealth psychology, and a small ray gun. “Dress him! Take him to my laboratory!” commands King V, and soon Flash is being revived by some handy neon tubes (it’s amazing what you can do with neon tubes). The cure for electrocution is… more electrocution. Zarkov, master of the lab, has a neat little gimmick that makes a tiny ball float in the air. If he can do that, surely he can heal our frazzled hero.

The gurney/tray used to slide Flash amid the tubes reminds me of a story from my friend Sam, whose father, a mad inventor type, designed the device that slides patients into scanning devices. He tested it on his children, naturally enough, and Sam still has the cranial irregularities that testify to the time when the contraption worked a little too well, sliding him gracefully in and then out the other side onto the floor. Fortunately the engineers of Mongo have ironed out such kinks.

A costume change for Dale. About time, she’s been wearing the same midriff-baring Mongoese outfit she went swimming in. This one presumably is of Hawk Man construction, but oddly enough has no holes at the shoulder for the wings to poke out.

Vultan tries to entertain Dale with a display of shadow puppetry. This is a really surprising scene, because it has nothing to do with propelling the action forward to the next punch-up or cliffhanger. It’s just a Hawk Man, standing in front of an earthwoman, casting the shape of a dog with his mitts.

Emotions! Aura tries to win Flash by poisoning his mind against Dale. The “romance” stuff here is conducted like the war games of the school playground — a series of alliances and conflicts. Little boys typically have no patience with the kissing stuff, but if you make it all about scheming and fighting, that’s acceptable.

In a surprise move, Aura grabs a handy welding device and threatens to smelt Flash’s wedding tackle, or that’s what the imagery suggests anyway. In the dialogue, she threatens to blind him — apparently that’s more acceptable to the censor.

Meanwhile, Vultan, having failed to impress Dale with his fingerwork, offers to give her a pearl necklace. The jokes really do write themselves, and a good thing too, otherwise we’d have to rely on either me or Alex Raymond, Frederick Stephani, Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton and Basil Dickey.

Then some stuff happens and WITH ONE BOUND, FLASH IS FREE!

And then captured again, But not before the BEST BIT — bounding into Vultan’s throne room, he casually shoves a Hawk Man guard, who, unbalanced by his heavy rigid wings, helplessly falls over like a toddler.

“Waah-umph!”

Brief skirmish, then Flash is captured by a surprise attack from the sliding door the stripey bear previously emerged from. Apparently Vultan has some guards living in there too, sharing the space with “Urso.”

So Flash is sent back to work in the atom furnaces yet again, only this time Zarkov is ordered to rig him up with an electric wire than can fry him if he tries any more Spartacus stuff. They trust Zarkov to do this. Naturally he wires up a shovel instead and nobody notices the difference. A cunning plan — Flash is to throw the shovel into the furnace, which will do something so impressive you have better be hiding behind the lead blast wall when it happens. Gotcha.

Ming visits, and Vultan immediately rebels against him, threatening the “mighty potentate” with some of his easily-toppled henchhawkmen.

“Is Charles Middleton having as much fun as Max Von Sydow did?” asks Fiona.

“Hard to say, it’s the same performance he always gives.”

Flash executes Zarkov’s plan and there is a genuinely impressive explosion followed by a genuinely cheesy wipe to the closing title (I approve: cheese is what I’m here for). Good pyrotechnics, but do they meet the very strict criteria for “shattering doom”? It’s too late to question it, this episode is over.

TO BE CONTINUED

4 Responses to “Shattering Doom”

  1. The Best Princess Aura is of cure Ornella Muti

  2. Ornella Muti isan axiom of the cinema. She was perfect as Odestte in Sxhlondorf’s “Swann in Love” and equally idealin Ferreri’s “Tale of Ordinary Madness” and a”The LastWoman”

  3. I remember catching random episodes of various serials through my boomer youth up until the era of VHS tape. Being able to rent or even a buy a whole serial was thrilling. Yes, it turned out that darn few serials lived up to the promise of one or two out-of-context episodes, but still.

    Some favorites, from the early days when the formulas hadn’t calcified:
    — THE LOST CITY: A parade of WTF that makes Flash Gordon a model of logic, restraint, and good taste, capped by outrageous racism (black zombies aren’t the half of it).
    — PIRATE TREASURE: Actually cheerful viewing. Stuntman star Richard Talmadge is playing an adult, but his short stature and boyish energy turn it into a kid’s fantasy. Set in the present, he and the villains vie for possession of a remarkably sturdy treasure map; then we’re into “Treasure Island”. There’s a very good DVD from VCI.
    — THE PHANTOM EMPIRE: Singing radio cowboy Gene Autry, assisted by cowpokes and kids, must save his Radio Ranch from big city schemers. And deep underground lurks the Scientific City of Murania, ruled by Mrs. Laurel from “Sons of the Desert”. Early and primitive, but fun. Warning: Musical interludes.
    — THE SHADOW: Directed by James Horne, a sometime Laurel & Hardy director prone to intentional silliness (Runyonesque henchmen a specialty). Victor Jory nails the look of the pulp/radio hero.

  4. I blogged through The Phantom Empire and loved it!

    I’ve seen some Richard Talmadge and enjoyed his stuntwork so I can see myself liking Pirate Treasure. And I’ve always had a queasy desire to see The Lost City… but at the same time, an anxiety about doing so.

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