Archive for Charles Middleton

Rocketing to Earth

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2022 by dcairns

Mike Hodges tells me that Larry “Buster” Crabbe was quick to condemn his 1980 FLASH GORDON. “He couldn’t quite bring himself to say this great American hero might be GAY! Hey Ho!”

If not gay, then certainly camp.

Join Larry “Buster” Crabbe and his chums for the final episode of the 1936 series!

We open, more or less, with the ceiling falling in on our heroes after they descend through a convenient trapdoor to escape aerial bombardment. The whole “Trapped in the Turret” thing is rather a misnomer as they never go upstairs. “Trapped in the Basement” would be closer to the truth, but they’re never trapped either: immediately downstairs from the “turret-which-is-played-by-a-cave” next to the “Lake of Rocks” which is just a desert, they find a corridor leading to the dungeon which allows them to rescue Prince Barin who is being escorted there. They belatedly realise that it wasn’t Barin who had been bombarding them.

Oh, and King Vultan has been injured. He’s covered in plaster and looks quite woebegone. Covering someone in plaster will have this effect, but it turns out if they’re wearing big rigid fake wings the effect is enhanced.

Fiona, having skipped most of the episodes, is amused all over by Princess Aura’s way of aiming her knockers at people. “She said, bustily.”

There is toing and froing. Or “to-ing and fro-ing” I guess since the previous iteration looks like it should rhyme with “boing.” It having been established that anyone can just barge into Ming’s throne room whenever they feel like it, our heroes do so. They also encamp in Ming’s laboratory and Zarkov electrifies the door to keep intruders out. Ming is so ineffectual, in other words, his abductees can make themselves more secure IN HIS HOUSE than he can himself. Zarkov, previously dejected by his wrecked invisibility machine, is briefly triumphant about his electric wood, until Ming outsmarts him by shutting the power off. Outsmarted by a tinpot dictator who uses common sense: there’s something to be dejected about.

Speaking of tin pots, here come the Lion Men in their “gyro-ships,” pronounced by Charles “Baldy” Ming Ming with a hard G and Frank “Knobbly Knees” Shannon with a soft one. This time, I feel Zarkov has the right idea, despite Ming being the native speaker.

“It must be hell in there,” says Fiona, gazing upon the wobbly, twirly, smoky and buzzing craft. Thun, standing at the controls as if operating a Moviola, somehow seems to have a view that isn’t constantly panning 360, which would admittedly be irritating.

At 9: there’s another of those delightful moments when a line of dialogue is yelled in by an off-camera director or AD: “It’s Thun, and his Lion Men!” Truly hilarious. The first two words have been loosely synched to “Larry “Buster” Crabbe’s lip movements, the rest play over a wide shot of rampaging cat-dudes. The voice is inept and very camp. It’s exactly the way I imagine the voice of the AD on Mankiewicz’s JULIUS CAESAR when he famously shouted “Now here comes Julius!”

There is a huge, uncoordinated fight, resembling the slapstick donnybrook at the end of HELP! Just a bunch of random shoving and falling over. In this fashion is Ming finally vanquished.

Defeated, Ming runs — RUNS! — “Max Von Sydow was far too dignified to go flapping about like that,” argues Fiona — to the only other standing set or location of any use, the tunnel leading to the recently exploded fire dragon. The smirking High Priest, who puts me in mind of comedian Joe Melia, watches him go, and, in a literal puff of smoke, Ming just vanishes.

This seems pretty weak, but I can’t recall being disappointed by it as a kid. One can even argue that the abstraction of it — transparently a means to preserve the possibility of Ming returning, Fu Manchu-style (“Mongo shall hear of me again”) — has a certain grandeur. Middleton plays it as if it’s Shakespeare, helped by the fact that there’s no dialogue to remind you that it’s not Shakespeare.

I’m then reminded that Von Sydow does a similar fade-out in the Mike Hodges version, and that as a kid I DID feel a pang of disappointment — there’s a huge build-up to Flash flying towards Ming’s palace, setting up the expectation that he’s going to do something pretty dramatic when he gets there. But no — he just crashes into it. This, of course, is perfect — Sam “Not Buster” Jones’ dim-witted Flash isn’t going to save the day in any other way than by direct collision. And it ends with “THE END?”

I’ve read numerous accounts of how the big finish of STAR WARS — boring pageantry with stirring march music — is derived from TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, but it’s clearly derived from right here, where it’s done quicker and cheaper. Pomp and reduced circumstances. FG being Lucas’ stated inspiration, and in fact the film he would have made had Dino De Laurentiis granted him the rights.

What’s left of the ’36 outing is diminuendo with the emphasis on DIM. Flash, Zarkov and Dale depart leaving Aura enthroned, to govern Mongo with the scheming and vacillation wisdom she has demonstrated in the previous twelve episodes, but the smirking High Priest plants a bar-bell bomb in the rocketship. Then, for no reason, he confesses this, still smirking, which allows Barin and co to alert the earth-chums. They open the door and chuck the bomb out. No biggie.

Fiona is convinced that actor Theodore “Smirky” Lorch is spoofing the whole thing with his scare-quotes “performance” but he was a former silent movie actor (Chingachgook in the Clarence Brown-Maurice Tourneur LAST OF THE MOHICANS) whose talking career was all bit-parts and serials, mostly in fact bit-parts IN serials, so I see no reason to assume he’s driven by anything other than delusions of competence.

Then there’s an unsuccessful attempt to inject drama into the flight back to terra firma and stock footage. Finally, in their native skies at last, Flash and Dale stare wonderingly into each others’ eyes (they could hardly stare into their own) in a doomed search for meaning or intelligent life, while Zarkov smiles creepily upon them, a father substitute in unsettling shorts.

THE END?

Shattering Doom

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on June 2, 2022 by dcairns

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

Battling the Sea Beast

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 18, 2022 by dcairns

James Cameron, eat your CGI Canadian heart out.

Last we saw, Larry “Buster” Crabbe as Flash Gordon was wrestling an “octo-sac” in the flooded guest bedroom of King Kala of the Shark Men. Strangely enough, his tendriled foe transformed mid-tussle from a bit of stock footage of a real octopus to a rather flat looking rubber cephalopod, which might be easier to defeat, I dunno, limited experience here.

NOW READ ON!

Worse, Kala has a special handmaiden on, well, hand, to make sure Dale Arden “misses none of the sport,” so Dale has her face pressed to the what you might call a Porthole of Death, not quite a ringside seat since she’s standing and it’s a waterlogged chamber, but morally undistinguishable. “Watching helplessly” is essentially Jean Rogers’ entire character description here, but she switches it up by falling into a dead faint. The handmaiden “Zona” is played by one Muriel Goodspeed. Yes, THAT Muriel Goodspeed. The one who plays the handmaiden “Zona” in this.

Surprise entrance — in the best Raymond Chandler tradition, one or other of the four screenwriters has a man come in the door with a gun, or in this case, a Lion Man and a woman with a raygun. How they gained access to this undersea kingdom isn’t immediately clear, but it has to be good news for Larry “Buster” Crabbe who, Olympic swimmer or not, is going down for at least the third time. More like sixth, if you count the recap.

“Stop that fight at once!” demands Princess Aura, for the female newcomer is she. “How does one stop an octo-sac?” asks Kala, which sounds like a perfect set-up to a joke, but Aura replies with plodding literalness, getting Kala to drain Flash’s bedroom, currently wetter than the Moscow Ritz-Carlston.

Meanwhile, in Ming’s palace workshop, Zarkov labours among bad vats and jeroboams, Strickfadenesque electrical toys and Ruritanian decor. His situation has not advanced much since episode 2, and Flash has passed up two opportunities to rescue him. However, through his cunning, he has set up a comms link with Griffith Observatory. Under the very nose of Ming!

Hilarious moment at 8.22 to where, mid-conversation Ming-Zarkov, the Emperor’s off-camera lines are read in by some stooge, possibly the director. Mid-SENTENCE. Ming: “They are being cared for -” Not-Ming: “-by Kala, King of the Shark Men.” One expects to see Charles Middleton transfigured, like the octo-sac, into some (even) cheaper stand-in, but he’s back to normal by the time we see him.

FG rarely falls below a certain level of competence, but that was a goofy moment. Emperor Fake Shemp.

Flash, free from his watery lodgings, is required to overpower a guard. Disarming the underling of his ray-gun, he’s faced with a sword, while Aura every so cautiously reaches in extreme slow motion for the fallen pistol. This kind of behaviour drove me nuts as a kid, but now seems a plausible simulacrum of royalty in a crisis.

Thun has been left guarding Kala at gunpoint for some time now. Anxious lest we forget about this tense stand-off, the filmmakers cut regularly to them exchanging pleasantries/threats.

While Flash’s shadow strangles the guard’s shadow — one of the regular nods to expressionism — Aura lasers some kind of control panel, and immediately the undersea kingdom starts leaking. Possibly a mistake?

With her tiny earthwoman lungs, Dale is once more the first to react to the lack of oxygen. She’s better than a canary.

My favourite exchange in this episode follows: a Mongovision TV screen is showing the water squirting through the undersea kingdom’s bulkheads in a steady spurt. A man in tinplate armour says to a man in a cassock, “Find out what it means.” Aaaand SCENE.

What it means is that Dale passes out for the second time this episode — she spends more time unconscious than a housecat. Kala is prepared to abandon his feud with Thun if it means he doesn’t have to asphyxiate. Who says Shark Men and Lion Men can’t be friends?

The controls of Kala’s console are a bunch of door handles, I think possibly from a Model T Ford.

CRASH! Just as Flash is reunited with Dale (and Thun and Kala), the undersea kingdom CRUMBLES, which translates in visual terms to a wobbling model shot, some stock footage of leaks, and a firehose turned full on, cueing a liquid vertical wipe that runs down the screen and tells us to —

TO BE CONTINUED…