Archive for Frederick Stephani

Trapped in the Turret

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

“Trapped in the Turret” is a wonderfully lame title for the penultimate episode of FLASH GORDON. Some sense of escalation, of final doom to be averted, is presumably desirable at this point, but instead we have a description of an inconvenience.

I looked up the actor who plays “Commander Torch,” Ming’s earthbound (or mongobound) flying monkey. Earl Askam seems, in his armour and with his kidney-bean torso, like an actor who would play an unsympathetic cop in a Laurel & Hardy short, if Edgar Kennedy was preoccupied. Instead, of course, he was a B-western fixture. He died just a few years after making this, from a Bing Crosby-anticipating golf course heart attack, while playing fellow western star Kermit Maynard. Earl was also a trained opera singer, a talent I wish this serial had exploited.

Flash rushes to Dale’s aid, and his differently-shaped stunt double has an enjoyable rollabout with the playful tiger fearsome tigron, as Dale and her stunt double take turns watching in terror. Ming, in turn, watches on Zoom.

The closeups of Larry “Buster” Crabbe wrestling a stuffed cat corpse are tastefully interpolated — the trick is inherently obvious, but never becomes comically obvious the way it is in many more expensive productions. Flash uses his main talent — strangling — no doubt acquired on the polo field — to subdue the ravenous taxidermy exhibit.

“The sacred tigron has been killed!” gasps the Indian temple maiden. Flash Gordon, visiting district iconoclast, strikes again. Mongo will be an entirely profane planet by the time he’s got through strangling everything.

Prince Barin converts Aura to the cause by pointing out that arranging for Dale’s devouring is unlikely to win Flash’s love. “I shall intercede with my father the emperor,” she says, which depending on your reading is either bragging (my son, the lawyer) or exposition above and beyond the call of duty (it’s a big building with doctors in it, but that’s not important right now).

The wide shot of Ming’s palace is really lovely, even if it does have a big hair growing out of it in the frame I’ve selected.

Commander Torch (is he backed up by Sergeant Screwdriver, Corporal Sliderule and Private Flyspray?) belatedly remembers he has a firearm and subdues Vultan and Zarkov, aiming directly at the pretty flower on Frank “knobbly knees” Shannon’s onesie. Ming demands that Flash be found, “visible or not.” At which point, Flash and chums enter the throne room. And Ming STILL doesn’t look happy. He and Zarkov really ought to be friends, they have so much in common: both seem depressed and sullen about their lot in life , the clothes they have to wear, the words they’re expected to say.

Ming is immediately held hostage, his armed guards somehow powerless against Barin’s sword and Flash’s disapproving attitude. Aura, whose character arc resembles a crazy straw, has not only joined the forces of good, she’s SETTLED — accepting passively the meaty love of Barin. Ming promises the earthfolks can return to their “sphere” — but he does it while making Mr Burns-type evil finger movements. We discover he has a henchman called “Officer Ego.”

One is used to these stories being tales of foreign intervention, so the willingness of all concerned to leave Ming in charge, with no guarantee he won’t threaten the earth again, is baffling.

I’m struck by the fact that I found Vultan to be a fun character when I was a kid, whereas it’s now abundantly clear that he’s as dangerous as Ming, crazier by far, and has the mind of a three-year-old. Mike Hodges told me that he saw his FG as a satire on American interventionism, with the bounding idiot Flash (shades of Lang’s Siegfried) smashing the state without understanding anything that’s going on. I suggested there should have been a sequel where Mongo falls to pieces without its dictator, like a post-Tito Yugoslavia. He chuckled.

The non-interventionist Flash we see here, obeying some unstated Prime Directive issued to polo players on the off-chance of interplanetary entanglements, perhaps echoes American foreign policy circa 1936, explaining that late entry into WWII, whereas 1980 Flash is consistent with a new era.

The earthfolks and their buddies load “power units” onto Zarkov’s rocket, intent on visiting Vultan’s city for no clear reason. Commander Torch and his bitches watch warily.

First mention of the turret! “I am to meet the others at the turret-house, by the lake of rocks,” says Barin. I very much want to see this “lake of rocks.” I wonder if it’s a sacred lake of rocks? Or just regular.

Due to popular demand, director Frederick Stephani shows us the iguanas again. They watch Zarkov’s rocketship buzz overhead, licking their dry lips, and it is amusing to speculate what they might be thinking. Perhaps they are anticipating their appearance in an 80s surrealist cigarette commercial. Perhaps they are looking back on their acquaintanceship with that nice Mr. Darwin. One opens his maw to give throat to a fearsome cock-crow — apparently in valediction to the departing earthpeople. So long. It’s been emotional.

See you later, iguana.

Arriving at the turret-house, Flash, Dale, Aura, Vultan and Zarkov notice a rocketship bearing down on them. Like Cary Grant in NORTH BY NORTHWEST they stand for ages, dopily staring at it, too embarrassed to run or duck until its lethal intentions become completely unambiguous. It’s very human.

“It must be Prince Barin’s ship,” says Flash the optimist.

BOOM! It fires on them.

“Why should Prince Barin do that?” asks Zarkov, not rhetorically — he’s legit terrified at this new development. Friends have become enemies, enemies friends! Chaos!

“I don’t know!” says Aura, just as baffled. Nobody has the power to think during this scene. It’s scary. They’re trapped — and they’re not even IN the turret! they are trapped in a brainless limbo: the Sea of Rockheads. Five characters without the initiative to even search for an author. Stiff, hopeless illustrations of the doctrine of predetermination, they must now trap themselves in the turret to fulfill a chapter title not of their own choosing. But, when you think about it, isn’t that the plight of every one of us? Isn’t every one of us forced to trap themselves in a turret to fulfill a chapter title not of our own choosing?

The inside of the turret door looks very much like Bronson Caves. Explosion! Explosion-like wipe to closing title card! Next week, the chapter title Flash and his chums will be rigidly fulfilling will be —

The Unseen Peril

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2022 by dcairns

I bet we can see the unseen peril.

Chapter 10 of FLASH GORDON begins with Flash, in a deathlike stupor, menaced by the fire dragon who might be called Gocko — the recap of this takes far longer than the resolution: “I’ll destroy it with this grenade!” barks Zarkov, and does so. The rubbery foe explodes into clumps and falls over sideways.

The high priest is outraged. He doesn’t go so far as to claim the fire dragon was sacred, but it was guarding the secret chamber of the great god Tao, which you must admit comes pretty close.

Fun with camera angles! Apparently Fred Stephani had some time on his hands this week, so he gives us two novel views of Ming’s throne room. A zombified Flash is tasked with choosing the one he loves the most, like Lassie. But, not like Lassie, he’s been doped with the same love potion (#9) used so effectively by Mickey Rooney to enchant Ava Gardner the lovers in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Or maybe not — it’s merely a draught of forgetfulness — waters of Lethe — and Aura now tries to persuade the befuddled polo player that she’s his one and only. Not clear why Dale just stands there staring while this goes on, but the scenario rarely allows her what you’d call agency.

Vultan protests this jiggery-pokery and is cast into dungeons dark dank and donk — possible FRANKENSTEIN leftovers, as is the score. Prince Barin wisely chooses not to protest and reports to Zarkov.

Larry “Buster” Crabbe may not be the world’s best actor. Larry “Buster” Crabbe may be the world’s worst actor. But he is very good at playing brainwashed. “Don’t you know me?” asks Dale, quoting Stan Laurel in DIRTY WORK under admittedly fairly different circumstances (chimney sweep genetic regression calamity). Flash just stares into space (which is easy to do in space). He has the ardour, the passionate responsiveness, of Li’l Abner. Sad violins.

Prince Barin tries to fetch him for Zarkov, but the suggestible earth-dolt is tricked into seeing PB as his enemy, A boudoir swordfight ensues, easily the equal of the one which opens LISZTOMANIA. (I don’t know why Ken Russell didn’t use Liszt’s FLASH GORDON theme in his rock opera biopic, his aesthetic has plenty in common with the Flash Gordon Cinematic Universe, and I mean that as a compliment. MAHLER even has a cave-dwelling fire dragon.)

Assisted by Zarkov, Barin knocks Flash (more) senseless with the hilt of his sword, adding brain damage to our strapping hero’s mental woes. Unfortunately it isn’t one of those blows to the head that restores a lost memory. It’s just the kind that makes you fall down on the boudoir carpet. They lug the fallen Flash to the lab and enlist the healing power of neon tubes. It’s so crazy it just might work.

Griffith Observatory calling! Funny how everyone abandons Flash’s prone form once the earth gets in touch. Dale, hearing the radio, rushes to the wall safe space viewer to take a look at the old planet, as if she expects to see its lips moving. Zarkov manages to make himself dimly audible to the terrestrial listeners, something he’s been struggling to achieve since episode 2, and which has no dramatic consequences whatsoever.

Zarkov’s electrical tubing soon restore’s Flash’s “mind” but just then, an imperial death squad arrives from Ming. They stand him against the wall, level their ray guns — but Zarkov does the business with the old lever and makes Flash vanish. The execution squad scream like girls and run away, pursued by a thunderbolt wipe which leads into the Continued Next Week card.

So — it’s not the peril that’s unseen, it’s the imperilled. But that wouldn’t have made a good episode title. And neither one is a match for In the Claws of the Tigron, which is NEXT —

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