Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)

In a world where everything and everyone has to have its own special day, there is no reason why there should not be a dedicated Star Wars Day. And even though that day happens to be chosen because of a bad word pun, one day will do as good as any. So let us celebrate Star Wars by looking at one of George Lucas’ influences.

In the DVD Special Edition commentary to Star Wars Episode II, during the fight between Obi Wan Kenobi and Jango Fett, George Lucas said: “It turns into a kind of fun sequence with […] the cliffhanger part of it which, again, is in that old Saturday matinee serial aspect of this whole thing.”

Frank Shannon (Dr Zarkov), Carol Hughes (Dale Arden) and Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon) in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)

The serials to which Lucas refers were actually made for the most part before Lucas was even born. But in the 1950s, they were rerun on television. One of the more important of these serials is Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, or as it was known on TV, Flash Gordon – Space Soldiers Conquer the Universe.

Like many other serials of the time, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is not something you watch for the intricate and coherent plot. Nor are the actors at any time aiming for an Academy Award. I have a soft spot for Buster Crabbe, and he does a good job considering the circumstances, but Carol Hughes as Dale Arden is comically theatrical at times.

Below is a list of all the chapters, with links to the Internet Archive:

  1. The Purple Death
  2. Freezing Torture
  3. Walking Bombs
  4. The Destroying Ray
  5. The Palace of Horror
  6. Flaming Death
  7. The Land of the Dead
  8. The Fiery Abyss
  9. The Pool of Peril
  10. The Death Mist
  11. Stark Treachery
  12. Doom of the Dictator

If you prefer to not watch the entire thing, you can also find at the Archive a normal-length feature film edited from parts of the serial, titled The Purple Death from Outer Space.

This film is best enjoyed if you know your Star Wars. You will find lots of characters, situations and plot elements here that obviously inspired and influenced George Lucas in various ways. Emperor Ming the Merciless, for instance, has more than just a little bit of Darth Vader in him. Or the other way around.

Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe
Download link (first chapter)
Year: 1941
Running time: 3 h 21 min
Directors: Ford Beebe, Ray Taylor
Stars: Buster Crabbe, Carol Hughes
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable

Advertisements

Danger Flight (1939)

Tailspin Tommy is pretty much a forgotten hero of the comics today. But back in the 1930s, he was big, and in fact it was the first adventure strip with an aviation theme. It was popular enough to result in a number of screen adaptations, one of which is Danger Flight.

John Trent as Tailspin Tommy in Danger Flight (1939)

In all, two serials and four feature films were made about Tailspin Tommy. Danger Flight is said to be the best of the features, and it was also the last. The only other one available at the Internet Archive is Sky Patrol (1939).

There is a nice article about the history of Tailspin Tommy, mainly focusing on the newspaper strip but also covering the adaptations to some extent.

Danger Flight features a lot of cheaply made flight scenes and a lot of talking over the radio. Still, the plot is interesting enough to keep attention up, and even the child actors are not too annoying.

The film was made for juveniles and it shows. The positive side of that is there is a feel-good undercurrent throughout the film, reminiscent of the juvenile stories I read as a kid. Danger Flight does not qualify as great art, by any stretch of the term, but it certainly is entertaining as long as you are not looking for any deeper messages.

As an interesting piece of trivia, Tailspin Tommy actor John Trent was apparently himself a pilot and went on to become a successful test pilot after his acting career.

This film is best enjoyed by model plane enthusiasts, since model planes play an important role in the plot.

Milburn Stone (Skeeter), Marjorie Reynolds (Beey Lou), Tommy Baker (Whitey) and John Trent (Tailspin Tommy) in Danger Flight (1939)

Danger Flight
Download link
Year: 1939
Running time: 60 min
Director: Howard Bretherton
Stars: John Trent
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (704×528)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (3.1 G)

The Phantom (1943)

The Phantom is a classic newspaper comic strip in the adventure genre. It was created in 1936 by writer Lee Falk, and soon became very popular. Even after its creator’s death in 1999, it continues running with new creative teams. While past its peak, it remains very popular, not least as a comic book in Scandinavia and Australia. The character is partly a synthesis of Zorro and Tarzan, but with some very unique and original elements thrown into the mix.

As a hero in the movies, The Phantom’s career has been considerably less stellar than in the newspapers. There have been several attempts, mostly very awkward, to recreate The Phantom either for TV or for the big screen. In fact, the best screen Phantom is still the very first, The Phantom from 1943. The adventure serials were at that time at their peak regarding budgets and production values, and The Phantom is not lacking in terms of entertaining adventure.

Tom Tyler with Devil by the skull throne in The Phantom (1943)

The plot is standard serial fare. Professor Davidson needs help to find a lost city. The Phantom comes to his aid, but a number of bad guys try to thwart them. Since this was made in 1943, one of them is a Nazi agent. And then there is the professor’s beautiful daughter, Diana. Why, of course. There has to be a romantic interest for the hero. After the early 1930s, female characters in serials became increasingly more passive and objectified, mostly acting as baits for the crooks to go after and the heroes to rescue. These gender roles became so cemented that they can still to some extent be seen in popular media, and I believe that the serials had a large part in that development. In early serials from the 1920s, the women were much more active, sometimes actually acting as the heroes themselves.

In spite of his appearance, The Phantom is not really a superhero, neither in terms of powers nor in terms of the themes covered in the comics (special thematic rules apply in the serials). Like many superheroes, however, The Phantom is dressed in a tight suit and a mask. Just like Superman, his costume was inspired by the strongmen of the early 20th century, which explains why he has his underpants outside his trousers. This would be fair enough, except according to the background detailed in the strip, the costume was invented by the first person to hide behind The Phantom’s mask in the 16th century.

Yes, there are many corny things about The Phantom, but that is part of the character’s charm. You cannot watch this serial, or read the comic, unless you accept it for what it is, and allow yourself to be immersed in a different world, one where the good guys always win and the bad ones get punched on the nose.

This film is best enjoyed if you are disappointed with some of the other The Phantom films and want to enjoy what is probably closest to the real thing in motion. As an added bonus, Kenneth MacDonald makes a very memorable interpretation as the evil genius.

Tom Tyler fighting a ferocious lion in The Phantom (1943)

The Phantom
Download link
Year: 1943
Running time: 4 h 20 min
Directors: B. Reeves Eason
Stars: Tom Tyler
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack

Superman (1941)

The story goes something like this: Superman, who had debuted a few years earlier published by National Allied Publications (later DC Comics), had become a major success, and the publisher was now eager to create an animated series with the character. They approached the Fleischer brothers, who headed one of the most successful animation studios at the time. The Fleischers, however, were not interested in doing action animation (they had mostly done comedy, such as Betty Boop and Popeye). But instead of declining the offer, they gave a ridiculous bid to make the series for $100,000 per episode. Even though this was negotiated down to half, they could not decline such a lavish offer, and so the Superman animated series was born.

Superman in the Fleischer cartoon series (1941)

A pilot and eight subsequent episodes were produced by Fleischer Studios. Then Fleischer was reorganised as Famous Studios, who went on to produce eight more, for a total of seventeen. The Fleischer episodes are generally better and focuses more on science fiction, whereas those from famous contain much more war propaganda. All are worth seeing, though.

The series is the origin of many of the iconic characteristics of Superman. For example, it features the first ever costume change in a phone booth (along with many other inventive changes of costume); also, this is where Superman learned to fly (before, he could only jump very high); and even though it had been used before, I am guessing that this series is the reason why the “It’s a bird … (etc)” cry became famous.

It is not entirely coincidental that this series started the same year as the Adventures of Captain Marvel serial. Even though the Superman series is not a serial, it is clearly inspired by the same serial tradition, and the two superheroes were fierce competitors in the comic stands at the time.

One Internet Archive user has combined all the episodes into one feature film version. I have not seen that version myself, so cannot say if the image quality and resolution are good enough.

If you prefer to watch the episodes one at a time, I have collected links for the best version available for each:

  1. Superman
  2. The Mechanical Monsters
  3. Billion Dollar Limited
  4. The Arctic Giant
  5. The Bulleteers
  6. The Magnetic Telescope
  7. Electric Earthquake
  8. Volcano
  9. Terror on the Midway
  10. Japoteurs
  11. Showdown
  12. Eleventh Hour
  13. Destruction, Inc.
  14. The Mummy Strikes
  15. Jungle Drums
  16. The Underground World
  17. Secret Agent

This series is best enjoyed for its playfulness and its splendid, mood-setting images. It is true that, even in spite of the enormous budget, the animation is sometimes short of perfection and the stories are far from logical. Yet, every episode of Superman is packed with fun and action.

Superman and Lois Lane in the Fleischer cartoon series (1941)

Superman
Download link (complete series)
Year: 1941 – 1943
Running time: 2 h 0 min (complete series)
Directors: Dave Fleischer, Izzy Sparber, Seymour Kneitel
Stars: Bud Collyer, Joan Alexander
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium
Sound quality: Acceptable to good

Captain America (1944)

The latest Captain America movie is currently making its rounds all over the world. I have not yet decided whether I will see it or not. If you are like me, a bit fed up with all the superhero hype, you may want to consider a classic movie serial instead. Such as the first screen appearance of Captain America from 1944.

vlcsnap-2013-06-09-00h06m52s12

In this version of the character, Captain America’s alter ego, instead of being super-soldier Steve Rogers, is district attorney Grant Gardner. Exactly why Gardner sometimes hunts criminals in his suit and sometimes as a masked vigilante is not very clear. It seems to be no more than a matter of effect, since he does more or less the same things. But the most glaring difference between the Captain of the comics and the Captain of the serial is that this one has no shield!

Captain America is a fairly typical serial in the sense that it seems to have been made quickly. Little effort was wasted on the script, and the only acting they invested any real energy into is the spectacularly choreographed fights.

The story is simple: A crook who calls himself The Scarab wants more power and money, and he also wants revenge on some scientists (his motives are rather vague and seem to shift from one episode to the next). In a vaguely chess-like fashion (and very typical of such serials) each of the two opponents tries to out-guess the other’s intentions.

It is hard to imagine that anyone, including directors, actors and audience, took this short and slightly flabby hero seriously even when he first appeared in the theatres. To me, that is the reason why the Captain America serial still entertains. Because it is fun, camp and cult. Not as fancy or well-produced as the three years older Adventures of Captain Marvel (which was an obvious inspiration for this one), it still has its own sparkling energy and a good dose of humour.

This film is best enjoyed if you are not too peculiar about producers messing around with the details concerning your favourite superhero. Like any serial, Captain America should be viewed one episode a day, or less. There is too much repetition beween episodes — most of the cliffhangers involve the hero running or jumping from an exploding or falling building — to enjoy watching them in immediate succession.

vlcsnap-2013-06-16-09h07m20s19

Captain America
Download link (first chapter and links to the other fourteen)
Year: 1944
Running time: 3 h 52 min
Directors: Elmer Clifton, John English
Stars: Dick Purcell
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4

Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All (1982)

Flash Gordon, one of the pioneer adventure and science fiction comic strips, debuted 80 years ago tomorrow. The strip, famous for its powerful and detailed art, as well as its fantastic monsters and unexpected plot twists, has been adapted to the screen on numerous occasions.

One of the better such adaptations, Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All, is available for download from the Internet Archive. It was originally conceived as a live action movie in the late 1970s, but it was decided that it would cost too much to make and was redressed as an animation instead. That animated movie, in turn, was converted into a Saturday morning cartoon series, and the finished movie lay waiting for three years until it was finally aired in 1982.

Thun, Flash Gordon and Barin in Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All (1982)

The basic plot is familiar to all who know their Flash Gordon. Flash, a world-famous athlete, is travelling in a plane with reporter Dale Arden as they are hit by a meteor storm. The plane crashes, but the two are rescued by half-mad scientist Dr. Zarkov. Zarkov takes them aboard his spaceship and they all fly to the planet Mongo where they have to save the Earth from the evil Emperor Ming the Merciless.

Overall, this particular film follows the plot closer than most (certainly closer than the 1980 live action feature, the only redeeming qualities of which are Queen and Max von Sydow). An added subplot about Hitler’s connection with Ming neither adds nor subtracts anything substantial.

The strength of this film is its script. It pulls off the balance between faithfulness to the source material and the different requirements of the film medium in an excellent way. The pacing is just right and the characters are good. I am not all that fond of the animation, though, which is in the style of the Saturday morning cartoons it was later turned into. But if you enjoy that kind of stuff then the animation is decently well made. Me, I would have preferred a much more realistic style, similar to Alex Raymond’s art on the original strip.

This film is best enjoyed by fans of Flash Gordon, but anyone who likes some good escapism should find this to their taste.

Flash Gordon battles Emperor Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All (1982)

Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All
Download link
Year: 1982
Running time: 1 h 5 min
Language: English (Japanese subtitles)
Stars: Robert Ridgely, Diane Pershing
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Windows Media (1.6 G)

Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)

It is not so very many years ago that a new big-buget super-hero movie was a very special occurrence. Something to look forward to and be excited about. These days, it seems that a new one is released just about every other month or so, and I am starting to lose count of the number of X-Men movies. The latest super-hero flick is Man of Steel, just in time for Superman’s 75th birthday.

I am not really sure what all this says about our society. Why do we have this enormous urge, all of a sudden, to identify with flying men and women in tights? (Or body armour, as the case may be?) Or is it just that the new technology makes it possible to create believable-looking superpowers on screen? Well, maybe. But I have a feeling that it is also connected with the strong individualism that is so important in our society.

However, this is not the first period in history that super-heroes have been popular on film. Back in the 1940s, there were a number of movie serials based on popular super-hero characters, including Superman. (Some time I will tell you more about movie serials and their impact on popular culture, but for now let’s focus on the super-heroes.)

Tom Tyler in Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)

The one that started this wave of super-heroes was the twelve-part Adventures of Captain Marvel. It has often been praised as the best movie serial ever produced, and that may very well be correct (at least as long as we stick to soundie serials). The budget and production values were definitely higher than perhaps any other serial around that time, and the script was also uncommonly good. The serial, in fact, made Captain Marvel so popular that for a time it outsold Superman in the comic book racks.

The basic story is not much more complicated than other contemporary serials. A scientific expedition discovers an ancient scorpion statuette and a number of lenses that, when properly combined, produce a fearsome weapon. The scientists decide to divide the lenses between them, so that no one person may hold so much power, but one of them wants it all for himself and starts plotting against the others.

Meanwhile, Billy Batson, the expedition’s radio operator, stumbles upon an ancient man, Shazam, who gives him the power to become Captain Marvel whenever he utters this word “Shazam”. Along with the powers comes the task to make sure that the lenses do not fall into evil hands.

Adventures of Captain Marvel, of course, is not nearly as powerful and polished as Man of Steel. But it has a charm and playfulness that all the new movies lack, and the special effects, though relatively simple and repetitive, are well executed and perfectly adequate. If you are going to watch just one post-1930 serial, then this is the one.

This film is best enjoyed one episode a day, or less. More than that will quickly cause Billy Batson over-dose.

Frank Coghland Jr. in Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)

Adventures of Captain Marvel
Download link
Year: 1941
Running time: 3 h 36 min
Directors: John English, William Witney
Stars: Tom Tyler, Frank Coghlan Jr.
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (630×480, not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable