For many casual film fans, the only version of Flash Gordon they may know is the 1980 movie, most likely because of the theme song by rock band Queen. However, for those who appreciate diving into film history a little deeper, they are at least familiar with the Buster Crabbe chapter serials of the late 30s. But where did Flash Gordon really originate from and what does the future hold for the legendary space hero?
In 1929, Philip Francis Nowlan created the character of Buck Rogers, a spacefaring adventure hero who debuted in daily US newspapers on January 7. The strip was syndicated by the National Newspaper Service and soon inspired a variety of other science fiction strips. While many of us have forgotten Brick Bradford and Speed Spaulding, one hero who made his debut in 1934 is well-remembered today…Flash Gordon. It’s no secret that Alex Raymond created Flash to be direct competition for the Buck Rogers strip. King Features Syndicate had originally wanted John Carter of Mars, created by Edgar Rice Burroughs. However, when a deal with Burroughs could not be reached, it turned to staff artist Alex Raymond to create a new hero.
Flash Gordon is a dashing young college graduate who is kidnapped, along with his companion Dale Arden, by Dr. Hans Zarkov, who has come up with a plan to stop Earth’s impending collision with the planet Mongo. After leaving Earth in a rocket ship and crash landing on Mongo, they save Earth but encounter the evil Ming the Merciless. In the years that followed, they would encounter various kingdoms and rulers in their never-ending battle to defeat Ming.
The original daily strip ran daily from 1934 to 1992, outlasting Buck Rogers, which had ended its original run in 1967. The Sunday strips continued until 2003 and it is still being reprinted today. But Flash Gordon was not limited to newspaper strips. In 1935, The Amazing Interplanetary Adventures of Flash Gordon radio serial was launched. Gale Gordon, better known as Mr. Mooney in numerous Lucille Ball television shows, played Flash in the stories that essentially followed the weekly Sunday newspaper storylines. After 26 weeks, the program ended and was followed by The Further Interplanetary Adventures of Flash Gordon, which ran for 60 more weeks and was an original story set in Atlantis.
Of course, there have been numerous comic book series over the years from such companies as Dell, Harvey, Gold Key and, most recently, Dynamite Entertainment. Even DC and Marvel produced two short-lived series. There was a live-action television series in 1954 on the DuMont Network starring Steve Holland, as well as several recent attempts that are better left unmentioned. There were different animated series, and an animated film, and even a stage play in 1989. Most notably, there was also that 1980 feature film starring Sam J. Jones. The film didn’t do well initially but has become a cult favorite amongst fans and, admittedly, is a lot of fun if you go into it with the right mindset.
Aside from the original newspaper strips, the most memorable part of Flash Gordon’s history came in the form of three chapter serials produced between 1936 and 1940. Buster Crabbe would play the lead role of Flash Gordon with Charles Middleton playing the perfect on-screen version of Ming the Merciless. Over the course of three serials and 40 chapters, Buster became the definitive on-screen version of Flash Gordon. Even when he was hired to play the lead role of Buck Rogers in 1939, it was hard not to see Flash on screen (even part of his uniform as Flash was reused for Buck).
Over the last three summers, Karla and I have laughed our way through the films of Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers and Harold Lloyd. This summer, we’re leaving Earth behind and hitching a ride to Mongo as we’ll be taking a weekly journey through all three chapter serials. Join us beginning next Friday, along with Flash, Dale and Dr. Zarkov, as we become space soldiers conquering the universe on our trip to Mars. And by the time summer is winding down, we’ll wrap up this series with a look towards the future. If there was ever a time for a hero like Flash Gordon, the time is now!