Gordon was produced in 13 chapters, containing strong adult themes, beyond those
common in films at the time. Flash Gordon showed women who flaunted their
sexuality and fought over their men. Critics went crazy over the love triangles
shown in the serial. Rather than halting the production, it made the series even
more successful. Larry "Buster" Crabbe and Jean Rogers brought the main
characters of Flash Gordon and Dale Arden to life on the large screen.
Directed by Frederick Stephani, the serial showed Dr. Alexis Zarkov, a European
accented madman-scientist played by Frank Shannon, and the evil Ming the
Merciless, a character played by Charles Middleton modeled after the immensely
popular Sax Rohmer character, Dr. Fu Manchu. Like the Buck Rogers villains, and
following the foundations laid out in the original comic strip, the adversaries
of Flash Gordon were derived from Mongolian-Chinese cultures that played upon
fears remaining from the Chinese "Boxer Rebellion" decades before. The limited
communications and travel of the time made the far away cultures of the Far East
ideal source material for truly threatening villains.
Princess Aura, played by
the voluptuous Priscilla Lawson, shocked audiences with her overt sexual
advances towards the humble hero Flash. She was strong, forceful, and wanton in
her lust, just as American viewers knew the women of the Far East must be.
prejudice played largely into the scripts. The wandering planet Mongo was copied the
Gobi Desert. Its ruler, Ming, controlled a galactic version of the Chinese Ming
Dynasty. Like Rohmer's Fu Manchu, Ming had a
passion for strange technology and hidden arts. He greatly desired Dale Arden to
be part of his harem and used drugs and other unscrupulous methods to take away her will
and make her submit to his advances.
Despite the huge budget, the serial did
have to make some concessions. Some sets were actually reworked leftovers from
Universal's earlier 1932 hit, "The Mummy". In this setting, Flash was trapped and
had to battle a giant lobster-clawed dragon. Portions of Ming's castle were
compiled from reworked elements used in the original "Frankenstein". Roman
legionnaire costumes were updated with gun belts and hand blasters to provide
additional obstacles for Flash to overcome. Flash Gordon faced a number of such
adversaries during his battles to prevent Ming from becoming the the "Emperor of
the Universe". By uniting the exotic species under Ming's tyranny, Flash
to defeat the evil menace and consequently, save Earth.
serial was such a huge success that Universal continued the adventures in
another serial in 1938 that was later edited into the feature film, Flash
Gordon's Trip to Mars. In the second serial, directed by Ford Beebe and Robert
F. Hill, Flash fought to save Earth from Ming the Merciless who had begun
raiding Earth to steal its oxygen supply. Concurrently, Ming's queen wanted to
capture humans for material as she'd learned to turn them into clay.
far less of a hit at that time, the basic story concept was apparently revived for the
television miniseries "V", although in that incarnation the aliens were
stealing water instead of oxygen and the humans were simply being used as food.
Ford Beebe managed to convince Universal
to give the serial a last fling. In 1940, they released a last set which was
later edited into the feature film Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. In this
adventure, Flash again battled Ming the Merciless who met his doom in this very
weak sequel to the previous serials. With Ming dead and the studios loosing
interest in Flash, the franchise fell silent.