1938

The Farm (1938, Humphrey Jennings)

For some reason, The Farm completely ditches what had been a very good sense of humor for the last minute or two. It runs twelve minutes. Losing the humor’s kind of rough, especially since there’s nothing to replace it, just the end of the short. It’s like Farm starts winding down too soon, never really getting around to the point.

The short’s this lovely color look at life on the farm. But the first half is the animals’ lives on the farm, not really the people. They get to the people, but they’re nowhere near as interesting as adorable sheep and piglets and cows and whatever. Director Jennings has a wonderful sense of timing. He knows exactly how long to hold the shot, which he’s also composed rather well. Jennings’s profile shots of the animals are awesome. They’re expository but never pragmatic. They’re patient. Jennings gives the audience time to digest what they see, even if the narration always moves too fast to catch the actual day’s lesson of “What’s Life Like on a British Farm.” And, oh, let’s be proud of our farmers as they feed us—there’s no sense of the farmer in the rugged American individualist sense, which is interesting—and also lets not think about the war. Don’t mention the war.

The weirdest thing about the war comment, which is a real thing in The Farm, look at this tranquility; it’s all forgotten now, let's hear no more about the war—the weirdest thing about it is how the comment comes in the first part, the cute animals we’re going to kill and eat part. The second part, the wheat harvest, is six months later. And there’s no mention of the war in it, even though presumably some time has passed. So the war comment is just this narration flourish. It’s very weird.

The Farm’s pretty—the color is gorgeous—and short enough it’s never boring; so a fairly interesting look into 1938 British farming. The direction’s better in the first half than the second half, in terms of composition. Jennings does better with the piglets playing than the afternoon tea break, even though it’s a trip to see the women come out with a picnic—every work day, according to the film—and serve their men tea and crackers. You’d think the narration would be funny about it—given how the jokes in the first half are Groucho Marx-y—but no. Not funny. Still a good short, beautifully photographed, just… not as funny as it clearly could’ve been.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Humphrey Jennings; produced by Adrian Klein; released by Dufay-Chromex Limited.


The Toy Wife (1938, Richard Thorpe)

The only impressive thing about The Toy Wife (not good, not admirable) is the film’s ability to keep going professionally, no matter how stupid it gets. There are no easy outs in the picture; even when people start dying off to up the tragedy, there’s still a seemingly endless amount of run time remaining. The film only runs ninety-five minutes but seems like 195 years.

(The present action is something like six years, it gets a little unclear towards the end).

The problems with Toy Wife start before the action does. They start in the opening titles, when Theresa Harris’s credit as “Pick” appears onscreen. As in, holy shit is there going to be a slave named “Pick” in this movie? The answer is yes, yes indeed there is going to be a slave named “Pick” in Toy Wife. Because slavery is very important to Toy Wife. How wonderful it was for all the Louisianans to have slaves. There’s even a scene where—apparently in an attempt to humanize the character—rich widow Alma Kruger gives the gift of Jesus to her “black people.”

Toy Wife is based on a French play from the nineteenth century. The play is based in Europe. So screenwriter Zoe Akins added all the horrific racism. Whether it was her idea, the studio’s, or producer Merian C. Cooper’s… well, they’re all responsible and accountable regardless of who had the idea. And it’s not like Akins’s script would be good without all the racism. Akins’s script is the problem with the film. Director Thorpe staying engaged enough to get through the slough of a story… again, it’s not commendable but it’s impressive. One hopes other folks would have quit instead of putting this tripe to screen.

The Toy Wife of the title is “lead” Luise Rainer. She’s the younger daughter of wealthy plantation owner H.B Warner (who’s barely in the movie and comically bad when onscreen). Barbara O’Neil, in what turns out to be the film’s worst role, is the older sister. Warner moved the family to Europe when Rainer was just a baby. Now they’re back; in the source play, Rainer’s character is sixteen; in the film, her age is never mentioned, but she’s clearly not supposed to be twenty-eight like Rainer.

Because then it wouldn’t make sense when “leading man” Melvyn Douglas, who’s eight years older than Rainer, calls her “child” in the movie. At least he doesn’t do it during one of their chaste but not too chaste love scenes. Editor Elmo Veron does know how to imply with his fades.

O’Neil has been in love with Douglas since childhood, except once they return he’s only got eyes for Rainer because he’s a gross old man and she’s a flirt. Douglas wants to propose, O’Neil talks Rainer into accepting. Rainer, meanwhile, would rather be with Robert Young. He’s a drunken rich boy, a lot more fun than serious Douglas. But she acquiesces and marries Douglas and the film skips forward four years.

Or five years. Whatever.

Fast forward to the future—Rainer is still a bunch of fun, Douglas is still a stuffed shirt, they just now have a four year-old son (Alan Perl, who’s awful). After Rainer seduces Douglas for a little morning nooky, Douglas decides he’s going to go visit O’Neil (who never told Douglas or Rainer she was in love with Douglas) and beg her to come manage the house. Because… wait for it… Rainer’s way too nice to the slaves. She doesn’t work them hard enough.

O’Neil agrees, moving into the house and assuming the head of household role, including dictating toddler Perl’s childcare. Douglas is just happy someone is making the slaves behave, Rainer slowly gets more and more miserable her sister has assumed her role, and Young’s back to try to seduce Rainer away.

Will this assortment of loathsome human beings ever find happiness?

Who cares.

And O’Neil gets more loathsome, then it gets qualified, then gets less, then gets more. Same goes—sort of—for Douglas. Rainer meanwhile never gets any character development, even when it’s obvious her character has changed circumstances. She has no reaction to them, not in script or performance. Apparently Rainer hated the movie, but whatever. It’s not like she broke into the vault and had the prints burned.

All the performances lack in one way or another. Sometimes because of the script, sometimes because of the actor. It’s not really worth itemizing the film’s failures on a granular level. Toy Wife has zero potential. Even if you equivocate away the grossness, it’s still a terrible, boring motion picture. Technically, it’s competent, but never anything better.

The Toy Wife is a dreadful experience. All 195 years of it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Thorpe; screenplay by Zoe Akins, based on the play by Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac; director of photography, Oliver T. Marsh; edited by Elmo Veron; music by Edward Ward; produced by Merian C. Cooper; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Luise Rainer (Frou Frou), Melvyn Douglas (George Sartoris), Barbara O’Neil (Louise), Robert Young (Andre Vallaire), H.B. Warner (Victor Brigard), Theresa Harris (Pick), and Alma Kruger (Madame Vallaire).


Dramatic School (1938, Robert B. Sinclair)

Given Dramatic School is all about top-billed Luise Rainer’s rise of stage stardom, it might help if she were actually the protagonist of the story, instead of its—occasional—subject. Because Rainer’s got to share the film with a bunch of other characters, none particularly interesting. There’s Rand Brooks, who’s the headmaster’s son and from a long line of actors. Then there’s Gale Sondergaard as the renowned stage actress turned instructor, who resents having to teach in general and Rainer specifically. Though Rainer idolizes her. Supposedly. We don’t ever really see much of it. And then there’s second-billed Paulette Goddard, who doesn’t have much interested in acting, just gossiping with her classmates and dating a string of wealthy men and refusing to marry any of them.

Virginia Grey, Lana Turner, and Ann Rutherford play some of the other students. Rutherford is dating Brooks and ends up getting more to do than either Grey or Turner (Turner gets fourth billing, which is way too high even without Rutherford).

The film takes place in Paris, which only makes sense when Rainer is onscreen because no one else even hints at a French accent. Rainer goes to acting school all day and works in a factory all night, alongside sympathetic aunt Marie Blake (who has nothing to do in the film whatsoever, not even dote on Rainer when she’s down).

So one fateful night—in the first ten minutes of the eighty minute movie—stage sensation Genevieve Tobin (who’s also way too highly billed at fifth) shows up at the factory with her wealthy beau, Alan Marshal. There’s a little incident, but it’s not important other than to introduce Rainer to Marshal so she can make up this grandiose lie about having an affair with him. Eventually Goddard meets Marshal socially and sets a trap for Rainer, hoping to humiliate her.

Will Marshal let himself be played? Does it end up mattering?

I won’t spoil the first, but it doesn’t end up mattering at all for the narrative. When Rainer gets her big break, it’s got nothing to do with the plot until that point. It’s incredible how fast screenwriters Ernest Vajda and Mary C. McCall Jr. get bored with their… screenplay. Other than Goddard, the script doesn’t dwell on anyone. Turner and Grey are interchangeable, Rutherford is mostly scenery until she all of a sudden gets attention. Goddard doesn’t have a character. She exists as a foil to torment Rainer, who’s usually too busy in her own head to even notice Goddard’s plotting cruelty.

The third act has this big showdown between Rainer and Sondergaard, following the film infusing a “Sondergaard is getting dissed for being an actress nearing forty” subplot, which also brings in Henry Stephenson (as the headmaster) quite a bit. Stephenson’s only slightly less unbelievable as an accomplished Parisian actor than Sondergaard, who no one thought to give more characterization than shrill. She’s in the second scene of the film, bitching about (at that point) utterly harmless and barely introduced Rainer. Sondergaard is opposite Margaret Dumont in that scene; Dumont’s great. Shame she’s only in the movie for two scenes and never when Rainer’s finally out of her shell, which takes way too long. Especially for a movie ostensibly about her.

Rainer’s performance is fine. She gives the best performance in the film, which isn’t much of a compliment. Vajda and McCall can’t even be bothered with thin caricaturization, much less thin characterization. Marshal, for instance, is an utter bore. He’s got some charm, but he’s dramatically inert, upstaged by everyone opposite him. Including an uncredited, nearly silent John Picorri as his valet. Sinclair doesn’t know how to direct his cast, but he really doesn’t know how to direct Marshal.

Of the students, Grey’s probably the best. If Goddard got a character before the third act, she might be better but since she doesn’t… nope. Turner’s kind of annoying.

Sondergaard, who isn’t important for the majority of the runtime, ends up being the most important player in the film. She’s really not up for it. Stephenson’s miscast. Brooks gets a rotten deal as his son too. Supposedly Brooks can’t act. But based on the exercises in the acting classes, none of the students can act. It’s not until the third act, when Rainer’s on a real stage, there’s any evidence of ability. Watching Rainer’s play in the movie, you wish the movie were just Rainer in the play. It might make up for the rest of the nonsense. Unfortunately, it’s not the movie and it’s also way too quick an interlude. Because then there’s the wrap-up, which is simultaneously tepid and vapid.

Dramatic School isn’t terrible. It doesn’t have enough energy to be terrible. Rainer’s got potential, but the script isn’t there and the direction isn’t there. Her character’s name is Louise too. It’s like, if you’re going to have the main character be an aspiring actress with the same name as the successful actress playing her… maybe there ought to be something to that coincidence. At least some emphasis. Instead, the script does everything it can to avoid Rainer and focus on everyone around her. But not give them anything to do until the end. And even at the end it’s just busywork, resolving pointless plot threads.

The film’s competent and useless. Even as a vehicle—as it seems to have been—for MGM ingenues, it’s useless. It seems like it’s more producer Mervyn LeRoy’s fault than anyone else’s. Like, Sinclair obviously wasn’t going to come through on the direction. Ditto the screenwriters. Someone needed to right the ship. No one does.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert B. Sinclair; screenplay by Ernest Vajda and Mary C. McCall Jr., based on a play by Hans Székely and Zoltan Egyed; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by Fredrick Y. Smith; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Mervyn LeRoy; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Luise Rainer (Louise Mauban), Alan Marshal (Marquis Andre D’Abbencourt), Paulette Goddard (Nana), Gale Sondergaard (Madame Charlot), Marie Blake (Annette), Lana Turner (Mado), Virginia Grey (Simone), Ann Rutherford (Yvonne), John Hubbard (Fleury), Genevieve Tobin (Gina Bertier), Henry Stephenson (Pasquel Sr.), Rand Brooks (Pasquel Jr.), and Margaret Dumont (Pantomime Teacher).


The Buccaneer (1938, Cecil B. DeMille)

Even if you give The Buccaneer a lot of its historical absurdities and classic Hollywood whitewashing, even if you give it a motley crew of murdering (but not raping, good family men) pirates getting giddy and doing a singalong while they row themselves through the bayou to fight for Andrew Jackson against the British, even if you give the film lead Fredric March’s accent, it’s got a lot of problems. Without even mentioning how director DeMille gives everyone a slave, American, British, Pirate. Like, he likes it. It’s creepy.

Especially at the opening when you want to be enjoying Spring Byington doing a brief cameo as a capable (and rather sexy, like what is up what that dress) first lady Dolly Madison who was to suffer men trying to rescue her when she’s doing it herself.

The big problem is The Buccaneer himself. Not March, who’s rather likable even with that accent and able to whether the silliest of DeMille’s jingoism. But the character. So he’s a pirate who doesn’t rob American vessels and doesn’t kill passengers, unless they’re asking for it (everyone gets a chance to disembarck). He’s in love with New Orleans society girl Margot Grahame, who grossly comes on to Andrew Jackson (Hugh Sothern) at one point. Not because it’s in character, but because no one–not the four-ish screenwriters, not director DeMille, not Grahame herself–knows what to do with the character. She’s there to give March a reason to fight to be an American. For the pretty, well-spoken girl who gets shown up in every one of her scenes with guardian aunt Beulah Bondi. Just because Grahame’s got nothing else to do. She’s in love with a pirate, if only he’d go legit for her. She’s just not the female lead, so she’s got squat.

The female lead–and kind of protagonist, certainly more than March–is Franciska Gaal. She’s playing an adorable–literally squeaking–Dutch girl who ends up with March and his band. March becomes her protector and, accordinly, Gaal falls in love with him even though she’s seen his men kill an entire ship of innocent people and even try to kill her. She only escapes because pirate Fred Kohler, who met her in the film’s first scene, has been trying to rape her since that first scene.

The film does this whole “she’s not in any great danger with these pirates, oh, wait, no, it’d be better if the nicer one just killed her instead” thing for the first act and beginning of second, so you’d think you’re supposed to take it serious. But then you aren’t whenever Gaal’s supposed to be foolish instead of brave. Like, the movie craps on Gaal’s performance and all the potential for the character. After the setting up the movie to focus on those things.

Because, as Gaal later whines to March when her character does nothing but lather him with unrequited verbal admiration, all the men are acting like little boys and fighting. Once the movie starts moving toward the opening text exposition on Lafitte’s place in history, once all the fighting starts, Gaal gets dropped like a rock. Worse, there’s more with Grahame. No fault to her, but she and March have even less chemistry than March and Gaal. At least March is protective of Gaal. With Grahame, it’s bewildering. She’s supposed to be his obsession and they’re flat together.

Maybe the accent got in the way. But more likely Grahame’s character being really thin. And, really, March’s isn’t much better. He’s supposed to be this great pirate captain yet the only times things go right it’s because of Gaal or Akim Tamiroff as his main sidekick. Anthony Quinn’s all right as the second sidekick. Tamiroff’s in love with Gaal. He makes it cute. He’s the best performance in the film, with Walter Brennan a somewhat close second as Andrew Jackson’s dotting frontiersman sidekick. Gaal’s a far third.

Because there aren’t any standout supporting performances. Douglass Dumbrille’s okay as the governor who’s out to get March. Ian Keith’s bad as the bent politician, working for the British. Hugh Sothern’s hilariously bad as Andrew Jackson. Though at least he doesn’t play Jackson horny old man when Grahame offers.

Beulah Bondi is fine as the aunt. Some of the third tier supporting performances are solid. It’s a big movie. There are a lot of people around. They’re mostly all right. Even Kohler. He’s not good but he’s not bad.

Technically, the film’s competent. I mean, DeMille has annoying two shots because–apparently–of height disparities and Anne Bauchens never cuts to them well. Based on DeMille’s composition, it’s probably because he didn’t get the right shots, which is weird since it’s clearly big budget and so on. He saves his energy for the battle scenes, which really aren’t effective because March doesn’t do much. He tells the other guys what to do mostly.

He does have a sword fight, but it’s got a bad finish and leads into his second asinine patriotic speech (after the Americans have massacred a bunch of his men) and the movie doesn’t even try. DeMille doesn’t try with anything in Buccaneer. It gets annoying. The massacre of the pirates at their base is probably the best action sequence. But it’s in the middle of the rather long two hour and five minute film. And it’s a dramatic fail of a plot beat.

The Buccaneer clearly was a big production and DeMille and company do make an epic. It’s just not a successful one. The script’s alterately lazy, cheap, and dull. The third act only “saves” the film because it stops getting worse. It plateaus. And Gaal’s charming and March’s likable and you just want it to end so why fight it. It’s not a success, it’s a surrender.

1/4

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille; screenplay by Edwin Justus Mayer, Harold Lamb, and C. Gardner Sullivan, adaptation by Jeanie Macpherson, based on a novel by Lyle Saxon; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Anne Bauchens; music by George Antheil; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Jean Lafitte), Franciska Gaal (Gretchen), Akim Tamiroff (Dominique You), Margot Grahame (Annette de Remy), Anthony Quinn (Beluche), Ian Keith (Senator Crawford), Douglass Dumbrille (Governor William C.C. Claiborne), Fred Kohler (Gramby), Hugh Sothern (General Andrew Jackson), Walter Brennan (Ezra Peavey), Beulah Bondi (Aunt Charlotte), and Spring Byington (Dolly Madison).


Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938, Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill)

Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars is far from the ultimate trip. It’s not even a very good trip. It’s the kind of trip where you go somewhere, go somewhere else, then somewhere else, then go back to the second place, then go back to the first place, then go back to the third place, then go back to the first place, then go back to the second place, then go back to the….

You get the idea.

Mars starts right after the previous serial, before Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe) and company have even returned to Earth. Earth knows they’ve saved the planet and there’s a big ticker tape parade for the returning heroes–Crabbe, damsel in distress and ostensible love interest Jean Rogers, and scientist Frank Shannon. Of course, it’s all stock footage and the cast isn’t present, but the sentiment is there. Pretty soon, there’s another threat to the Earth and the United States government is freaking out and reporter Donald Kerr realizes the only person who can save the planet–again–is Crabbe.

So right after getting back to Earth from the first serial–Rogers apparently got a haircut on the return rocket trip (in the first serial, which will come up in flashback footage, she had long blonde hair, in Mars she’s a sensibly cut brunette)–the heroes head back out into space. With Kerr a stowaway.

They’re headed to Mongo, convinced villain Ming (Charles Middleton), who they thought was dead, is out to get them again. They’re right, only he’s on Mars, not Mongo, so the rocket ship has to change course.

On Mars, Middleton has teamed up with Martian queen Beatrice Roberts, who needs Middleton’s help to destroy the Clay people, who are political exiles Roberts has turned into clay. Even though Roberts has a whole fleet of airships, she goes along with Middleton’s plan to drain the Earth’s atmosphere of nitron. Earth needs its nitron; Middleton’s got Roberts convinced he can use the nitron to make more effective weapons, but it turns out he just wants to destroy the Earth. And he’s got designs on Roberts’s throne.

Crabbe and company get into it with Middleton and Roberts in the Martian city, then have to go to the Clay kingdom, where the Clay king (C. Montague Shaw) is alternately hostile and laudatory, and eventually end up in this forest fighting the hostile Forest people. Along the way, they reunite with Prince Barin of Mongo (Richard Alexander), who has come to Mars for some reason or another. Turns out the Forest people are actually Middleton’s lackeys. They cause a lot of trouble for Crabbe and friends, including brainwashing Rogers for a few chapters, and just generally being exceptionally annoying.

Mars doesn’t exactly start off promising–the use of stock footage for the heroes’ arrival on Earth, their immediate disappearance from the action, the stock disaster footage (which isn’t terrible or unexpected or anything, just not exciting)–but it certainly doesn’t start on any kind of shaky ground. Crabbe, Rogers, and Shannon are all extremely likable and introducing comic relief Kerr to the team seems like it’s going to work out rather well. Middleton was a bit much in the previous serial, but he’s all right here. And Roberts is rather effective as the evil queen.

And even the Clay people stuff is good at the start. There are these awesome shots of the Clay men coming out of the walls. It’s not until Shaw shows up things start getting questionable. The screenplay–with four credited writers–never addresses how long the Clay people have been around, since Roberts is turning people into clay if she doesn’t like them and then banishing them. She’s got a magic jewel letting her do all sorts of stuff. Is Roberts immortal? Have the Clay people been around forever? Or is it more like a recent thing? Doesn’t matter. The writers are real bad at explaining the history of Mars, including how Middleton got there immediately after the previous serial.

The first half of the serial usually involves Crabbe trying to bring Roberts to the Clay people so she can break the spell–including a really awesome sequence where he saves her in a disaster and she realizes he’s a sap who doesn’t kill and she can exploit that weakness. Then there’s something with another jewel the Forest people have. It can negate Roberts’s jewel’s power, so for a couple chapters it’s a thing. Only Middleton (even though the Forest people are his secret lackeys–it’s not at all clear why the arrangement is secret) wants the jewel too because, pretty early on, it’s clear Middleton wants to double-cross Roberts. While she wants to kill all the Clay people, she doesn’t necessarily want to destroy Earth.

It’s also never addressed why she turns disobedient soldiers into clay instead of just executing them.

And Mars ignores how there are no female Clay people or female Forest people, though Forest people at least seem to know women exist–when they brainwash Rogers, she becomes a priestess or something. They’ve got a word for it.

All the action either takes place in the Martian city, the forest, or the Clay kingdom. Some of the city and most of the forest look good. The Clay kingdom, above ground, is just rocky terrain. The underground stuff is okay, though it’s never explained why Roberts lets the Clay people have advanced technology–in some cases more advanced than her own (including a subway system). The serial just bounces between the locations, unless it’s something in the airships, which actually happens quite a bit. The Martians have these gravity defying capes, leading–occasionally–to some decent action sequences.

But by the end of Mars, every new action set piece is just a regurgitation of a previous one. It’s rather tired by the end. Especially since the serial never improves on the most annoying aspects of the action sequences–entirely inappropriate stock music. They rarely use action music and when they do, it rarely fits. It kills all tension and most excitement, which is a real disservice to the cast–particularly Crabbe and Alexander–who always give it their all.

Crabbe clear runs out of enthusiasm towards the end, however. Maybe the last four chapters, he looks miserable.

There are some good sequences throughout the fifteen chapters–particularly Rogers getting to save the day (while otherwise just being damsel in distress)–but by the second half of Mars, it’s obvious the trip isn’t going anywhere new, just places its already been. And then it’ll go somewhere else it’s already been and then somewhere else it’s already been.

The frequent flashbacks to the first serial backfire too, just revealing how much better the production values were on the original compared to this sequel.

Only Kerr and Alexander are able to maintain energy during the last few chapters–Rogers theoretically should have a big arc thanks to the brainwashing but she doesn’t and Shannon’s just around. Middleton gets nuttier and nuttier as it goes along. His performance getting worse. Roberts’s material (and, inexplicably, her direction) gets worse too, really ruining her performance. There’s no character development in Mars, even though some characters desperately need it.

And Shaw’s super annoying. Most when he prostrates to Crabbe, which seems to happen all the time. But he’s also kind of insincere about it, like at any moment he might double cross the Earth people. Sadly he never does, because such a twist is too much for Mars.

Wheeler Oakman is almost good as Middleton’s chief flunky. Anthony Warde is comically godawful as the king of the Forest people.

Crabbe, Rogers, Alexander, and Shannon (and Kerr to some degree) have enough charm to keep the Trip tolerable but there’s really nothing they can do with the concluding chapters, when it all starts collapsing. It was always flimsy, it just had momentum. Without momentum, without any good finale set pieces, without a decent plot, the Trip flops out. It could be much worse, sure, but it’s still majorly disappointing.

Almost anything would help Mars significantly. Real music. Another set. Better performances–heck, just keeping Crabbe engaged through the finale–almost anything. Sadly, there’s nothing.

It’s worse than disappointing; it’s a defeat.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill; screenplay by Ray Trampe, Norman S. Hall, Wyndham Gittens, and Herbert Dalmas, based the comic strip by Alex Raymond; director of photography, Jerome Ash; edited by Joseph Gluck, Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, and Alvin Todd; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov), Charles Middleton (Emperor Ming), Beatrice Roberts (Queen Azura), Donald Kerr (Happy Hapgood), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Wheeler Oakman (Tarnak), Anthony Warde (King Turan), and C. Montague Shaw (Clay King).


Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938, Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill), Chapter 15: An Eye for an Eye

An Eye for an Eye is a disappointing finish for Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars but maybe not an unexpected one, not given the serial’s trajectory. The cliffhanger resolution is quick–Buster Crabbe gets away from Charles Middleton due to Middleton’s lack of observational prowess. They’re fitting foes. Neither of them pays attention enough.

While Middleton is going back to turn on the Earth zapping ray, Crabbe and Richard Alexander are wasting time trying to figure out what secret passageway he used. Instead of just going to find him; Middleton thinks they’ll know where he’s headed. Silly Middleton, they have to be told.

Eye also makes it really clear instead of calling Jean Rogers’s character “Dale Arden,” she should just be called, “Dale You Should Stay Here.” Crabbe ditches her again in his effort to save the day.

There are a couple double crosses in the chapter–three, actually–and they change the plotting a bit. Instead of some grand air battle to save the Clay kingdom, instead it’s Crabbe having to rescue his captured friends. Again.

His showdown with Middleton is dramatically inert and lacking in much excitement, especially since it’s truncated by plotting.

The finale uses the same newspaper from the first chapter, only with a different headline, which means poor Donald Kerr is left out of the celebration sequence. It’s particularly unfair since, when he gets to make faces at Middleton (shooting at the good guys with a laser rifle), Kerr has the chapter’s best three seconds.

Eye for an Eye is a bad finish, but Mars has been burning off its goodwill for so long it doesn’t really matter.

Some real bad acting from Middleton here though. Maybe his worst in the serial overall.

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill; screenplay by Ray Trampe, Norman S. Hall, Wyndham Gittens, and Herbert Dalmas, based the comic strip by Alex Raymond; director of photography, Jerome Ash; edited by Joseph Gluck, Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, and Alvin Todd; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov), Charles Middleton (Emperor Ming), Beatrice Roberts (Queen Azura), Donald Kerr (Happy Hapgood), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), and C. Montague Shaw (Clay King).


Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938, Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill), Chapter 14: A Beast at Bay

A Beast at Bay could just as easily be called We Give Up, There’s One More. After a lackluster cliffhanger resolution, Buster Crabbe’s plan to save the Clay kingdom fails because he couldn’t control one unarmed prisoner and then couldn’t beat him in a fistfight. The thirteen chapters of Crabbe kicking Martian ass… well, they were all just wimps, apparently. Crabbe gets zero material through the rest of the chapter, but he seems perpetually perturbed, which is accurate given his utter failures at the opening.

Once Crabbe gets the upper hand again–because he remembers he’s got a ray gun on him–it’s back to the Clay kingdom to tell no longer clay king but still overdoing it C. Montague Shaw he’s failed to execute his plan. Bay skips how Crabbe’s sidekicks knew he’d failed since I think they were waiting for him at a rendezvous point. Whatever.

Luckily the new Martian prisoners realize–immediately upon their arrival in the scene–Crabbe is actually a good guy and pledge their allegiance to him. Just after Shaw gives Crabbe command of the army, which seems questionable given his planning has been so terrible. Again, whatever.

They end up going back to the palace, where Charles Middleton is about to be crowned King of Mars. Now, you know it’s the penultimate chapter because instead of telling Jean Rogers she’s too girly to go along or Donald Kerr he’s too annoying to go along and dumping them in Shaw’s care, Crabbe–still looking put out–brings them along.

After some trouble, they get to Middleton’s coronation and Crabbe–with the help of flashbacks to the previous serial–talks the Martians out of making Middleton king. So he holds them up with a ray gun–everyone else is armed but no one is willing to risk Crabbe–and makes a getaway.

It’s a sad chapter. It’s not even disappointing. It’s just sad. It’s sad from the start. Especially when they use footage from the obviously visually superior previous serial. Trip to Mars can’t end soon enough.

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill; screenplay by Ray Trampe, Norman S. Hall, Wyndham Gittens, and Herbert Dalmas, based the comic strip by Alex Raymond; director of photography, Jerome Ash; edited by Joseph Gluck, Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, and Alvin Todd; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov), Charles Middleton (Emperor Ming), Beatrice Roberts (Queen Azura), Donald Kerr (Happy Hapgood), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), and C. Montague Shaw (Clay King).


Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938, Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill), Chapter 13: The Miracle of Magic

The Miracle of Magic is a funny title for the chapter since nothing really miraculous happens. There’s some anti-miracles. Maybe it refers to the curse of the Clay people getting lifted, which involves magical receptacles, but not really magic itself. It’s a strange sequence where the still suspicious C. Montague Shaw has Buster Crabbe do the spell lifting because Crabbe’s familiar with electricity and can run the Clay people’s machine. Presumably they too could use the machine, since they’re pretty technologically advanced–including the high-speed subway system–but whatever. Maybe they wanted publicity stills of Crabbe and company with the electronic gadgetry.

Besides lifting the curse–revealing all the Clay people are male–most of the chapter involves Crabbe and the boys trying to stop Ming (Charles Middleton) from arming the Forest people to attack the Clay people. Middleton had to get Beatrice Roberts out of the way to do so; it’s not clear why exactly, just because he wanted her out of the way. She probably would’ve gone along with him arming the Forest people. It’s also not clear why they’re better for destroying the Clay people than the Martian troops. The Martian troops have all the weapons, they’re just giving them to the Forest people.

Maybe because Middleton has stupid ideas, which does explain why it’s taken him thirteen chapters to get to this point in his scheme.

Crabbe ditches Jean Rogers with Shaw, rather ingloriously, and takes Frank Shannon, Donald Kerr, and Richard Alexander to the Forest people’s… well, their forest. Then he and Alexander ditch Shannon and Kerr to go sneak around and discover what’s the rumpus. Of course, it turns out Shannon and Kerr figure out what’s going on without having to go sneak around the Forest people’s underground lair.

The chapter ends with Crabbe executing his plan to save the Clay people. It’s not going as planned.

There’s some big plot developments in the first few minutes–Clay people curse lifted and such–but then it’s more of the same stalling and circular narrative for the rest. Mars has only got two chapters left and it’s hard to imagine they’re going to be able to make a major quality uptick. Magic is far from the worst chapter in the serial, but also far from the best. It’s one of the better middling chapters.

Hopefully there’s some engaging surprise coming, because there sure wasn’t anything here.

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill; screenplay by Ray Trampe, Norman S. Hall, Wyndham Gittens, and Herbert Dalmas, based the comic strip by Alex Raymond; director of photography, Jerome Ash; edited by Joseph Gluck, Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, and Alvin Todd; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov), Charles Middleton (Emperor Ming), Beatrice Roberts (Queen Azura), Donald Kerr (Happy Hapgood), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), and C. Montague Shaw (Clay King).


Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938, Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill), Chapter 12: Ming the Merciless

It’s a good thing Ming (Charles Middleton) loves to carelessly gloat because if he didn’t, there’s no way Buster Crabbe could’ve got the upper hand this chapter. Ming the Merciless is, sort of, about Martian queen Beatrice Roberts finding out Middleton isn’t really her pal. But she doesn’t have much in the way of recognition of his betrayal. In fact, it goes without mention or much reaction.

Other than that scene, not much happens in the chapter. Sure, Crabbe de-brainwashes Jean Rogers but once she’s back to normal, she’s really back to normal. She’s got no lines, just follows Crabbe and Frank Shannon around.

The cliffhanger resolution at the beginning has Crabbe and Shannon feigning death so they can get the upper hand on Middleton’s stooge Wheeler Oakman. Oakman has just about the most thankless job in the serial. He’s got to pretend Middleton’s smart and pretend Crabbe is a competent captor. There’s nary a moment when Crabbe’s leading Oakman around Oakman couldn’t escape. But he’s convincing in his… lack of escape ambition.

The serial explains it, like everything else, with Middleton being such a genius conniver there’s never anything to worry about. And that thesis isn’t wrong; at least, presumably, until the last chapter when the serial can stop toggling between Middleton or Crabbe having the upper hand.

The chapter ends with all the good guys in trouble, even though Donald Kerr and Richard Alexander are separated from Crabbe, Shannon, and Rogers. Crabbe and company has Roberts prisoner and drops a note to Kerr and Alexander, which is a good waste of ninety seconds or so when Kerr and Alexander think it’s an enemy attack. A lot of Ming feels likes the filmmakers are just trying to kill time.

Trip to Mars’s turn for the worse hasn’t made any further turns in that direction, but it certainly hasn’t corrected course. Poor Roberts, who had some credibility before, has been reduced to being tricked by Middleton and having moon eyes for Crabbe. It’s a good thing it’s cover soon.

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill; screenplay by Ray Trampe, Norman S. Hall, Wyndham Gittens, and Herbert Dalmas, based the comic strip by Alex Raymond; director of photography, Jerome Ash; edited by Joseph Gluck, Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, and Alvin Todd; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov), Charles Middleton (Emperor Ming), Beatrice Roberts (Queen Azura), Donald Kerr (Happy Hapgood), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), and C. Montague Shaw (Clay King).


Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938, Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill), Chapter 11: Human Bait

And it’s back to the Martian imperial city or whatever it’d be called this chapter. After a surprising cliffhanger resolution–brainwashed Jean Rogers does indeed stab Buster Crabbe in the back–Crabbe and his male sidekicks (Frank Shannon, Donald Kerr, and Richard Alexander) go running around in the forest a bit before they have to go back to the temple. So much going somewhere and going back. Eventually they get to Alexander’s rocket ship so they can get to the city and rescue Rogers.

Only Charles Middleton and Beatrice Roberts have her and she’s the Human Bait of the title.

Crabbe and Shannon once again fall for one of Middleton’s questionably contrived plans against them, eventually getting them to the cliffhanger. It’s a very boring chapter. The stuff with Rogers having sympathetic (slightly sympathetic anyway) guards is far more interesting than anything in the finale. Except maybe how none of the four editors realized Middleton was supposed to be away from the trap spot only they kept cutting to old footage of him there, conniving.

Oddly weak performance from Roberts this chapter too. She just stares into space while Middleton talks to her. Meanwhile Rogers is in Mars more, only as a zombie. It’s a disappointment.

With only four chapters left, Human Bait is definitely concerning. There might not be anywhere else for Mars to go and it’s a little too early for it to be in such bad shape. Hopefully they pull it off. Hopefully.

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill; screenplay by Ray Trampe, Norman S. Hall, Wyndham Gittens, and Herbert Dalmas, based the comic strip by Alex Raymond; director of photography, Jerome Ash; edited by Joseph Gluck, Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, and Alvin Todd; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov), Charles Middleton (Emperor Ming), Beatrice Roberts (Queen Azura), Donald Kerr (Happy Hapgood), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), and C. Montague Shaw (Clay King).


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