Frank Shannon

Flash Gordon (1936, Frederick Stephani)

Flash Gordon is all about its gee whiz factor. The serial goes all out to create the planet Mongo, which has come out of nowhere (in space) and is on a collision course with Earth. Only scientist Frank Shannon has a plan to save the otherwise panicked and resigned Earth–take a rocketship to the new planet and try to change its course. Shannon can’t do it alone, of course, he needs help; luckily, Buster Crabbe and Jean Rogers’s plane has crashed nearby. And Crabbe is Shannon’s colleague’s son. And Rogers is cute. So, of course, Crabbe and Rogers agree to go off to space to save the world.

Right off, Flash Gordon establishes Crabbe is a force more than a character. Crabbe excels at the role’s physicality–he always tries to do something, no matter the odds. Sometimes it’s to advance the plot, sometimes it’s to stretch out a chapter, sometimes it’s just to lose some of his clothes. Until the last three or four chapters, Crabbe’s always getting stripped down, sweaty, or wet. More on the beefcake in a bit. Crabbe’s enthusiasm is one of Gordon’s greatest assets. He doesn’t overthink his thinly written “never give up” preppy fencer rich kid with a heart of gold. Sure, he’s on an alien planet, and he’s nothing but a man, but he’s got to save every one of us.

So Crabbe goes all in on the physicality. It gets more intense as the serial progresses. By the second half of Flash Gordon, Crabbe’s even doing exagerated arm motions while running. He’s all in on Flash, even when he shouldn’t be trying so hard. His overdone expressions during the swordfights are risible, but earnest. He doesn’t have the same problems in regular fight scenes, just the swordfights. Thankfully, swordfights occur less and less frequently as the serial goes on.

Director Stephani focuses the film on Crabbe whenever he’s onscreen. At least until the last third of the chapters; then Crabbe will either literally disappear or take a supporting part in a scene. It feels a little weird–while the chapters have an excellent momentum overall, Flash’s finale is protracted. The last chapter could’ve finished off the serial at almost any point after the halfway mark. Flash starts as Crabbe’s journey around the kingdoms of Mongo but real quick it’s just about him being maybe a prisoner, maybe not a prisoner, of evil emperor Charles Middleton. It depends on Lawson’s mood; she plays the emperor’s daughter and she takes an immediate liking to the cut of Crabbe’s jib. Both in terms of his earnestness and his beefcakery.

Flash Gordon is a serial for kids with beefcake for accompanying parental units. There’s also some degree of good girl with Rogers and Priscilla Lawson. With the cheesecake, there’s at least have the excuse all the Mongo royalty are pigs. With the beefcake… sure, Crabbe’s an Olympian, there’s got to be some interest in him. But Flash doesn’t stop with Crabbe–almost all the male characters are eventually stripped down and coated in oil. And if they aren’t, they’re wearing shorty shorts. Flash Gordon can be a trip. Watching Shannon calmly deliver nonsense science exposition while in black shorty shorts is something else.

The costume design is a strange mix of various costumed drama and adventure styles. You have Greek and Roman soldiers–because shorts, after all–next to a guy in a suit of armor. They all have swords and laser guns. Laser guns don’t get used much, because budget. Budget also comes in on James Pierce’s lionman and Duke York’s sharkman. Lionman just means ZZ Top beard. Sharkman means speedos and a diving cap, maybe some drawn-on fins. The actors give it their all, however, which is stunning. Their straight faces help make the non-complementary styles acceptable together.

The only disappointments in the cast are Middleton and Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson. Lipson’s the king of the hawkmen and he’s either annoying or too broad. It doesn’t help his first scene has him threatening to let his pet tiger eat Rogers since she doesn’t want to be raped. It’s a fairly intense scene for Flash, though Rogers’s under constant threat, whether from Lipson, Middleton, or Lawson. I think there aren’t any blond people on Mongo? So Middleton wants Rogers and Lawson wants Crabbe.

Anyway. Lipson’s not good. Middleton’s not either. The evil emperor never seems megalomaniacal or even regal. Towards the end, when Lawson is revolting against him too, Flash Gordon momentarily seems like a single dad warring against his rebellious teenage daughter, under the same roof, but in separate worlds. It’s only momentarily, because it’s not like Middleton would do it. The character’s one note, the performance’s similarly one note. If he were just a little better, the costume and makeup would probably carry him better.

But it doesn’t matter because Middleton’s far less important for the bulk of the runtime. He’s only important in the beginning and end. The rest of time, Middleton’s mostly around to crack the whip on scientist Shannon, because even though Mongo has spaceships of various designs and anti-gravity rays, somehow Shannon is smarter than all their scientists.

Crabbe and Rogers spend the first half of the serial making new enemies and then turning them into allies. Lawson’s usually around to undermine them and try to get Crabbe for herself. She eventually has to enlist double-dealing high priest Theodore Lorch to figure it all out.

When Flash Gordon does have its second half slowdown, things start getting repetative. How many times can Middleton lie to Crabbe? How many times can Crabbe and company escape yet end up back in Middleton’s palace? Will Shannon ever get his stupid radio to Earth fixed–seriously, it’s like nine chapters about it; way too much.

These repeats don’t end up hurting Flash much. Turns out its nice to see the actors get some down time and just to hang out. Crabbe and Rogers make cute puppy eyes. Lipson gets less annoying. Shannon’s practically an adorable old scientist guy by the end.

And it’s always exciting. Even when the editing stalls out or the cliffhanger resolution is a little lazy. Because Flash isn’t about the cliffhangers, it’s about the gee whiz. Thanks to Crabbe, most of the cast, and the enthusiastic production values, Stephani is able keep that gee whiz going through all thirteen chapters of Flash Gordon. When it seems like the gee whiz might run out, it just starts back up strong again. Flash can never fail.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Frederick Stephani; screenplay by Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Stephani, based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and Richard Fryer; edited by Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd, and Edward Todd; produced by Henry MacRae; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura), James Pierce (Prince Thun), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson (King Vultan), Theodore Lorch (High Priest), Duke York (King Kala), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).


Flash Gordon (1936, Frederick Stephani), Chapter 13: Rocketing to Earth

Rocketing to Earth starts out poorly. The cliffhanger resolution is so lazy star Buster Crabbe remarks on it; clearly someone making Flash Gordon knew they’d run out of resolves. Worse, Crabbe and the gang go right back to Charles Middleton’s palace. The past four or five chapters have just been one failed escape or another–and now they go right back.

With Priscilla Lawson now officially one of the good guys, Middleton just seems like an angry dad. It helps his performance (a little). But then just when things seem dire for the heroes, everything turns around–not just for the characters’ struggle against intergalactic tyranny, but the screenwriters. There’s this brisk pace as Rocketing goes from being wrap-up for A plot to epilogue. Except everyone’s savvy enough to know Flash can’t go out with a final thrill.

Enter Theodore Lorch’s stooge. Lorch goes all out and director Stephani lets him. Lorch seems to understand, based on the content, he’s got a lot more leeway with hamming. It’s even more amusing given Lorch’s more restrained appearances in earlier chapters.

As for Stephani, he gets to do some big scale stuff here–Middleton’s fate–and some subjective camerawork with Lorch’s evil glee.

There’s not enough resolution with Middleton, but he and Crabbe didn’t have good nemesis chemistry anyway so it’s not exactly missing… it’s just unfortunate it’s not.

The strangest part is when Frank Shannon, after twelve chapters of just being there to expound, all of a sudden gets cute. He doesn’t succeed as much as affably bewilder.

CREDITS

Directed by Frederick Stephani; screenplay by Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Stephani, based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and Richard Fryer; edited by Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd, and Edward Todd; produced by Henry MacRae; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura), James Pierce (Prince Thun), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson (King Vultan), Theodore Lorch (High Priest), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).


Flash Gordon (1936, Frederick Stephani), Chapter 12: Trapped in the Turret

Trapped in the Turret is the penultimate chapter of Flash Gordon, which might explain some of its inconsistencies. After a stunt person heavy resolution to the previous cliffhanger, Richard Alexander tells scheming Priscilla Lawson she might just try being nice to Buster Crabbe and Jean Rogers.

So she does. And becomes a good guy. Apparently. She then intercedes on Crabbe’s behalf with father Charles Middleton, who too agrees to play nice. It’s an anticlimactic scene, with Alexander getting to have the standoff with Middleton, not Crabbe.

The second half of Turret is just talky logistics planning. The good guys are leaving Middleton’s palace for another one. Will Middleton actually leave them alone or will he plot against them, regardless of daughter Lawson’s wishes (and presence)?

I swear a few chapters ago Crabbe and Middleton came to another armistice, which Middleton broke a scene or two later. The screenwriters are rushing to wrap up the serial, with Crabbe (to some extent) and Rogers being left in the proverbial dust.

The editors are particularly clunky this chapter too.

CREDITS

Directed by Frederick Stephani; screenplay by Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Stephani, based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and Richard Fryer; edited by Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd, and Edward Todd; produced by Henry MacRae; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura), James Pierce (Prince Thun), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson (King Vultan), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).


Flash Gordon (1936, Frederick Stephani), Chapter 11: In the Claws of the Tigron

Once again, the title refers to a finale item. In the Claws of the Tigron doesn’t have much tigron (a Mongonian tiger), but it does have a lot of invisible Buster Crabbe causing mischief around Charles Middleton’s palace.

The chapter’s a tad nonsensical–Crabbe, invisible, terrorizes Middleton’s guards while all his friends hang out in the laboratory. Only Priscilla Lawson comes up with a plan. Without her, Middleton would just be sitting around sputtering (between getting choked out by the invisible Crabbe).

Tigron is a fairly light chapter for the most part. Crabbe’s disembodied voice performance isn’t mixed well with the other actors’ dialogue, but he’s always going for fun with it. Crabbe doesn’t have a worry in the world since he’s invisible. And Jack Lipson is back, guffawing as he body slams guards. Poor Jean Rogers is reduced to worrying nonstop about Crabbe’s invisibility dependence.

Until the end, anyway, when the cliffhanger has her, you know, In the Claws of the Tigron.

It’s a good chapter, even with the logic holes.

CREDITS

Directed by Frederick Stephani; screenplay by Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Stephani, based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and Richard Fryer; edited by Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd, and Edward Todd; produced by Henry MacRae; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson (King Vultan), Theodore Lorch (High Priest), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).


Flash Gordon (1936, Frederick Stephani), Chapter 10: The Unseen Peril

Once again, the chapter title doesn’t come into play until the very end–The Unseen Peril, or at least what seems like it, shows up in the last scene. The chapter skips a more dramatic cliffhanger, going on just a few seconds longer to do a puzzling one.

Most of the chapter involves Priscilla Lawson’s schemes to ensnare Buster Crabbe finally coming to fruition. She manages to brainwash him, which sends his friends in a delayed uproar. Only Jack Lipson freaks out at the time; Lipson’s now one of Crabbe’s allies. He doesn’t have any function in the chapter other than that initial uproar. It’s a narrative delay, nothing more.

There’s some more filler later on with Frank Shannon and Jean Rogers communicating with Earth. Despite Shannon’s ability to revive (though not de-brainwash) Crabbe, he can’t figure out how to make the interplanetary radio work. Once he gives up, it’s time to go back to the A plot. The writers shift focus entirely between the plot lines here; Flash is starting to feel heavy.

It’s a good bridging episode, though Crabbe’s expressions during the sword fights are beyond goofy.

CREDITS

Directed by Frederick Stephani; screenplay by Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Stephani, based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and Richard Fryer; edited by Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd, and Edward Todd; produced by Henry MacRae; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson (King Vultan), Theodore Lorch (High Priest), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).


Flash Gordon (1936, Frederick Stephani), Chapter 9: Fighting the Fire Dragon

This chapter’s title, Fighting the Fire Dragon, makes a big promise. There’s going to be a fire dragon and there’s doing to be a fight against said fire dragon. Only the former proves true. Any fight is, presumably, coming in a subsequent chapter.

Thanks, as usual, to Priscilla Lawson’s scheming, Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers, and Frank Shannon are all back in Charles Middleton’s palace. All Crabbe and Rogers want to do is make puppy eyes, all Shannon wants to do is get back to Earth, all Lawson wants to do is get Crabbe away from Rogers.

Enter new character high priest Theodore Lorch. After getting a big part in the cliffhanger resolution, Lorch decides to throw in with Lawson against her father, Middleton.

It’s a bridging chapter. Flash Gordon’s getting geared up for whatever’s next–besides the opening, there’s not even a fight scene. The lull gives Rogers and Crabbe a nice scene together, complete with character development. And Lawson and Lorch are great together.

The hint of the fire dragon is pretty cool too.

CREDITS

Directed by Frederick Stephani; screenplay by Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Stephani, based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and Richard Fryer; edited by Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd, and Edward Todd; produced by Henry MacRae; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura), James Pierce (Prince Thun), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson (King Vultan), Theodore Lorch (High Priest), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).


Flash Gordon (1936, Frederick Stephani), Chapter 8: Tournament of Death

Tournament of Death is an unexpectedly strong chapter. There’s a lot going on. There’s the cliffhanger resolution, there’s Buster Crabbe facing off with Charles Middleton for the first time since Chapter One, there’s Frank Shannon saving the day, there’s Jack Lipson having character development, there’s Richard Alexander having hilarious character development, and there’s Jean Rogers screaming every once in a while. It’s actually a better part than Priscilla Lawson has this chapter; she just stands and looks reservedly terrified.

Why’s she terrified? Because of the titular Tournament of Death. First, Crabbe has to fight a masked swordsman. The masked swordsman’s identity is pretty obvious, which leads to an amusing scene for Crabbe. Because Tournament is where Crabbe gets to round out the character a little. He’s a bit of a primpy preppy. During the sword fight, Crabbe’s always keeping form. It’s silly. But it proves endearing.

And then the second match of the tournament is Crabbe versus a giant horned ape. The tournament “arena” is a big empty space, ostensibly part of Lipson’s throne room, but it’s just a big empty space. And Crabbe versus giant horned ape in this big empty space–even with the film sped up and the editors overwhelmed–it’s a bitching fight scene. Director Stephani kind of drags this one with the pacing, but it pays off.

CREDITS

Directed by Frederick Stephani; screenplay by Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Stephani, based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and Richard Fryer; edited by Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd, and Edward Todd; produced by Henry MacRae; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura), James Pierce (Prince Thun), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson (King Vultan), Theodore Lorch (High Priest), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).


Flash Gordon (1936, Frederick Stephani), Chapter 7: Shattering Doom

It’s another heavy chapter. Despite a valiant escape effort, Buster Crabbe ends up back in chains. He and his fellow, shirtless men in shorts shovel radium into king hawkman Jack Lipson’s furnance.

Lipson’s still testing Jean Rogers’s affections. She’s got a couple rather good moments as she tries to misdirect Lipson. Lipson’s a little better in this chapter than the previous ones. He’s less obnoxious and also less sinister. He’s just a doofus now.

Priscilla Lawson gets her emotional showdown with Crabbe, which is another solid scene. Shattering Doom is a character chapter. There’s a hard cliffhanger involving another escape attempt but also a softer one with Charles Middleton arriving to reclaim Crabbe, Rogers, and all their pals.

It’s good. Even if Crabbe sometimes looks like he’s running into action scenes to avoid doing dialogue.

CREDITS

Directed by Frederick Stephani; screenplay by Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Stephani, based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and Richard Fryer; edited by Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd, and Edward Todd; produced by Henry MacRae; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura), James Pierce (Prince Thun), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson (King Vultan), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).


Flash Gordon (1936, Frederick Stephani), Chapter 6: Flaming Torture

Flaming Torture is about flaming torture. Buster Crabbe and his allies get captured when they’re trying to rescue Jean Rogers. While Rogers has an arc with Priscilla Lawson–Rogers has to seduce moron king of the hawkmen Jack Lipson (in an atrociously annoying performance)–all Crabbe gets to do is get tortured. With flames.

Crabbe has little to do this chapter save flex when shirtless and greased up, which is most of the chapter. He’s got to be shirtless to be tortured. With flames.

Because the only way Lipson can tell if Rogers loves Crabbe is to make her watch him get tortured. So there’s a big finish with Crabbe getting tortured again. However, not with flames. Electricity.

While the chapter’s constantly downbeat, Rogers at least gets to do some stuff. Lawson gets to scheme. Crabbe gets to set up his team of shirtless male fighters.

Lipson’s real bad though; real bad.

CREDITS

Directed by Frederick Stephani; screenplay by Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Stephani, based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and Richard Fryer; edited by Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd, and Edward Todd; produced by Henry MacRae; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura), James Pierce (Prince Thun), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson (King Vultan), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).


Flash Gordon (1936, Frederick Stephani), Chapter 5: The Destroying Ray

Despite a lackluster resolution to the cliffhanger–there’s a questionably timed emergency response–and some dawdling, The Destroying Ray eventually comes through. Director Stephani, along with the editors, works up a pace throughout and stops at just the right moment for maximum effect.

Most of the chapter is a bridge between Buster Crabbe and company in the undersea palace to getting them to the Hawkmen’s flying palace. They’re out to rescue poor Jean Rogers, who again gets zilch, even when new bad guy Jack Lipson looses a bear on her for declining his advances. There’s a definite disconnect in the editing this chapter–some of its good, some of its bad. Rogers gets worse editing in her story line.

There’s a fight scene with some Hawkmen, who also fly in for the attack. The flying in sequences go on a while, but the special effects are effective. The giant lizards also reappear but without anything to do (Destroying Ray does drag quite often).

While Lipson’s new villain terrible, it’s too soon to tell how new ally Richard Alexander’s acting is going to shake out. He might be an asset… depends on Alexander (and the script).

CREDITS

Directed by Frederick Stephani; screenplay by Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Stephani, based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and Richard Fryer; edited by Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd, and Edward Todd; produced by Henry MacRae; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura), James Pierce (Prince Thun), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson (King Vultan), Duke York (King Kala), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).


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