September 13, 2009

Flash Gordon Meets Frankenstein

A case of perfect casting: Larry “Buster” Crabbe as the intrepid Flash Gordon and Jean Rogers as his sweetheart Dale Arden strike a classic pose in this promotional still for the Universal serial Flash Gordon of 1936.

That staircase look familiar? Run upstairs, turn right, and you’re in Frankenstein’s laboratory.

Routinely identified on sites such as the IMDB or Wikipedia as the staircase from the original 1931 Frankenstein, these watchtower steps are actually from Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Compare screencaps below: The Frankenstein stairs came straight down whereas the Bride stairs took a sharp ninety-degree turn at the bottom. The original ’31 stairs were also heavily weathered and worn down with ancient grooves. The ’35 stairs were cut clean and straight.

If anything was left standing from the ’31 production, it was heavily remodeled in early ’35 for The Bride, with a new plaster coat and a large overhead beam added. The original wall had gouges and a chunk missing on the left side, and the right side was much rougher, with several knobby stones sticking out. The Bride/Flash walls are smooth and flat, with relatively uniform stone shapes.

Dwight Frye made the most of the stair sets in both pictures. In 1931, as the frenetic assistant, Fritz, he famously stops midway to pull up his socks. In the 1935 film, as Dr. Pretorius’ murderous henchman, Karl, he runs downstairs pulling on his coat, muttering to himself about his mission to hurry up and find a “fresh” heart for the waiting Bride.

Based on the masterful, elegant comic strip created by Alex Raymond in 1934, Universal’s Flash Gordon was, reputedly, one of the most expensive serials ever made. It’s a wonderful piece of retro science fiction and kooky fantasy with smoke-belching spaceships, winged men, an array of monsters (including a unicorn gorilla), and crazy costume and set design that recklessly mix art deco, medieval motifs, Arabian nights and chinoiseries. The non-stop cliffhanger action is peppered with surprisingly erotic moments provided by Jean Rogers as the virginal Dale Arden in a clinging white dress and slinky Priscilla Lawson as the alluringly evil, dark-haired Princess Aura.

Buster Crabbe was a true Golden Age movie action star, playing Flash, Tarzan and Buck Rogers. Despite his expressed displeasure at having his hair bleached blonde and curled, he makes for a fabulously dashing spaceman. On the principle that a great hero needs a great villain, the mayhem on planet Mongo is orchestrated with considerable élan by Charles Middleton as the unforgettable, aptly named Ming The Merciless. Today, Flash Gordon stands as the first serial officially preserved under the American Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

The Frankenstein staircase is used twice, in quick succession, as two different locations. It is first featured in a procession scene, decorated with a large freestanding torch. Moments later, it has been repurposed as an escape route, torch removed and a tall urn set to the side, scene of an all-out brawl sequence after Flash has saved, in extremis, the brainwashed Dale from a shotgun wedding to the nefarious Ming himself, a fate truly worse than death. Further borrowing from Bride of Frankenstein, music cues were sampled throughout the serial, as well as insert clips of Kenneth Strickfaden’s electrical laboratory gadgets, now serving as futuristic machinery.

Another Frankenstein connection to Flash Gordon is the presence of a future Frankenstein Monster, Glenn Strange, plugging away in three uncredited parts. He is said to have played a robot, one of Ming’s soldiers, and his first monster role as the Godzilla-sized creature called the Gocko.

An anecdote: In the early Sixties, in my home town of Montréal, a local celebrity, Magic Tom Auburn, hosted a late afternoon TV kids’ show that showed cartoons, Three Stooges shorts and serials like King of the Rocket Men and The Crimson Ghost. The Flash Gordon serial, much to my chagrin, was yanked after only two episodes when parents complained that the dragon-like Gocko had sent their children into fits of hysteria. Took me another thirty years before I found out how Flash had escaped those giant lobster claws!

Update: Richard Sala reports that Carroll Borland, soon to become famous as Bela Lugosi’s Vampire Girl in Mark of the Vampire (1935), appears in the Flash serial as one of Aura’s handmaiden. Also noteworthy: Bull Montana, the Missing Link from The Lost World (1925) plays a “monkey man” wrestler.

More Frankenstein connections: Stuntman Eddie Parker, one of Ming’s soldiers, would sub briefly for Bela Lugosi as the Frankenstein Monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), and Harry Wilson, doing an uncredited bit as a sentry in Chapter One would go on to play the very homely female monster in Frankenstein’s Daughter (1958).

Finally, here’s a great YouTube clip from the serial showing the Bride of Frankenstein stairs in the wedding procession and the ensuing fisticuffs scene. There’s also a nice scene of Dale Arden getting zombified by super-science neon lights, and the idol with the moving arm was originally the Egyptian god statue that zapped Boris Karloff in The Mummy (1932).

A very comprehensive Flash Gordon site

Source, top photo: Yesterday's Thrills and Adventures


Rick said...

Great stuff, Pierre. My first exposure to FLASH was, like yours, on a local kiddie show, just a decade earlier. About 5 minutes worth would be shown each day. I remember being physically dragged away from the TV just as Flash was about to wrestle that gorilla-thing, because we had to go pick up my mom. Missing that epic battle was traumatic and is burned on my brain, though I was no older than four at the time.
FLASH GORDON was my first exposure to any type of fantastic cinema. Thanks for the memories.

Torgonator424 said...

Great site - Forry Ackerman would be proud.

rob! said...

I haven't seen those Flash serials in years--I used to love them as a kid. This post makes me want to check them out again...

Matt Bradshaw said...

Great post.

It looks like Flash's costume was recycled for Jor-El of Krypton in the 1950s Superman TV series (
Also, although I don't have the image right in front of me, I'm pretty certain one of the Kryptonian elders in that same episode was wearing at least part of Tom Tyler's costume from The Adventures of Captain Marvel.

Christopher said...

I want those Frankenstein Stairs for my house :o(
The gals sure are gorgeous in that serial..I always thought those hairy wrestler guys were pretty creepy..

Pierre Fournier said...

Torgonator: Thanks! Very nice of you to say that.