Magazine article American Cinematographer

Making the Flash Gordon Serials

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Making the Flash Gordon Serials

Article excerpt

Universal Studio in 1935 teetered precariously on the edge of bankruptcy. Each year since the advent of the Great Depression the company had temporarily suspended all contracts and shut down operations for several weeks in order to save enough money to resume production.

The president of Universal was Carl Laemmle, known to his employees as Uncle Carl, the "little giant" from Germany who has been producing movies since 1909. His son, Carl Laemmle Jr., was general manager of the studio. An old Laemmle colleague and sometime studio manager, Henry MacRae, was in charge of producing all Universal serials, which were issued at the rate of four per year. A dapper Scotsman from Canada, MacRae was able to work very much as he pleased as long as he kept his serials within time limits of six to eight weeks and brought them in on budgets ranging from $175,000 to $250,000. These were fairly substantial feature allotments for that time, but since serials were made up of from 12 to 15 chapters totalling four or five hours of running time, it meant long hours and hard work for cast and crew and the necessity of making as many as 80 camera setups per day.

Universal had been making serials since 1914. They were regarded as surefire money makers which were booked year-round by more than 4,000 theaters in the United States alone. The foreign market was extremely rich as well. Inexplicably, the chapter plays were accorded a stepchild status in the industry and they had to be made under abysmal conditions with a minimum of departmental cooperation.

The Laemmles knew that MacRae could deliver the goods and they kept the lesser management out of his hair. For example, liquor was forbidden on all sets, yet MacRae openly kept his actors and crewmen high on "jungle juice" to help them get through the arduous days and nights. He mixed the concoction in a large barrel and every half hour or so he would call a halt and serve everybody a drink. Hourly he served caviar or sandwiches.

The first serial to be based on a newspaper cartoon was TAILSPIN TOMMY, produced by Universal in 1934. A sequel followed. The success of these pictures set the studio heads to looking at other adventure strips with the idea of making serials which were pre-sold to millions of readers. FLASH GORDON, drawn for King Features Syndicate by the young and brilliant Alex Raymond, was optioned by Universal for $10,000. Science-fiction elements had often been used in serials before, but FLASH GORDON was an interplanetary yarn necessitating fantastic sets, bizarre characters, a great variety of costumes, and a mind-boggling number of special effects shots. Four writers-Frederick Stephanie, George Plympton, Basil Dickey and Ella O'Neill-put the screenplay together in 13 episodes. The cartoon version was followed as closely as any literary adaptation. Stephanie had written romantic dramas at Paramount; Plympton and Dickey were veteran serial specialists; Miss O'Neill was MacRae's assistant.

In casting the serial, MacRae selected Jean Rogers and Priscilla Lawson, who were Dale Arden and Princess Aura, respectively, from the studio contract list. He borrowed a reluctant Paramount contract actor, Larry "Buster" Crabbe, for the starring role after he saw Crabbe watching other athletic actors being interviewed for the role. "I thought the idea was crazy and that nobody would buy it," Crabbe said. "When MacRae talked to my bosses at Paramount, I had no choice in the matter." It became his most famous role.

Born in California and raised in Hawaii, Crabbe was freestyle swimming champion of the 1933 Olympics. While studying law, he was "discovered" by Paramount scouts who dubbed him "the world's most perfectly developed male" and starred him in an excellent melodrama, KING OF THE JUNGLE, in 1933. Muscular, but lean and graceful, he looked like Flash Gordon come to life, except that Flash was blond. Having his hair bleached proved to be an ordeal. The first treatment turned his brown hair a bright red. …

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