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Newly released 'Flash Gordon' is cosmic treat

For George Lucas, soaking "Star Wars" fans is as easy as shooting womp rats in Beggar's Canyon.

Every time Lucas reissues his trilogy on VHS in a new "Collector's Edition," the true believers snap it up, slavering like the Rancor pit monster even as they grumble about the continued absence of "Star Wars" on DVD.

Hey, Han fans, isn't it time to break the cycle of abuse? While you're waiting for a digital Darth Vader, why not check out the source, the inspiration, the first multichapter interplanetary adventure epics to begin with onscreen prologues that rise from the bottom of the screen and vanish into the distance, just like the ones at the start of all those "Star Wars" movies?

We're talking, of course, about "Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers" (1936), "Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars" (1938) and "Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe" (1940), now available on DVD from Image Entertainment, separately or in a bargain-priced box set.

In addition, VCI Home Video has released "Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe" on VHS and in a two-disc edition that includes scores of extras featuring Larry 'Buster' Crabbe, the handsome, if limited, actor who played Flash — complete with blond permanent wave and a sometimes Jon Lovitz-like voice that belied his heroic physique — in all three serials.

VCI also has issued the 1939 cosmic cliffhanger in which Crabbe appeared as Flash's comic-strip competition, Buck Rogers. The serial is available on DVD and VHS.

Most of the episodes in the first 13-chapter, 234-minute "Flash Gordon" serial were drawn directly from Alex Raymond's imaginative and superbly drawn King Features comic strip, which debuted in 1934. "Star Wars" fans will encounter many elements they recognize from the Lucas films: a city in the clouds, stratospheric dogfights, underwater aliens, an arctic stronghold and so on, although the vintage special effects now appear more campy — albeit charming — than convincing.

The first serial introduces the heroic Flash, who — accompanied by Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) and Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon) — rockets to the planet Mongo to thwart Ming the Merciless, a Yellow Peril-type villain who proclaims: "I will conquer the sea, the air, the Earth — the universe!" As played with oily menace by Charles Middleton, Emperor Ming — in later serials sometimes referred to as "Dictator Ming," to connect him to such earthly powermongers as Hitler and Mussolini — is truly sinister and reptilian.

Ming also is eager to subject Dale to what was once referred to as a fate worse than death. "Your eyes, your hair, your skin — I've never seen one like you before," Ming purrs. Interjects Flash: "You keep your slimy hands off her!"

Ming's daughter Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson) is just as, um, libidinous. In fact, she — along with every other woman on Mongo, apparently — openly lusts after Flash, and this sex element is what makes the first serial the most entertaining of the bunch, especially when Aura and Dale don two-piece harem outfits that will hold the interest of male viewers, even if Flash doesn't seem to notice.

"Flash Gordon" (the "Space Soldiers" subtitle was added later) also features giant lizards, fanged musclemen, jovial King Vultan and his Hawkmen, "the gyro-ships of the Lion Men," a lobster-clawed fire dragon, an invisibility formula, the menace of Urso (literally, a black bear with stripes painted on its fur and a ring in its nose), and "the sacred orangopoid" (a guy in a gorilla suit, with a horn on its forehead).

The 15-chapter, 299-minute sequel adds "Azura, Queen of Magic," the spooky forest kingdom of the Tree People, and a wisecracking reporter named Happy Hapgood (Donald Kerr), who — after an encounter with the ghoulish Clay People — says: "I'm gettin' tired of being pushed around by a lotta mud pies!"

Unlike today's heroes, Flash is chivalrous even to his archenemy, who — "mad with the lust to destroy" — has allied himself with Mars in order to turn Earth into "a useless cinder." After Flash slaps His Magnificence around in order to recover a powerful gem, he apologizes: "I'm sorry to have to rough you up, Ming, but I needed that sapphire."

The 12-chapter, 234-minute "Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe" — released as the world was heading toward world war — features a new Dale (Carol Hughes) and a simpy, desexed Aura (Shirley Deane) and the same old sci-fi gimmickry and serial-style perils, as well as such novelties as "Walking Bombs" (remote-controlled robots with polyhedral heads), "Queen Fria of Frigia," and rock men from the "Land of the Dead," who speak in backward-recorded vocals. Luckily, Zarkov recognizes this tongue as "an ancient language, spoken by the lost tribes that once inhabited the Gobi Desert on Earth.

(Apparently, Flash'll believe anything this guy says.)

This time, the increasingly megalomaniacal ("I am the universe!") yet inefficient Ming spends much of his time leering at Freddy Krueger-fingered dancing girls and sending prisoners to his "concentration camps," although one brave freedom fighter proclaims: "There is no dictator in the universe powerful enough to destroy human thought!"

The title of the last chapter — "Doom of the Dictator!" — suggests that Universal realized three Flash Gordon serials were enough.

The extras on the VCI edition of "Conquers the Universe" include footage of Crabbe's record-breaking 400-meter swim during the 1932 Olympics, as well as several lengthy interviews with Buster, filmed in the 1970s, about a decade before his death in 1983. Also included are some priceless old TV commercials that find Crabbe hawking antacid, the "Magic Mold Body Shirt" and Hormel Hot Chili ("It ain't for greenhorns").

Universal also produced the 12-chapter, 241-minute "Buck Rogers," based on the comic strip by Phil Nowlan and Dick Calkins, which actually predated "Flash Gordon" by five years. This time, a brunet Buster Crabbe and his sidekick Buddy (Jackie Moran) wake up in the 25th Century after 500 years in suspended animation. They discover the Earth is ruled by a futuristic gangster, Killer Kane (Anthony Warde).

"He is the result of the stupidity of the men of your century," the "Scientist General of Earth" (C. Montague Shaw) tells Buck. "You failed to stamp out lawlessness, and in the end the criminal became stronger than the law. Racketeers, you called them."

Buck is no Flash, but it's worth seeing just for the Zuggs, gruesome-faced laborers of the planet Saturn who shamble around in coolie pajamas.