October 3rd, 1874 — April 22nd, 1949
With his gaunt and forbidding countenance and his deep voice, Charles Middleton was an attention-getting actor even in small character parts; when he was allowed to play major villains, he was a genuinely dominating screen presence. He could convey twisted glee, vengeful malice, and tyrannical rage with remarkable intensity, and had the ability to play extremely grandiose heavies without a trace of self-consciousness. Middleton played many frightening villains in the serials of the 1930s and 1940s, but the performance that made him a serial icon was his portrayal of Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon (Universal, 1936). This characterization was so powerful that Middleton became the only actor to play the same heavy in multiple chapterplays–and also became the best-remembered of all serial menaces.
Charles Middleton was born in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. He developed an interest in show business at a young age, temporarily running away from home to join the circus at one point in his childhood. By the time he reached his late teens, he was performing regularly in circuses and carnivals, which he abandoned a few years later for touring theatrical companies. He pursued a checkered acting career throughout the 1890s and the first three decades of the twentieth century, appearing on the New York stage but also touring small theaters in the South and Northeast as a member of various acting troupes. During this time, he met and married fellow performer Leora Spellman, and the two maintained their own vaudeville act for a time. Middleton made his screen debut in 1920, appearing along with his wife in a feature and a serial (The 1,000,000 Dollar Reward) for the Ithaca, New York-based studio Grossman Pictures. After this initial dip into picture work, Middleton continued his stage career until 1928, when he began appearing in Hollywood features. Middleton had often played leading men during his stage days, but by now his advancing age had so lined his face that he was usually cast as narrow-minded or crooked officials, gang bosses, power-hungry madmen, and other nasty types. Periodically he would play more sympathetic characters like fathers or honest lawmen; these characters were more in keeping with his offscreen personality, that of a congenial co-worker and a loving husband, father, and grandfather. The late 1920s and early 1930s found him working steadily in films, typically playing big roles only in B films but maintaining a noticeable presence as a character actor in both B and A features, among them Mystery Ranch (a spooky George O’Brien western), the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, and Will Rogers’ The Country Chairman.
In 1935, Middleton appeared in his first sound serial, Mascot Pictures’ The Miracle Rider. This entertaining modern-day Western featured him as Zaroff, a seemingly-respectable oil magnate bent on driving the Ravenhead Indians from their reservation in order to gain control of the reservation land, rich in deposits of an explosive element called “X-94.” Zaroff, however, was opposed by Texas Ranger Tom Morgan (Tom Mix), who repeatedly thwarted the villain’s plots against the Indians. Middleton’s portrayal of Zaroff was a memorably sinister and commanding one; he laid plans with intimidating slyness, did an excellent job of acting suave and genial when lying for the benefit of Mix or the other good guys, and gave his character’s continual rants about the great power X-94 would bring him the same frighteningly convincing air of megalomania he would bring to his later turn as Ming.
Middleton’s next serial was Flash Gordon (Universal, 1936), an adventurous and imaginative science-fiction epic that became the most popular sound serial ever made. As Ming, the tyrannical master of the planet Mongo and would be-ruler of Earth, Middleton was one of the most memorable actors in a serial filled with colorful performances, whether he was persecuting heroine Jean Rogers with his “slimy” advances,” angrily ordering hero Buster Crabbe to execution, shrewdly parleying with unreliable ally John Lipson, or peremptorily commanding captive scientist Frank Shannon to assist him. Ming was a unique serial villain –no mere gangster or bandit, but a tyrant with the power to conquer or destroy the Earth–and Middleton did the part full justice, making the Emperor of Mongo seem properly imperious and bad-tempered, but also giving him plenty of sly intelligence and cold sarcasm. Though Ming was dethroned and apparently destroyed at the end of Flash Gordon, the serial, like Middleton’s own performance, was too successful not to warrant a follow-up.
Above: John Lipson (as King Vultan of the Hawk Men), Jean Rogers (as Dale Arden), Charles Middleton (as Ming) and Priscilla Lawson (as Ming’s daughter Aura) watch an off-screen Buster Crabbe (as Flash Gordon) compete in the “The Tournament of Death.”
After Flash Gordon’s release, Middleton returned to feature films for the next two years, playing roles of varying size in films ranging from the Gene Autry B-western Yodelin’ Kid From Pine Ridge to the Leslie Howard/Joan Blondell comedy Stand-In. In 1938, Universal brought him back to play Ming in an excellent sequel to Flash Gordon— Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. This serial revealed that Ming had survived an apparent incineration at the conclusion of Flash Gordon; the exiled Emperor was now in collusion with Queen Azura of Mars (Beatrice Roberts) to remove the valuable element “nitron” (nitrogen) from the Earth’s atmosphere. Ming hoped to see Earth destroyed by the nitron removal, as vengeance for his defeat by Earthman Flash Gordon, and was also secretly plotting to usurp Azura’s throne. However, Flash, Dale, and Dr. Zarkov (played again by Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers, and Frank Shannon) rocketed to Mars to battle this new scheme, and wound up frustrating Ming’s plans. Middleton had more screen time in Trip to Mars than in Flash Gordon, and used it to make Ming even more memorable than in the earlier outing. As the supposed subordinate of Queen Azura, Ming could not indulge in as many unbridled dictatorial rages he had enjoyed in the first serial, but his Machiavellian scheming behind the Queen’s back was just as impressively sinister–as was his impassioned rant in the final chapter, when Ming vowed to destroy the universe after being thwarted, only to be disintegrated by a terrified former henchman.
Middleton followed Trip to Mars with Flaming Frontiers (Universal, 1938), a first-rate Western cliffhanger centering around a struggle for a valuable gold mine. Johnny Mack Brown was hero Tex Houston, determined to save the mine for the heroine and her brother, while James Blaine was the villainous Bart Eaton, equally determined to gain the mine for himself. Middleton was Ace Daggett, a slick saloon owner who didn’t appear until the fifth chapter but who quickly established himself as a more dangerous opponent than Eaton, joining in the pursuit of the mine and giving both Eaton and Houston plenty of trouble. Middleton’s smooth and easy-going Daggett was quite different from his intense and vengeful Ming, and also lacked the obsessive drive of his Zaroff in Miracle Rider; however, he was just as enjoyable to watch in villainous action–posing (as in Rider) as the heroes’ trusty friend, and perpetually double-crossing the blustering Bart Eaton, all the while nonchalantly chewing on an ever-present cigar.
Middleton was back to full-blown maniacal mode in his third and final 1938 serial, Republic Pictures’ Dick Tracy Returns. He eschewed Ming’s robes for a business suit to play the ruthless gangster Pa Stark, but was just as menacing as he had been in the Gordon serials. Stark was the head of a family of robbers and extortionists, and was opposed by FBI agent Dick Tracy (Ralph Byrd), who set out to make Stark and his five sons pay for their murder of a rookie G-man in the first chapter. Dick Tracy Returns was a good cops-and-robbers serial, and was given an added boost by Middleton’s portrayal of Stark, who became increasingly embittered against Tracy as, one by one, the junior Starks met their deaths at the hands of the law. The intensity with which Middleton handled Stark’s occasional displays of twisted paternal affection made the character something more complex and more frightening than the average cliffhanger gangster.
Above: Jack Roberts (far left), reads of the discovery of a witness against the youngest Stark son as Charles Middleton (second from left) listens grimly in this lobby card for Dick Tracy Returns. The other Starks in the scene, from left to right, are John Merton, Jack Ingram, and Raphael Bennett.
Middleton returned to Republic in 1939 to play “39-0-13” in Daredevils of the Red Circle. One of Republic’s best chapterplays, this serial featured Middleton as Harry Crowel, a former partner of tycoon Horace Granville (Miles Mander). Sent to prison for embezzlement, Crowel escaped and began to take a fantastic revenge against Granville, on whose evidence he had been arrested. Using his old prison number as an alias, Crowel/39-0-13 embarked on a systematic destruction of Granville’s businesses; he assumed Granville’s identity with the aid of a lifelike mask, imprisoning the millionaire in a secret cell in his own mansion and taunting his prisoner with accounts of the campaign of destruction. However, 39-0-13 was opposed by the three titular Daredevils, former acrobatic performers at Granville’s amusement pier seeking to avenge the kid brother of their leader, who died when the pier was fired by 39-0-13’s men. Middleton played his part with such sneering, gloating malice that he lent a degree of psychological credibility to 39-0-13’s wildly elaborate vengeance scheme; it seemed just the type of idea that an obviously deranged genius like Middleton’s Crowel would come up with.
Middleton played the role of Ming for the third and last time in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (Universal, 1940). Having somehow avoided his seeming death at the end of Trip to Mars, Ming–restored to power over at least part of Mongo–was again trying to devastate the Earth, using an array of weapons that included a deadly poisonous gas called the Purple Death. Once again, he was opposed and (presumably) finally destroyed by Flash Gordon, Dr. Zarkov, and Dale Arden. Conquers the Universe was a strong conclusion to the Flash Gordon trilogy, and Middleton delivered another forceful performance as Ming; though the character this time was grimly focused on his scientific-military campaigns and had less time for maniacal outbursts, Middleton was still given several opportunities to slimily pursue Dale Arden and display vicious anger–as when Flash invaded Ming’s lab in the first chapter; Middleton’s snarled command to “kill him!” was positively venomous.
In the 1940s, Middleton’s screen work began to diminish, possibly due to his advancing age; his roles in features tended to be smaller than in the 1930s, and his film output shrank considerably. Ironically, the elderly Middleton’s next serial role called for his character to participate in more physical action than any of his earlier villain parts had. Perils of Nyoka (Republic, 1942) featured him as Cassib, a desert tribal leader and ally of the cruel Arab ruler Vultura (Lorna Gray); fortunately for Middleton, stuntmen were on hand to perform the active Cassib’s riding and fighting scenes. Vultura and Cassib threatened heroine Nyoka Gordon (Kay Aldridge) and the Campbell Expedition, who were searching for a lost treasure. As a subordinate villain, Middleton wasn’t as central to to this action-packed chapterplay as he had been to the Flash Gordon outings and his earlier Republic cliffhangers, but his supporting performance was quite memorable. His hatchet face and dour manner suited him well for the part of an Arab, and he used his deep voice to good advantage, sonorously voicing flowery Arabian complements and equally flowery Arabian threats in very convincing fashion.
In 1943, Middleton played his first sympathetic serial character in the above-average Columbia superhero cliffhanger, Batman. As a tough old miner and prospector named Ken Colton, targeted by a gang of Japanese spies because of his ownership of a pitchblende mine, Middleton practically stole the three chapters of Batman he appeared in. He delivered colorful “old-timer” quips with gusto, defied and nearly outwitted the spies with the help of a pocket derringer, and died nobly in a mine explosion while trying to aid Batman (Lewis Wilson) and Robin (Douglas Croft). Middleton played a similarly ill-fated good guy in Columbia’s The Desert Hawk, a well-made “Arabian Nights” cliffhanger released the following year. As Koda Bey, a dignified merchant, Middleton aided a deposed Caliph (Gilbert Roland) against his usurping twin brother; Koda Bey featured prominently in the first third of the serial, participating in sword fights and even saving the hero’s life, but he was killed by the usurper’s henchmen in Chapter Five. As in Nyoka, Middleton managed to lend full credibility to Arabian-Nights-style dialogue.
Also in 1944, Middleton was featured in the Columbia Western serial, Black Arrow. As an Indian Agent named Tom Whitney, Middleton was again on the side of right, and this time avoided being killed off. Whitney spent the serial trying to prevent an Indian war that was being secretly instigated by gold-grabber Kenneth MacDonald; Robert Scott, as a peace-minded Indian named Black Arrow, was Middleton’s most valuable ally in the struggle. In the final chapter, Whitney turned out to be Black Arrow’s actual father; the hero had been separated from his parents as a child and adopted by the Indians. Black Arrow was an enjoyable serial, and Middleton was very likable in his largest part as a cliffhanger good guy, gravely and calmly dealing with bellicose Indians and hot-tempered settlers as his character attempted to keep the peace on the frontier.
Middleton’s next serial was Columbia’s 1945 release Who’s Guilty, an almost unbearably dull attempt to translate a traditional “whodunit” feature into chapterplay form. Guilty featured a spooky, secret-passage-ridden mansion, peopled by a cast of suspicious characters that included Middleton as a sinister butler named Patton, who served as the faithful henchman of a cloaked and mysterious killer. Middleton’s performance was one of the few bright spots in this dud; as he slunk around the mansion spying on people, surreptitiously communicating with his boss via radio, or cheerfully intimidating various characters by fastidiously sharpening knives, he alleviated the chapterplay’s overall tedium.
After a few more major roles in B-films (including the title part in PRC’s low-budget but very atmospheric 1946 horror movie, Strangler of the Swamp), and a few more bits in A-features, Middleton appeared in Jack Armstrong (Columbia, 1947), his last serial. Appropriately, he made his final chapterplay bow as a would-be world ruler, playing a leading serial villain for the first time in seven years. As Jason Grood, owner of a tropical island trading post, Middleton was plotting to conquer the world with an “aeroglobe”–a rocketship equipped with a death ray which could annihilate any opposition; he was opposed by John Hart as Jack Armstrong and Pierre Watkin as Uncle Jim Fairfield. Jack Armstrong was a below-average serial with a dull and padded script, but the septuagenarian Middleton maintained a strong presence as Grood; his performance was easily the best thing in the chapterplay. His character’s pose as a seemingly kindly trader allowed him to engage in some of the smooth duplicity he had exhibited in The Miracle Rider and Flaming Frontiers, while Grood’s dreams of world power allowed him to deliver some dictatorial speeches worthy of Ming. Ironically enough, Middleton received no screen credit for this valedictory performance; having been cast at the last minute, his insertion into the credits would have required a revision of the cast card, something Columbia’s cheapskate serial producer Sam Katzman was unwilling to pay for.
After Jack Armstrong, Middleton continued acting until his death in Hollywood in 1949. His last parts were small ones, his final screen role being a bit as a backwoods preacher unwillingly recruited to officiate at outlaw Forrest Tucker’s wedding in the A-western The Last Bandit (Republic, 1949).
Charles Middleton will perpetually and deservedly top serial buffs’ lists of the best cliffhanger villains. His background on the stages of the late 19th and early 20th century gave him a talent for theatrical but entirely sincere acting; he gave his serial heavies the grandeur of a Victorian-era Shakespearean performer, imparting them with all the larger-than-life energy they needed but never seeming overwrought or deliberately hammy. His performance as Ming in the first Flash Gordon serial would have won him chapterplay fame by itself; his reprises of the role, not to mention his performances as Zaroff, Pa Stark ,and 39-0-13, firmly established him as both the definitive Emperor of Mongo and the Emperor of Serial Evildoers.
Acknowledgments: For much of the biographical information in this article, I am indebted to a 2001 interview (by Jan Alan Henderson) with Charles Middleton’s grandson Burr Middleton–an actor himself–in Filmfax magazine #85: “Behind the Ming Dynasty: Revelations from the Emperor’s Grandson, Burr Middleton.”