(4/10) In a nutshell: Not even the worst serial acting in the history of bad serial acting is able to completely sink this brilliantly delirious sci-fi western musical comedy starring western and country legend Gene Autry. The film combines wild west adventure, lost Atlantis-type fantasy, Flash Gordon tropes and country singing in one of he most bizarre train wrecks of film history.
The Phantom Empire. USA, 1935. Serial film. Directed by Otto Brower, B. Reeves Easton. Written by: Wallace MacDonald, Gerald Geraghty, Maurice Geraghty, Hy Freedman. Starring: Gene Autry, Franky Darro, Betsy King Ross, Dorothy Christy, Wheeler Oakman, J. Frank Gleeson. Produced by Nat Levine for Mascot. IMDb score: 6.2
Although the United States can’t lay claim to the origins of sci-fi films (that would either be France or Denmark), there is a proud subgenre that is wholly and exclusively American – and that is the science fiction musical comedy. Now, one would think that after turkeys like Just Imagine (1930, review) and It’s Great to be Alive (1933), someone would have pulled the plug. But no. Instead the idea seems to be that once down in the dirt, the only way up is by going even deeper down. Thus we get the pulp magazine science fiction musical comedy western gangster serial. And that is exactly what The Phantom Empire is. And it is awesome.
The Phantom Empire was a 12-part serial made in 1935, and it was edited into a 70 minute film in 1940 and released under the monikers Radio Ranch and Men with Steel Faces. I don’t usually review serials, but since it was made into a film, and since it was rather influential as far as sci-fi was concerned, this is one of my exceptions.
The serial was originally over 200 minutes long, so the 70 minute film is a severe concentration. But the plot is basically the same. And please take a deep breath now:
Gene Autry is a singing cowboy, who is played by Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, in his second serial. Out in the Californian prairie he and his merry men run the Radio Ranch. The only other female on the ranch is Betsy Baxter (14 year old trick rider champion Betsy King Ross), who along with her brother Frankie Baxter (20 year old acrobat and actor Frankie Darro) acts as sidekick for Autry when he goes out on adventures. Inexplicably there is also a whole host of teenagers on the ranch. We’ll get to them in a minute.
The merry men at the Radio Ranch broadcast a daily show at 2 pm where Autry and his band sing and play merry western melodies. But the main attraction is a sort of radio play acted out as if filmed by the inhabitants of the ranch, with horses, guns, carts and all. The serialized story, told in this serial, concerns an old local legend of the Thunder Riders. The Thunder Riders are a mythical band of riding marauders that wear capes and strange helmets, and leave a sound like thunder in their wake. The Thunder Riders in the serial (in the serial) is played by the teenagers, wearing capes and buckets on their heads. They have also formed a sort of boy scouts club called Junior Thunder Riders. All this is then narrated by Autry. The hero of the radio play is Gene Autry. So we have Gene Autry playing Gene Autry narrating a fictional radio play starring Gene Autry. Stop me when you get confused.
One day three evil ”research scientists”, led by Professor Beetson (J. Frank Glendon) arrive by plane to the ranch, as they have discovered radium beneath it – and also hope to discover the mythical lost city of Mu. But to get to the radium, the Radio Ranch and Gene Autry must go. So they first try to kill him, and then frame him for murder, which leads to him being chased by not only the evil scientists, but also by the local sherriff.
As if this wasn’t enough, Autry also happens to stumble over the lost city of Murania – or Mu for short. It is guarded by the mythical Thunder Riders, led by the evil queen Tika (Dorothy Christy). The inhabitants have been living 20 000 feet underground since the last ice age, and have developed a highly evolved society with robots, guided bombs, television screens that can see all that goes on on the surface, as well as a ray cannon and a resurrection machine. At one point Autry is indeed captured, killed and resurrected. Since Autry and the rest of the ranch are now aware of Murania, Tika decides they must all be killed. But Tika is also threatened by a rebellion led by the evil Lord Argo, who also wants to kidnap and dissect Autry to see how he can breath on the surface. (The Muranians can’t, which is why they wear their strange buckets, which are actually breathing masks.) So now Autry, Betsy and Frankie are being chased by the evil scientists, the sherriff, Queen Tika and Lord Argo. Which means we get horse chases, car crashes, plane crashes, gunfights, fistfights and a few song numbers.
You see, the twist is that Autry’s radio contract stipulates that he must be on the air at exactly 2 pm every day, otherwise the Ranch loses its contract. So the cliffhangers are not only whether Autry survives, but whether he survives and can get back from 20 000 feet underground to the Ranch to sing his merry songs every day. Needless to say, he does – even if he must at one point radio in his performance from an airplane while holding a gun to a baddie.
This is all of course highly delirious. The idea is said to have come to co-writer Wallace MacDonald as he was high on laughing gas during a visit to the dentist. While this may very well be true, it does sound a lot like the excuses (”The idea came to me in a dream”) that writers throughout history have used when they actually took the basic ideas from other sources. And MacDonald and Gerald Geraghty have borrowed heavily from wherever they could. The ancient city of Mu is a variation on the Atlantis myth, popularised by James Churchward in the pseudo-scientific book The Lost Continent Mu in 1931. Since the actual Mu mythos has nothing to do with the film, one can imagine that the writers rather took their inspiration from one of the countless pulp stories and adventure fantasy films of the late twenties and eartly thirties dealing with Atlantis and lost cities.
Another source seems to be the hollow earth theory, popularized by writers like Jules Verne (Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1864) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (At the Earth’s Core, 1914). More specifically, even the name of the series seems to be lifted from William Reed’s highly speculative hollow earth theory presented in the book Phantom of the Poles (1906).
But the most prominent inspirations still seem to be: 1. The western serials, that had been extremely popular almost since the conception of cinema, and that were in full swing in the thirties, and 2. Comic strips like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers that started appearing in pulp magazines like Amazing Stories and Wonderful Stories in the beginning of the thirties. And of course Gene Autry himself.
Gene Autry was a Texan who started appearing on the radio in 1928, singing harmless, romantic and humorous western songs, and soon developed his radio personality as The Singing Cowboy. He starred in his first serial in 1934, and was given the lead in The Phantom Empire in 1935. The reason he got to play himself was, according to legend, that the producer Nat Levine was less than impressed with his acting skills. Legend also has it that he could barely stay upright in a saddle for close-ups, and always had a stunt rider whenever he was supposed to do any serious riding. And to tell the truth, he isn’t much of an actor at this point in his career. But his boyish charm and babyfaced apple cheeks do win the viewer over on his side. Autry of course later went on to become one of America’s most iconic western heroes and one of the most influential country musicians. He is also remembered for his many recordings of Christmas songs – including the best known version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Here Comes Santa Claus, which he wrote himself. He starred in 93 films and in 91 episodes of The Gene Autry Show. Autry is the only person to have five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one in each category – film, TV, radio, recording and live theatre.
The best actor of The Phantom Empire by far is Frankie Darro, who despite his young age had already appeared in dozens of films and serials, and would go on to play minor or supporting roles in many A-films up until 1975. He is best known for providing the voice for Lampwick in Disney’s Pinochio (1940) and for being the actor inside the famous Robby the Robot in the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (1956). The Phantom Empire was the last of young Betsy King Ross’ three western serials. As a champion trick rider she was coaxed into acting by her father, but decided she didn’t want to be an actor, which was probably for the best, as she doesn’t impress in her spoken parts. But boy, could the girl ride. Some of the best parts of the film is seeing Darro and Ross do horse stunts together – Darro was also an acrobat and a trained horse rider, who would play jockeys in many films. Some of the action is downright stunning.
The other actors are hardly worth mentioning, it suffices to say that they are either horribly stiff and amateurish or embarrassingly overacting.
Although the Radio Ranch is primarily filmed in a studio, the locations are stunning, American wild beauty at its finest. And the underground city is by the standard of the day, considering it was a B-serial, not bad at all. Metropolis (review) it ain’t, but the stylized miniatures of Murania are pretty well made, although they do look like toy sets, the matte paintings are decent and the interiors are very alien in a Flash Gordon kind of way. Murania is filled with wheels and levers and blinking lights and gauges and even some neon tubes. The costumes are straight out of a Buck Rogers comic strip. The robots look extremely hokey. That’s because they were actually made for a dance number in the 1933 film The Dancing Lady with Joan Crawford and Fred Astaire in his first starring role. The scene was cut from the film.
Wheeler Oakman as Argo became something of a sci-fi serial staple. His next appearance was the other sci-fi/western hybrid of the thirties – Ghost Patrol (1936), a fact that must make Oakman pretty special. He also appeared in the second Flash Gordon serial, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, in 1938, as well as in the Buck Rogers series in 1939. In 1943 he played a police detective in the Bela Lugosi vehicle The Ape Man (review). He returned to the sci-fi serials in his last two acting roles – he appeared in the 1947 serial Brick Bradford and in an uncredited role in the 1948 Superman series starring Kirk Alyn (review).
Warner Richmond appeared in another lost city tale just prior to The Phantom Empire, called The Lost Jungle (1933), and also appeared in Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. Smiley Burnett as one of Autry’s co-performers on the radio show was a highly regarded country musician and song writer and was inducted in the country music hall of fame. He also appeared in a number of western films in small, often comedic roles.
This was director Otto Brower’s only entry into sci-fi. Second director B. Reaves Eason was especially famed for his prowess in directing big action sequences. He famously used 42 cameras as a second unit director to film the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1925), and became infamous for his breezy attitude towards safety. When he filmed the climactic charge at the end of The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), so many horses were killed or seriously injured, that it caused a national outrage among animal rights activists. In 1936 he directed the serial Undersea Kingdom (review) – an Atlantis-inspired serial made as an answer to the popular Flash Gordon serial (1936, review).
Composer Hugo Riesenfeld scored such prominent films as Cecil B. DeMille’s Joan the Woman (1917), The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927); D. W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (1930); and the original scores to F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) and Tabu (1931). Cinematographer Ernest Miller was nominated for an Oscar for Army Girl in 1939.
Even for a kiddie serial, The Phantom Empire is seriously silly, but there is a such a psychedelic craziness to it, that it is hard not to like. The whole premise of the story within a story within a story is some of the most intricate narrative method ever put in a film, and all the different elements makes your head swirl. I suppose it worked better in serial format, but when boiled down to a film it gets absolutely nuts.
Some fans tend to overstate the influence of The Phantom Empire on later sci-fi serials – but it is noteworthy that it was made the year before Flash Gordon and four years before Buck Rogers. It is true that there are many similarities in design between Flash Gordon and The Phantom Empire, but I dare say it has more to do with the fact that they share the same inspirations. But nonetheless, The Phantom Empire, along with Flash Gordon, did take the sci-fi films and serials in a completely new direction. Apart from the Danish 1916 silent film A Trip to Mars (review), science fiction films still hadn’t really dealt with alien civilizations. No-one had yet dared put H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon to a serious filmatic test (the British did make a comedy out of in in 1919, unfortunately it is a lost film), neither had anyone dared try and make a movie out of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Martian Chronicles, or the wide host of imitators that followed his 1914 novel A Princess of Mars. Science fiction of this sort was considered exclusively as entertainment for children and young teens at the time, which wasn’t nearly as profitable a market as it is today. This meant that scripts for serials like these were pretty quickly thrown together and filmed very cheaply. But the fact that they didn’t enjoy much prestige also meant that studio executives often didn’t care too much about what was going on – and as a splendid end result, it meant that they could often be brilliantly off the wall, like with The Phantom Empire.
Now, this is not to say that this wouldn’t be a bad film. It still is. But it is bad in a wonderfully enjoyable way.
The Phantom Empire. USA, 1935. Serial film. Directed by Otto Brower, B. Reeves Eason. Written by: Wallade MacDonald, Gerald Geraghty, Maurice Geraghty, Hy Freedman. Starring: Gene Autry, Franky Darro, Betsy King Ross, Dorothy Christy, Wheeler Oakman, J. Frank Gleeson, Charles, K- French, Walter Richmond, Smiley Burnette, Pete Potter, Edward Peil Sr, Jack Carlyle. Cinematography: Ernest Miller, William Nobles. Editing: Earl Turner, Walter Thompson. Production manager: Armand Schaefer. Produced by Nat Levine for Mascot.