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The Phantom Empire
by Gary Johnson

Gene Autry takes control
The Phantom Empire.

The Phantom Empire is hardly one of the best serials, but what it lacks in terms of production values, it makes up for in sheer wackiness. The Phantom Empire is easily one of the craziest serials ever made. It's part singing cowboy western and part underground city science-fiction/fantasy. This strange combination of genres gives us Gene Autry, in his first starring role, as a singing cowboy who runs Radio Ranch, a ranch that gives kids a place to go to get away from the city and learn about the West.

Thrown into this mix we find a mysterious band of riders who storm across the range, leaving a thunderous roar in their wake. The kids have seen the riders and now call them the Thunder Riders, which they also take as the name of their club, the Junior Thunder Riders. What the kids don't realize, however, is that the riders are from a subterranean world, the "Scientific City" of Murania, a city over 20,000 feet below ground, which has existed for over 100,000 years when the residents were forced to leave the surface due to ice age glaciers. The underground city is rich in radium, which brings a team of vicious research scientists to Radio Ranch, eager to seize the land for strip mining purposes.

Gene Autry is captured
The Phantom Empire.

While Gene is trying to keep his ranch running smoothly, the Thunder Riders keep zapping him and taking him underground, and when he's above ground, the research scientists try framing him for murder. Meanwhile, every day, Gene must somehow figure out how to get back to the ranch for the 2 o'clock radio show. If he ever misses the show, he'll break his contract and the radio show will be canceled, ruining the ranch.

This situation forces Gene to bounce back and forth between worlds. He'll get deep into Murania only to realize that he must get back to the surface or he'll miss the radio show. The radio shows themselves provide some of the goofiest moments in the serial, with Gene singing songs such as "Uncle Noah's Ark." With his sidekicks providing the sound effects, Gene sings "the duck went 'quack' / the cow went 'moo' / all were there on Uncle Noah's Ark." The radio shows are acted out as if the radio audience can actually see what is happening. If the radio script calls for a stagecoach to be held up, the cowboys use a real stagecoach, horses, and real gunfire. Apparently no one told them about the wonders of sound effects.

Hear an excerpt from "Uncle Noah's Ark."
(WAV, 15 seconds, 160 KB)

Supporting Gene is a good cast, topped with Frankie Darro as the leader of the Junior Thunder Riders. Darro was a genuinely charismatic child star who never really made the jump to "A" movies. He would remain in low-budget action programmers at Monogram and other B movie studios, usually playing tough-as-nails kids who are basically good at heart. Some of his few "A" movies, include Public Enemy (where he played the young Tom Powers) and Mayor of Hell (where he played the leader of a boys reformatory managed by Jimmy Cagney).

Robots prepare to torch Gene Autry
The Phantom Empire.

Betsy Ross King, a champion trick rider, plays Frankie's sidekick. King was an energetic performer who overcame her limited acting ability with an exuberant, "can do" attitude. She isn't given a lot to do other than shadow Frankie, but she's an energetic presence who broadens the film's appeal for the girls in the audience.

The filmmaking itself is rudimentary. The editing simply slaps together choppy fragments of poorly lit scenes where the camera awkwardly bounces from subject to subject. Rooms are always chopped in half for theatrical stagings and the camera rarely leaves a static eye-level point of view. The movie does feature a few flourishes with the camera, as when Frankie turns back to the camera and directly addresses the audience for the story of how the Junior Thunder Riders got their name, but this gimmick is never used again in the rest of the serial.

Queen Tika, the leader of Murania, is one of the major disappointments in The Phantom Empire. As portrayed by Dorothy Christy, she's a boring old maid who drones on about the dangers of life above ground. The role was no doubt a thankless one which few actresses could have saved. "Fools . . . the surface people are always in a hurry . . . their world today is a mad house. We in Murania are indeed fortunate." She ends up becoming merely priggish and a bore. As she prattles on about Murania, shouting her lines as if no one told her about microphones--"We can never allow Murania to become descreated by the presence of the surface people. Our lives are serene, our minds are superior, our accomplishments greater."-- she sounds like Criswell, the great incompetent narrator of Ed Wood' s movies.

But as goofy and rudimentary as the acting and filmmaking, the movie still contains many fascinating sights and sounds. In Murania, you'll see robots swinging sledgehammers in the furnace room. You'll see moving sidewalks, vacuum tube elevators, and test-tube shaped towers. You'll see the men of Murania sentenced to electrocution in the Death Chamber by the vengeful queen. You'll see mini-skirted male workers who wear strange barbed hats. You'll hear Autry speaking the language of the dead after being revived in the spark-spewing reviving chamber. You'll see the inhabitants of Murania dressed in sandals and robes, while their leaders wear tall hats like cardinals. You'll see ray guns that melt solid stone: "There is no limit to the power of radium when it is controlled." And you'll see the disintegrating atom-smashing ray capable of destroying all civilization. Interestingly, the movie suggests that the inhabitants of Murania are descendants of the Lost Tribe of Mu: "Thousands of years ago our ancestors were driven here by the glaciers. They built this city and since then my subjects and their forebearers have lived here in peace. They have lived a life far more attractive than the life led in the mad world above."

Gene isn't impressed by any of this, though. When the Queen (pumped with pride) asks him "How do you like our world?" He says "Well, I think the dampness and dead air of your land is more suited to rats and moles . . . My business is singing. I sing about horses and sunshine and the plains. . . . Well, how can anybody sing about those things here? Kinda makes you feel good to sing, you know." And who can argue with that? But the movie does contain some good matte work that blends in the actors with the models of Murania.

The western world of Radio Ranch contains plenty of attractive features also. The Junior Thunder Riders give the kids in the audience someone to identify with. Darro operates a secret headquarters in the barn, filled with electronic gizmos, broadcasting equipment, and a nifty telescope for spying on the countryside. And for comedy, Gene's sidekicks William Moore and Smiley Burnette do more than their share of clowning around. But when the going gets tough, they join in and actually use their brains. Donning the costumes of Muranian robots, they swing swords and axes and do their best to save the day. But it's Frankie who time after time saves the day with his fantastic inventions. Gene often simply bumbles from one scene to the next. And maybe that is part of the fun of The Phantom Empire: the kids and the sidekicks really end up saving the day. Bland Gene Autry does his best (including some embarrassingly bad sword work), but in the end he only seems really comfortable when he's behind the microphone of his Radio Ranch show. He's definitely no Flash Gordon, and for the rest of his career, Autry would remain above the surface, at home on the range warbling tunes for his legion of fans.

The Serials: An Introduction
Page 1: In the Theaters
Page 2: The Beginnings
Page 3: Enter Flash Gordon
Page 4: The Golden Age
Page 5: The Downfall

The Phantom Empire

Flash Gordon

Dick Tracy

The Fighting Devil Dogs

Zorro's Fighting Legion

The Shadow

Mysterious Dr. Satan

Spy Smasher

Perils of Nyoka

The Tiger Woman

Serials Web Links



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