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. (4/10)
The Phantom Empire. USA, 1935. Directed by Otto Brower, B. Reeves Eason. 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. IMDb: 6.3/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
While 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 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 titles 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 on the Californian prairie he and his merry men run the Radio Ranch. The only 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 incorporated in the show and 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 where he plays a fictional version of his fictional self. 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 be cleared away for the bulldozers. So instead of getting an excavation permit, the two scientists first try to have him killed and then frame him for murder, which leads to him being chased by not only the evil scientists, but also by the local sheriff.
As if this wasn’t enough, Autry also just 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, inconveniently, wants to kidnap and dissect Autry to find out 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 sheriff, Queen Tika and Lord Argo. Which means we get horse chases, car crashes, plane crashes, gunfights, fistfights and, naturally, a couple of song numbers.
You see, the twist is that Autry’s radio contract stipulates that he must be on 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. In his book, Churhward describes Mu as a gigantic continent the size of both Americas combined, almost filling up the entire Pacific Ocean. The actual Mu mythos has nothing to do with the film, and the inspiration for the plot seems to be cobbled together from different pulp stories, primarily those concerning the lost city of Atlantis.
Another source seems to be the hollow earth theory, popularized by writers like Jules Verne (Journey to the Centre of the Earth, 1864), Edward Bulwer-Lytton (The Coming Race, 1871) 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).
Max Parber at The Wildest West points out that one possible inspiration for MacDonald may have been the highly publicised search in 1934 by geologist G. Warren Shufelt for tunnels full of gold beneath Los Angeles, excavated by a long since dead “lizard people”. This weird story really would deserve a whole blog post of its own, but the long and the short of it is that Shufelt claimed to have invented a “radio x-ray machine” with which he had catalogued a whole underground city 250 feet below Los Angeles. These claims were backed up — at least according to the testimony of Shufelt himself — by “Chief Green Leaf” of the Hopi, also known as one “L. Macklin”, who corroborated that there was an old Hopi legend of an ancient race called “the lizard people” who built an underground city some 5,000 years ago. Shufelt further claimed that his machine had been able to detect the “37 gold tablets” that the Hopi legend spoke of. He provided the press with a detailed map of the city, as mapped by his “radio x-ray machine”, and actually was able to acquire a permit to excavate Fort Moore Hill, but not before raising a substantial amount of funding from a number of people who bought into his claims. Unfortunately, all he found was mud and water, and to the great disappointment of his financial backers, Shufelt and his associates declared that the drilling must have hit a water deposit, which had now flooded the tunnels, making further excavations impossible.
Inverse reveals that Shufelt’s “radio x-ray machine” was nothing more than a dowsing pendulum inside a steel and glass cylinder, that there are no records, prior to the testimony of “Chief Green Leaf” of any Hopi legend regarding ancient cave-dwelling lizard people, and that Navajo records knows of no tribe member by the names of either Chief Green Leaf nor Macklin alive in the thirties. Moreover, Shufelt wasn’t the first to look for gold at Fort Moore Hill — as early as the late 19th century excavators dug for buried Mexican treasure at the mound, and in 1902 an old woman at her deathbed revealed a map of the lost treasure under the hill — which could be found with a dowsing rod, no less. However, Shufelt’s claim is certainly the most colourful, and incidentally seems to have been the major inspiration for David Icke’s equally colourful conspiracy theory about the illuminati of lizard people ruling the world.
It’s impossible to know to what extent MacDonald was actually inspired by Shufelt’s underground civilisation of lizards beneath Los Angeles, but at least he would have been aware of the story and the excavations. But the most prominent inspirations for The Phantom Empire 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 played himself was, according to legend, that 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 was doubled by 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 babyface apple cheeks do win the viewer over on his side. Autry 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 Robby the Robot in the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (1956, review). 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.
The filming is your usual slapdash serial fare, as Gary Johnson writes at Images: “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.” Richard Scheib at Moria notes that the serial is “poorly directed” even as serials go: “the two directors’ idea seems to have been merely to aim a camera at the action and film what ever happened in front of it with no attempt made to dramatically stage shots.”
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, review), a fact that must make Oakman pretty special. He also appeared in the second Flash Gordon serial (review), 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.
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 regarding on-set 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).
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 for 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, and not that The Phantom Empire as such would have inspired these serials. However, the serial did serve as an inspiration for schlock director Fred Olen Ray’s 1988 movie The Phantom Empire, in which a team of adventurers battle man-eating trogdolytes underground in search for diamonds, only to find a lost city in the bowels of the Earth.
But credit where credit’s due: 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), and the comedy Just Imagine, science fiction films at this point in time still hadn’t really dealt with alien civilizations. 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. Many modern reviewers have a special place in their hearts for this silly outing. Richard Shieb at Moria puts this down to nostalgia and Autry fandom: “Even for a serial, the plot seems padded by endless numbers where Gene Autry sings (not to mention the terribly contrived plot device of him having to return to the ranch every so often lest he lose his contract. It is nearly half the serial before he ever gets to go down to Murania, for instance)”. However, I feel that Shieb misses the point: the people who love the serial don’t make excuses for its shoddy production and script, on the contrary, they love it precisely because it’s so insanely bad.
The Phantom Empire. USA, 1935. 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.