Singing cowboy battles pseudo-aliens and their evil robots that live far beneath the earth’s surface!
This, one assumes, was the pitch for the very strange 1935 film serial “The Phantom Empire.” Told via 12 different approximately 20- to 30-minute-long filmed “chapters,” the Gene Autry (yes, Gene Autry) film series seems to be the reason the word “hybrid” was invented. And, now, 88 years after the fact, “Phantom Empire” is still one of the very few films that can be adequately, and rightfully, described as a “sci-fi Western.”
The story of “The Phantom Empire” is a crazy hodgepodge of elements, a little bit of everything. It contains: rough riders, western lawmen, secret laboratories, thrilling stunts, hidden lairs, an evil scientist seeking stores of radium, an oversize, clunky-looking metal robot and gas mask-clad, cape-wearing subterranean henchmen as well as Gene Autry singing a couple of Western ditties! And that’s just chapter one!
Later to become one of the entertainment world’s most famous Singing Cowboys, Gene Autry made his radio debut in 1928 and signed his first record deal in 1929. Success arrived soon after and he made his film debut, singing a song, in the 1934 film “In Old Santa Fe,” for Mascot Productions.
Wasting no time, Mascot—one of the lower-level film studios of the time that ground out short filmatic crowd pleasers with disturbing efficiency—put Autry in his first serial where he appeared, more or less, as himself—he played “Gene Autry,” singing radio star who broadcasts a beloved daily music show straight from his own Radio Ranch.
Also in the cast was child actress Betsy King Ross. Fourteen years old at the time, Ross was a champion trick rider whose talents seemed to be made for the movies, or at least the Western ones. She co-starred with 18 year-old Frankie Darro. Darro, who had made his film debut one year prior, came from a family of circus aerialists. His youth, short stature (5’3”) and athleticism was a boon to the Western and serial production as, finally, producers had a juvenile lead and stuntman all in one. Though Ross would only make a couple more films before departing from the screen, Darro would remain a busy character actor for decades to come.
Completing the cast was actress Dorothy Christy who took on the role of Queen Tika, the imperious ruler of the underground empire of the title. Its name: Murania.
Chapter one introduces us to Autry and his two youthful cohorts (Ross and Darro). It also introduces the dastardly Professor Beetson (played by J. Frank Glendon), a scientist (of sorts) anxious to extract from the local land of all the radium reserves he can find!
Chapter one also introduces us to the aforementioned underground “kingdom” of Murania. Murania is located 20,000 feet below the surface of the earth. It is accessible only by a secret, high-speed elevator. The Muranians are a humanoid race, descendants of the Mu tribe, who retreated from the surface during the last glacial age 100,000 years ago. There, they have progressed far beyond us puny earth dwellers—they have built grand cities (very art deco and “Metropolis”-esque in appearance) and have progressed far beyond our technical capabilities. Not only do they have robots that do much of their necessary labor, they also have something almost like television through which they spy on those living above.
One drawback for them however: the air down there is different than up on the prairie and, hence, whenever the Mur-men come up, they must don their proactive gas masks. The tearing off of these masks in hand-to-hand confrontations would prove many a dramatic moment as the serial played out.
In the series, Autry—who, you know, just wants to sing–is under attack from both the businessmen and the Murianians. Both groups want Autry and his nice cowpokes to vacate Radio Ranch…immediately! The Professor wants to dig up the radium beneath the ranch and the Queen wants to make sure that her subterranean kingdom remains undiscovered.
As the 12 chapters of the serial unfold, every sort of action and western and sci-fi trope makes an appearance: stampedes, car chases, gunfights, and enough flashing gizmos to make George Lucas jealous!
According to at least one source, Autry’s “Empire” was a financial success when it was originally released.
In 1940, as was customary for film serials at the time, “Empire” saw its numerous parts recut into a 90 minute-long, stand-alone film feature to be shown in theaters as something “new.” The revised “Empire” was released under the title of “Radio Ranch.”
If, in his serial debut, Autry found the story elements of “Empire” odd, he certainly didn’t make too much of it in his 1978 memoir, where he actually seems to have enjoyed being one of cinema’s first sci-fi heroes. Notably, however, Autry, though he would have a very long film and TV career, would never appear in another serial.
If “The Phantom Empire” seemed like too a bizarre a mix to ever be revisited, well, think again. “Empire” got largely resurrected in 1979 via prime-time television.
That year, NBC-TV, then far in the ratings cellar, was attempting a myriad of programs to try to lure viewers away from CBS and ABC. One unique entry they tried was a weekly action-adventure show titled “Cliffhangers.” As the title suggests, the series was a homage/resurrection of the famous 1930s and ‘40s film genre. Each hour of “Cliffhangers” contained three different stories. “Stop Susan Williams” featured Susan Anton as a “Brenda Starr”-type reporter forever involved in death-defying scrapes. A second, “The Curse of Dracula,” starred Michael Nouri as the famous vampire. And, finally, “The Secret Empire” was set in the Old West and concerned a local Marshall (a pre-“Dynasty” Geoffrey Scott) who discovered a subterranean civilization far beneath the sagebrush (stop me if you’ve heard this before) which includes a race of beings not dissimilar to the ones found beneath the surface in Autry’s “Phantom Empire.” Along with Scott, this “Empire” cast included Carlene Watkins, David Opatoshu and Mark Lenard. A unique feature of the “Empire” installments was that the above-ground scenes were shot with a sepia-tone filter, giving the Old West a dusty look, while scenes below the ground were shot in color.
Debuting two years before the big screen’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” it seems audiences were not yet quite ready for a cliffhanger revival, and the TV series “Cliffhangers” was not a success; only 10 episodes of the series aired before “Secret Empire,” et.al., rode off into the sunset.
(Later still, in 1988, the title “The Phantom Empire”—if not much else—was resurrected as an out-and-proud B movie starring Sybil Danning and Russ Tamblyn. This “Empire” also concerned subterranean goings-on but had no other connection to the Autry serial.)
After decades of being only available in poor quality dupes often traded on old VHS tapes by devoted fans, at the Library of Congress’s recent Festival of Film and Sound, the Library projected a just-restored version of “Empire’s” chapter one from the film’s original 35mm nitrate.
Then, in a bit of a sci-fi full-circle moment, the film was introduced at the festival by Ben Burtt, legendary film sound designer who created the magnificent soundscapes of “Star Wars” and “WALL-E,” among other classic films.
Even at the time of “Empire’s” original release, right in the heart of the 1930s, the serial was viewed as an odd mix; at least one newspaper at the time just called it “strange.”
Yet it is those very elements that have made it memorable. And, today, while the film’s special effects and robotics come across as clumsy and stiff as some of the film’s performances, there’s no questions that every installment of this “Phantom Empire” is filled with enough charm to fill the most vast of western prairies and underearth empires. And if I had been 10 years old when this came out, I would have loved every second of it!
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