Monday, September 19, 2011

The Phantom Empire (Mascot, later Republic, 1935)

 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I kicked off our movie night by watching the first episode of The Phantom Empire, the Mascot serial from 1935 (produced by Mascot head Nat Levine at a $70,000 budget just before Mascot was absorbed by Herbert J. Yates into his Republic studio; that was about double the budget for a typical serial but there were others, including Universal’s Flash Gordon and Republic’s Undersea Kingdom, that were even more expensive) that was the first starring role for singing cowboy Gene Autry. (The first episode is even called, “The Singing Cowboy.”) Autry had previously recorded for Columbia Records in the early 1930’s — they were giving him yodeling blues and country songs in an attempt to compete with Jimmie Rodgers on Victor, but that went exactly nowhere — and he’d already tried his hand in Hollywood in a supporting role in an earlier Mascot serial, Mystery Mountain, that starred Ken Maynard and cast Autry as, of all things, a villain. The Phantom Empire was planned as a follow-up to Mystery Mountain, but Maynard — who had a sense of artistic integrity far beyond the norm for a Saturday-matinée Western star (someday I hope to see his Universal Western Smoking Guns — a tale he wanted to call Doomed to Die — in which Maynard and other principals get lost in a jungle and there’s disease and a D.I.Y. amputation) — and Levine clashed, and Levine decided to fire Maynard and put Autry in the lead.

Aside from launching one of the most solid star careers in the history of cinema — Autry’s movies remained popular in theatres until the early 1950’s, when they were sold to TV and reached a new, mostly pre-pubescent audience — and also starting the singing-cowboy Western genre that also brought forth Roy Rogers (another Republic contractee — one writer joked, “How can you tell a Gene Autry movie and a Roy Rogers movie apart? Gene Autry’s horse is named Champion; Roy Rogers’ horse is named Trigger”), Dick Foran and even a desperate, failed attempt in two movies with John Wayne as “Singin’ Sandy” (and Wayne sings — or, more accurately, croaks ­— about as you’d expect him to) — The Phantom Empire was one of the wildest genre-benders in Hollywood history: what other movie can you think of off-hand that could be described as a science-fiction Western musical?

It starts out with an audacious scene in which it looks like a gang of desperadoes has just crashed the Radio Ranch, only they turn out to be Gene Autry and the boys (which we could have guessed from the seven-year-old boy’s phoniness of Autry’s fake moustache), who disembark from their stagecoach and tear into “Uncle Noah’s Ark,” a song by Autry, his sidekick Lester Burnett (later known as Smiley Burnette) and Nick Manoloff. Later the band does an even better-known Autry hit, “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine” (which Autry and writing partner Jimmy Long had penned in 1932), before the plot proper starts. The credits feature a lot of elaborate sci-fi machinery representing what a title calls “The Scientific City of Murania” (“as opposed to the Humanistic City of Mauretania,” Charles joked), which is the sole surviving fragment of the lost continent of — no, not Atlantis or Lemuria this time, but Mu. Apparently most of Mu was drowned but a fragment of it survived, connected to the rest of Earth by a cave that just happens to open out onto … Gene Autry’s Radio Ranch, where he and his troupe do a daily show. The gimmick of The Phantom Empire is that not only does Autry get involved with the internal politics of Murania and exploited by both sides in the Muranian civil war, at typical serial-style peril to himself, but he has to escape the danger de jour in time to get out of the cave and back to the ranch every day to do his show, because it will be cancelled if he ever misses one.

Also in the dramatis personae are Frankie Darro and trick rider Betsy King Ross as brother-and-sister Frankie and Betty Baxter (Darro was so small and slight that virtually all his movies cast him as a jockey!) and Dorothy Christy as Queen Tika of Murania, though the Muranian plot gets more important in later episodes and there isn’t even a real cliffhanger at the end of the opening chapter. Still, it’s an extraordinary bit of entertainment memorable for its sheer weirdness, if nothing else — Wallace MacDonald, one of the six credited writers (the others are Gerald and Maurice Geraghty, Hy Freedman, John Rathmell and Armand Schaefer), said he dreamed up the whole story while he was undergoing dental work and attributed the inspiration to the hallucinogenic properties of the anaesthetic (nitrous oxide) the dentist gave him — and certainly it would be hard not to believe this story was drug-induced! — 8/29/11


I ran Charles the second episode, “The Thunder Riders,” of The Phantom Empire. So far this serial is proving quite disappointing — especially given that I had much fonder memories of it from having seen it sporadically (an episode here, an episode there) in the 1970’s. The art direction of the city of Murania (no art director or set designer is credited on, but co-screenwriter Armand Schaefer is listed as “production supervisor” and Billy Gilbert — almost certainly a different person from the character comedian — is credited as prop man) is absolutely stunning, even though it’s clearly derivative of the film Metropolis (someone on Republic’s production staff must have seen the Lang/von Harbou masterpiece and copied the Metropolis set designs by Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, Karl Vollbrecht and an uncredited Edgar G. Ulmer) and the two searchlights atop the largest tower in Murania make it look as if the city is constantly advertising a movie premiere. Not that anybody in Murania is that much interested in movies; from what we’ve seen so far, at least, the only person who ever gets to watch them is the ruling monarch, Queen Tika (Dorothy Christy — a semi-major silent “name” here billed with her last name spelled “Christie” and easily the most charismatic performer in the film), who has a televisor in her court chamber and uses it to tune into football games, horse races, auto races (there’s a spectacular stock shot of a crash she witnesses and cites as an example of the barbarism of the surface people) and other aspects of human life she can point to as proof of our inferiority to her people.

There are several quite clever conceits behind this serial — like the fact that Frankie (Frankie Darro) and Betsy (Betsy King Ross) Baxter, the children of Tom Baxter (Duke Lee), Gene Autry’s partner in the Radio Ranch, have named their horse-riding club the Thunder Riders after seeing the real Thunder Riders, the shock troops of the Muranian armed forces, crossing the plains outside the Radio Ranch (which happens to be situated on the site of their “Garden of Life,” though aside from its name we get precious little in the way of information as to why the Muranians consider this particular piece of surface real estate so sacred) and wearing helmets that serve as spacesuits, since the Muranians have become so adapted to breathing the air of their underground city they can’t handle the normal air of our side of the world. (The Thunder Riders Frankie and Betsy form, and to which they give the motto “To the Rescue!,” use what look like metal buckets and wear them on their heads to give the appearance of the real Muranian deal.) Also one of the interesting aspects of the serial is that Queen Tika’s strategy for keeping the Muranians from being morally corrupted by any contact with humans is to forbid them any contact with humans, going so far as to order her minions to seal the doorway between Murania and the surface (represented by a rather crude-looking gate camouflaged to resemble part of the mountain surface on which it’s located).

There’s human skullduggery afoot, too, in the persons of Professor Beetson (Frank Glennon) and his thugs, who want to get Gene Autry thrown off the Radio Ranch so they can attack Murania and grab hold of the valuable radium deposits it’s sitting on (it’s basically the plot of Avatar, 79 years early!) to enrich themselves — and for this purpose they kill Tom Baxter and frame Autry and his men for the crime. Meanwhile, the Muranians try to shoot down Autry’s plane for the second-episode cliffhanger, with a surprisingly large rocket torpedo — the first-episode cliffhanger was literally that, with Gene, Frankie and Betsy dangling off the edge of a cliff, held by a rope frayed and eventually broken by the charge of the Muranian hordes over it (at the start of episode two it turned that the “cliff” was merely an incline and it was easy enough for them to roll to safety, the kind of cheating Republic’s serials were known for).

With an audacious script concept and direction by Otto Brower, B. Reaves “Breezy” Eason (who got second-unit work as an action director on such prestige epics of the time as Warners’ The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn) and an uncredited William Witney, The Phantom Empire should have been a gripping serial with especially well-staged action scenes — only it isn’t! The action is surprisingly dull, and it doesn’t help that Gene Autry isn’t either a particularly athletic action star (so far he’s seemed awfully reliant on the kids to save him!), a charismatic actor or an especially great singer; one gets the impression his great popularity was more as a “comfort” performer, in the sense of “comfort food,” a person whose very down-to-earth ordinariness was what probably drew his audiences and kept them coming to his films and buying his records. (After declining in popularity upon his return from service in World War II — though he served entirely stateside and didn’t see combat — Autry had a dramatic comeback in 1949 as the man who recorded Johnny Marks’ song “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” after Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra turned it down — and it was indeed Autry’s ordinariness, his rather reedy and thin voice and square phrasing, that introduced the song and launched it to Christmas standard-dom whereas the more stylish performance Crosby or Sinatra probably would have given it wouldn’t have.)

It’s also surprising that the big action scenes are unscored — indeed, aside from the opening and closing themes and Autry’s songs (there were two in episode one and one in episode two), there doesn’t seem to be any music at all in this one, a real surprise given how good Republic later got at heightening the impact of action scenes with stirring agitato music. The Phantom Empire is coming off so far as a disappointing waste of a provocative story premise, and I can’t help but wonder if it might have been better with the non-singing but considerably more butch Ken Maynard in the lead. — 8/31/11


I ran the third episode, “The Lightning Chamber,” of the 1935 Mascot (later Republic) serial The Phantom Empire, starring Gene Autry as himself … well, as a character named “Gene Autry,” anyway, who lives on a southwestern spread called the “Radio Ranch” from which he broadcasts at 2 p.m. every day (presumably that’s five days a week, since even then stations changed their scheduled programming on weekends) and to which he must return because as soon as he misses a show, he’ll get cancelled and lose the money from the radio network he depends on to run the ranch. This episode introduced us to further skullduggery not only around but also inside the “Scientific City of Murania,” complete with robots, rocket launchers (one shot a giant torpedo at the plane carrying Frankie Darro and Betsy Jean Ross, playing the brother and sister who are trying to prove Gene Autry innocent of the murder of their father, which happened in episode two; they escaped by bailing out just before the torpedo hit the plane, and for some reason they weren’t shown parachuting down; maybe the editors simply misplaced the usual bit of stock footage they’d use for that) and buildings with searchlights that blink on and off for no apparent reason except to emphasize the debt the scenic designer of this film owed to Fritz Lang’s sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis. 

It seems that Queen Tika (Dorothy Christy) has a challenger to her absolute rule: her second-in-command, Lord Argo (Wheeler Oakman, almost unrecognizable in the quasi-medieval costume he and all the Muranians wear — one of the oddest conceits of science fiction in the 1930’s and quite a few decades afterwards was this assumption was that the future would consist of great technological advances but the political, economic and social systems would revert to the norms of feudalism — and so would the architecture and the clothing styles), who’s assembled a resistance movement by saving the lives of everyone Queen Tika sentences to death (in this episode it’s the captain of her guards, for having twice failed to kill Gene Autry) in the so-called “Lightning Chamber,” where they’re subjected to artificial lightning at 20,000 volts and essentially fried to a crisp — only what’s actually happening to them is that Argo is taking them away and hiding them out in a secret chamber until he’s ready to strike against the regime. (Given the current goings-on in Libya — in which the rebels have apparently dismantled the regime of Muammar Quaddafi but Quaddafi himself is in hiding, somewhere among the secret passages under his palaces — this plot device proved unexpectedly timely!) This time the cliffhanger is Gene Autry getting into his car to deliver the gun used to kill the man he’s suspected of murdering (he was actually killed by the film’s terrestrial villain, Prof. Beetson [Frank Glendon], and Autry mounted an incredibly unconvincing disguise as one of Beetson’s henchmen to get the gun), unaware that his comic-relief sidekick Smiley Burnette hadn’t yet finished repairing its brakes … The idea of Smiley Burnette, not only Autry’s sidekick throughout his movie career (though his so-called “comic relief” is even less funny than the norm for these things) but also co-writer of most of Autry’s original songs, killing him, even accidentally, is even weirder than the grafting of a science-fiction plot onto a musical Western.

Incidentally, though the first Flash Gordon serial hadn’t been made yet when The Phantom Empire came out, Alex Raymond’s famous comic strip had already debuted and I wonder if Mascot was trying to rush out their own science-fiction serial before Universal could make Flash Gordon — though Flash Gordon has it all over The Phantom Empire as entertainment: a genuinely hunky leading man in Buster Crabbe who’s also credible as an action hero (though I still think Steve Hoffman, who played Flash Gordon on a short-lived 1950’s TV series, was way hotter as a piece of man-meat than Crabbe!), the full production infrastructure of a major studio, vividly staged action scenes (the ones in The Phantom Empire seem oddly perfunctory, despite the involvement of two of the greatest action directors of the time, B. Reaves “Breezy” Eason and an uncredited William Witney) and, above all, a rich and powerful musical score: yes, Universal recycled it from their old features, but since the movies they had to recycle it from included Franz Waxman’s dazzling score for The Bride of Frankenstein and Karl Hajos’ less well known but almost as inventive score for The Werewolf of London, much of the music in Flash Gordon was top quality and all of it was used to add dramatic punch to the action in a way The Phantom Empire — completely unscored except for the opening and closing credits, unless you count Gene Autry’s songs (and he didn’t sing at all in episode three) — sorely misses. — 9/1/11


Eventually we repaired to our room and ran another episode (five, “Beneath the Earth”) of The Phantom Empire, the 1935 Mascot (soon to be Republic) serial starring Gene Autry as a singing cowboy who does a show at his Radio Ranch at 2 p.m. every weekday (and has to get back to it because if he misses a show his contract will be cancelled and he will have to give up the ranch), not knowing that the ranch is sitting on top of the location of the “Scientific City of Murania,” 25,000 feet below earth’s surface (there’s a neat-looking glass-tube elevator that takes the Muranians up and down) and that surface-people baddies led by Professor Beetson (Frank Glendon) want to destroy both the Radio Ranch and Murania in order to obtain the vast radium deposits on the site that give Muranians their energy supply.

The fourth episode, “Phantom Broadcast,” which we watched earlier but I hadn’t commented on yet, had two of the dorkiest cliffhangers in serial history — one in which Gene Autry drove in a car before his sidekick Oscar (Lester “Smiley” Burnett, co-writer of Autry’s original songs and his comic-relief sidekick throughout almost his entire career) had finished fixing his brakes — in what became a Republic serial tradition, Autry escaped by jumping out of the speeding car just before it went off a cliff (as I’ve said before, anyone who’d seen a Republic serial could have figured out how to do a sequel to Thelma and Louise: just before the car went off the cliff, they jumped out of it) — and the ending one was almost as dumb: Autry and his co-stars, Frankie Darro and Betsy King Ross (though he’s playing a kid — as is Ross — Darro is a more convincing, and considerably more butch, action hero than Autry is!) are walking through a cave trailing a bag of gunpowder which has a hole in it, spilling a trail of gunpowder which the villains, purely by accident, set fire to (and the payoff at the start of episode five has them, you guessed it, finding the mouth of the cave and leaping out of it just in time to avoid being blown to bits and/or buried as the cave falls from the force of the explosion).

Episode five ends a bit better — Autry disguises himself as a Muranian to enter the forbidden city, gets “outed” when he refuses to take off his Muranian face mask (it’s needed for a Muranian to breathe surface air, or vice versa) and is sentenced to the 200,000-volt death of the “Lightning Chamber” with which Muranians execute people. For a moment it looked like Queen Tika might find Gene Autry irresistible and fall for him, but no-o-o-o-o: one minute she’s cozying up to him and the next she’s implacable again as she announces that within five minutes he’ll be dead. The Phantom Empire is a clever serial but one that really doesn’t make the most of its sci-fi premise — Flash Gordon this isn’t — and it also suffers from the absence of any genuinely colorful actors as the villains: Dorothy Christy is competent but hardly the female Charles Middleton the role needed, and as the terrestrial villain Frank Glendon is no Lionel Atwill either! — 9/5/11


I ran the sixth chapter of The Phantom Empire, “Disaster from the Skies” — said disaster being the episode-ending cliffhanger, in which the Muranians fire yet another nuclear-armed rocket torpedo at Radio Ranch, hoping to kill all its inhabitants. It’s not surprising that this serial is considerably stronger in the scenes set in Murania than in the ones set in the normal surface-world West; though she’s not an imaginatively conceived villain on the level of Emperor Ming, Queen Tika (Dorothy Christy — incidentally her last name is spelled “Christie” on the credits, but “Christy” had been how she was billed on her silent films) is interesting in her sheer implacability, the underplayed way she coolly and calmly sentences people to death — though one gets the impression that if her prime minister, Lord Argo (Wheeler Oakman), weren’t saving them by sending them through a trap door in the execution chamber just before the 200,000 volts of electricity that’s supposed to zap them to the Muranian afterlife are administered, Queen Tika’s edicts would leave Murania severely depopulated.

Episode six actually has a lot of fun stuff, including a lithium gun that looks like the Mascot prop department made it out of plywood but is supposed to shoot a ray that temporarily blinds its targets (though when it’s fired at Gene Autry through the latticework of a grill it doesn’t blind him — maybe the latticework accidentally shielded his eyes) and Autry at large in Murania, first sentenced to death by Queen Tika (that was the previous episode’s cliffhanger, and in a glitch I’ve never seen in a serial before, the way he escapes is given away in the written “recap” foreword before we actually see the sequence!), then deposited down a slide and through a trap door to Argo’s would-be rebels — who aren’t any friendlier to him than Queen Tika was: they assume he’s been sent there to be dissected so they can figure out the difference between surface-dweller and Muranian respiratory systems in order to make better respirators to allow Muranians to breathe surface air!

Eventually he grabs the lithium gun and escapes, but not before Queen Tika has launched her rocket bomb at Radio Ranch, with Autry stuck in Murania and therefore unable to warn anybody, let alone try to stop it. Though this episode didn’t feature one of Autry’s songs (after episode two the only one that has is four, and one of the songs is an ironic retelling of the Jonah-and-the-whale story featuring Autry’s band without him) it was still a lot of fun, somewhat hamstrung by the lack of musical underscoring for the action but still exciting and suspenseful and well worth watching. For some odd reason, virtually all these episodes have deleted the original credit line, “Featuring the Scientific City of Murania,” though there’s no audible break in the opening theme music that would have signaled the deletion — and I rather miss that odd credit. — 9/6/11


We ended up watching chapter seven of the serial The Phantom Empire, “From Death to Life,” mainly because in it Gene Autry is actually killed, then brought back to life in the “radium revival chamber” that’s part of Murania’s advanced technology (and, praise by, this episode at least still had the marvelous opening credit, “Featuring the Scientific City of Murania,” which seemed to have been deleted from a number of the previous episodes on — including one in which it flashed for a second before disappearing) — indeed, this episode was one of the better ones, mainly because it takes place almost exclusively inside Murania (there’s only a brief cut-in during which Frankie and Betsy Baxter, played by Frankie Darro and “world’s champion trick rider” Betsy King Ross, who oddly hasn’t had one chance to demonstrate her championship trick-riding skills in this film, discover the baddies and the radium mine they’ve built into the mountain that also contains the secret entrance to Murania, and overhear them plotting to steal the radium that’s Murania’s sole source of energy) and features some neat skullduggery — Queen Tika, after having spent two or three chapters seeking Autry’s death, wants him alive so she can worm out of him the secret of who helped him escape from the electrocution chamber that was supposed to have killed him (the cliffhanger at the end of episode five, “Beneath the Earth”); she seems to suspect, but doesn’t know for certain yet, that it’s her prime minister, Lord Argo (Wheeler Oakman, which of course is exactly who it is. Though the cliffhanger at the end of this episode is lame — Autry, cornered by the Muranian guards, takes a header off a balcony while he’s trying to defend himself with a short sword — this episode has some charming bits, including one of the Muranian robots slapping Autry’s ass as he runs away from him, and the way Autry is “outed” as a surface man in disguise because he’s carrying a heavy load of something or other, and Muranians have outsourced all their manual labor to robots. — 9/8/11


I ran us chapter eight of The Phantom Empire, “Jaws of Jeopardy,” and found that even though this episode was evenly split between surface and Muranian settings, it was quite entertaining — apparently this was one serial that actually got better (instead of duller and more repetitive — even The Return of Chandu, as marvelous as it is by serial standards, lost some of its mojo and fell back on serial conventions in the latter chapters) as it got along. It helps that there are four antagonists — Our Heroes, Gene Autry along with Frankie Darro (who seems not only more credible as an action hero than Autry but even more butch, despite the diminutive size and build that apart from this movie condemned him to playing jockeys — usually nasty, snarling, corrupt ones — in most of his films) and Betsy King Ross (and once again she’s heralded in the credits as the “world’s champion trick rider” but we don’t get to see her exhibiting any of those skills), trying to keep Radio Ranch going and its signature 2 p.m. daily program on the air; the corrupt scientists headed by Prof. Beetson (Frank Glendon), who want to destroy both Radio Ranch and Murania to get their hands on the radium deposits that are Murania’s energy source; Queen Tika (Dorothy Christy), imperious ruler of Murania, who keeps having so many of her subjects executed we’re a bit surprised that there are any Muranians left; and Lord Argo (Wheeler Oakman), ostensibly her prime minister but actually leader of a brewing revolution against her, for which he’s kept alive Autry and 37 other people Queen Tika had sentenced to death (though by this point in the serial Tika seems bizarrely undecided whether she wants Autry dead, thereby preserving the secret of the location of the hidden entrance to Murania; or alive, so he can tell her — presumably under torture, excuse me, “enhanced interrogation” — who helped him escape the 200,000-volt execution chamber.

“Jaws of Jeopardy,” despite a rather lame chapter title, was one of the best ones in the entire serial: well balanced between surface and Muranian intrigues, with quite good sword work by Autry (or, more likely, a double) that adds to the bizarre mashup of genres in The Phantom Empire (it’s a Western! It’s a musical! It’s science-fiction! It’s a swashbuckler!) in the opening sequence (which supplied the cliffhanger for the previous episode); a great gimmick in which Autry fulfills his contractual requirement to appear on the radio show by radioing in his vocal from an airplane (and actually sings a song with flight as a major topic of the lyric!); and a quite good how-will-they-get-out-of-this? cliffhanger in which Frankie and Betsy stole the scientists’ plane, and the Muranians have shot an energy weapon trying to force it down — and it’s also got three cases of dynamite on board which the baddies (the surface baddies — after a while it does get hard to keep track) planned to use to blow open the mountain Murania is under and get at the radium deposits within, so the pilot (one of Beetson’s gang whom the good guys were forcing to fly the plane at gunpoint — Gene Autry, hijacker!) bails out and leaves Our Heroes to a presumably dire fate … — 9/9/11


We watched chapter nine of The Phantom Empire, “Prisoners of the Ray,” and as I’ve noted in these pages earlier, unlike a lot of serials, this one actually seems to be getting better as it goes along: the direction is more exciting, the writing better at setting up the thrills, and the balance between the characters more workable — though at least part of that is the way the writing committee subtly shifted the balance in the later episodes so that, though Gene Autry remained top-billed and was clearly the “draw,” little Frankie Darro is taking over the butch-hero role.

This episode was almost totally focused on him; he and his on-screen sister, Betsy King Ross (and it’s still frustrating that she’s billed in the credits as the “World’s Champion Trick Rider” but there’s no trace of her doing that skill in the actual film), sneak into Murania and do a surprisingly good job evading the city’s defensive electric-eye beams, robots and human guards before they’re trapped into one of those ray-filled rooms that are supposed to be Muranian Queen Tika’s favorite mode of execution. There’s a hilarious bit in which one of the Muranians attempts to reset the robot’s electric eye (it’s supposed to be guarding the button that opens the secret door between the underground city of Murania and the earth’s surface, and it’s set to vaporize any human who tries to cross the threshold and operate the door without first turning the ray off) but, instead of turning it off, the button he pushes just makes the robot’s sword-wielding arm go up and down, sort of like a windshield wiper on a car when it isn’t raining. (Maybe one of the writers accidentally turned on his windshield wiper when it wasn’t raining and got the idea from that; wherever it came from, it’s certainly a lot more funny than anything this film’s nominal “comic relief,” Smiley Burnette, has done!)

 The Phantom Empire has got better than it started, and an entry on the trivia page for it may offer an explanation why: according to this poster, it seems that Gene Autry had other commitments when the final episodes were to be filmed, so the writers wrote his character out of the ending — then had to write him back in when it became clear the audiences expected to see the film’s star throughout its running time. Still, it seems possible that not having to write for Autry — a personable leading man and a more than adequate (though less than great — Jimmie Rodgers or Woody Guthrie he was not) singer — made them feel freer to concentrate on the action and on the second lead, Darro, who could actually pull it off with more dash and élan. — 9/16/11


I ran episode ten of The Phantom Empire, “The Rebellion,” and as I’ve noted before this is one serial that got better towards the end, mainly because the writing committee shifted the focus from the relatively dull intrigues on the surface world (the one about Gene Autry having to broadcast at 2 p.m. every day in order to keep his radio contract in force and thus avoid losing Radio Ranch, and the villainous research scientists — I chuckled when I saw the wording of the written “recap” forward to episode 10 and it seemed to be phrased as if research scientists were inherently evil — not altogether unfitting given that Republic, which took over Mascot studio shortly after this film was made, was owned by the ferociously conservative Herbert B. Yates, the sort of capitalist who would close profitable factories rather than allow them to be unionized; if Yates were alive today he’d undoubtedly be a big-time donor to the Tea Party) to the storylines involving “The Scientific City of Murania” (though for some bizarre reason most of the episodes available on deleted this fascinating credit line from the opening roll). The cliffhanger from the previous episode featured Frankie Darro and Betsy King Ross being trapped in the “radium ray” set off by the electric-eye alarm as they are trying to open the secret entrance to Murania — you remember — and they manage to duck under the ray just in time.

The plot of this one features Smiley Burnette (billed in the credits as “Lester ‘Smiley’ Burnett,” with his real first name and no terminal “e” on the last) and his comic-relief partner also ending up in Murania (Queen Tika’s [Dorothy Christy] efforts to keep surface dwellers out of Murania have turned out to be spectacular failures; they might as well put up a toll gate on the entrance and charge admission!) and disguising themselves as Muranian robots as they attempt to reach Frankie and Betsy in order to rescue them. The result is some quite good slapstick comedy that’s a lot funnier than anything else Burnette and his partner have done in this film! Owing neither Queen Tika nor the rebel leader, Lord Argo (Wheeler Oakman), any favors, Autry reveals to Tika that it was Argo that helped him escape from the 200,000-volt execution chamber — and the “outed” Argo decides to start his revolution forthwith, sparking an exciting action sequence (the action in the early parts of The Phantom Empire was rather dull but it’s heated up considerably in the tail end of the serial!) that ends with a cliffhanger featuring Autry, unconscious, on an assembly line where robots are welding something or other, and he’s about to get a welding torch full in his face when … It’s an obvious variant on the old chestnut of the woman tied to the railroad tracks with an oncoming train hurtling towards her but it’s still fun! — 9/18/11


When Charles and I finally got back home for dinner I decided to close out The Phantom Empire with its last two (of 12) episodes, “A Queen in Chains” and “The End of Murania” — the latter being disappointing but not entirely unexpected, since it seemed to have been an ironclad convention at Republic, at least, that they couldn’t let one of their hitherto unknown lands survive the final episode since naïve audience members would probably wonder why they hadn’t heard of any spectacular technological advances from Murania or Atlantis lately. Though suffering more than most of this serial from Mascot’s meager budget for special effects — the destruction of Murania comes from a radium ray cannon that disintegrates everything it’s aimed at; it’s invented by one of Lord Argo’s villainous revolutionaries but they lose control of it and it takes down the entire “scientific city” (indeed, the denouement of the 1961 film Atlantis: The Lost Continent is so similar one wonders if its writers had seen this), and the effect is mostly an attempt to “melt” the images by what looks like Vaseline smeared over the camera lens — and also from the fact that Murania dies six and one-half minutes into the eighteen-minute final episode and the rest of it is decidedly anticlimactic (even though the nasty research scientists have to meet their comeuppance somehow, and also Gene Autry has to be cleared of the murder of his late partner in Radio Ranch, father of Frankie Darro’s and Betsy King Ross’s characters), though there’s a nice gag at the end in which it turns out that Darro has stolen the tube that makes Murania’s television system work, so that while the rest of Murania’s advanced technology is lost that piece survived and Autry is shown broadcasting on it at the end.

 The Phantom Empire is quite a good serial even though it’s better towards the end than it is at the beginning (and one unexpected plot twist is Queen Tika’s emergence on the side of good at the end — after threatening to kill Gene Autry and his fellow surface dwellers for most of the movie, at the end she’s not only willing but eager to let them go, and she enlists their help in quelling Lord Argo’s revolution) and the Muranian parts are considerably more interesting than those taking place on our part of Earth. A “trivia” note on claims that Gene Autry was originally hors de combat for the last few chapters — supposedly he had some other commitment, but the writer doesn’t say what that was — and Mascot shot the final episodes without him, then realized that they couldn’t advertise him as the star of the serial if he disappeared from the dramatis personae in the later episodes even though his presence here is pretty perfunctory. He gets rescued in this serial considerably more often than he rescues anyone else, and though Autry had the lead it’s clear that Frankie Darro, though smaller, was considerably more dynamic as a personality and more convincingly butch as an action hero.

The film ends pretty much as it began, with Autry and band once again broadcasting that silly but rather charming novelty song, “Uncle Noah’s Ark,” they were playing in Chapter One (“you’re right back where you started four hours ago!” Anna Russell might have said) outside Radio Ranch, with all right with the world and everything made safe for Autry’s pleasant mediocrity — which I suspect was actually the main part of his appeal: he wasn’t especially heroic, he had a serviceable voice rather than a great one, and he wasn’t all that hot-looking either, but his very personability and unthreatening nature seems to have been what made him score with audiences in this film and for about 15 years thereafter. The comic-relief parts of Smiley Burnette as Oscar and William Moore as Pete are genuinely amusing in the later episodes when the plot sticks them in Murania and they have to disguise themselves as Muranian robots to survive, and even when that isn’t happening they’re still considerably more amusing in the last three episodes than in the previous ones.