THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (1935)
Article 2603 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 5-21-2008
Posting Date: 9-28-2008
Directed by Otto Brower and B. Reeves Eason
Featuring Gene Autry, Frankie Darro, Betsy King Ross
Gene Autry has encountered complications with his daily broadcasts from Radio Ranch; a secret underground kingdom on the same site as his ranch considers him a threat and wants him out of the way.
I can’t believe it took me this long to get to this, one of the most notorious genre-bending serials of all time. Singing cowboy star Gene Autry (playing himself) may be one of the most beleaguered heroes in serial history; not only does he have to contend with the residents of a futuristic underground city (which gets its own listing in the credits, “The Futuristic City of Murania”) who consider him a threat to their security, but he also must contend with attacks from a rebel faction of the city (who wants to vivisect him to find out how he can breathe aboveground), a group of unscrupulous scientists who want the area for themselves to dig for radium, and a sheriff who believes Gene is guilty for the murder of his partner. On top of this, he somehow has to make it back to Radio Ranch once a day in time for his radio broadcast or risk losing the ranch. Helping him out are the teenage offspring of his deceased partner (who have organized a club called the Thunder Riders made up of kids who ride to the rescue while wearing hooked buckets on their heads), and his two comic-relief sidekicks Pete (the straight man) and Oscar (who has an endless supply of harmonicas and a horse that only moves when it hears a certain song). Now this is the way I like serials; wild and somewhat silly. The action starts out a little slow, but it really picks up when Autry finally makes it into Murania, what with its masked riders (the model for the kids’ Thunder Riders club), bizarre weapons, trap doors, execution chambers, rock-melting ray guns, and, most memorably, robots that look like they wear cowboy hats. It’s fun to see the serial trying to deal with the scientific aspects of the story; one of my favorite opening blurbs describes Murania as a place with lots of radio activity (sic), and I can’t help but notice that Murania is almost an anagram of uranium. Still, the movie probably has the first nuclear meltdown in cinema history (and I do mean meltdown). Plus, you get to see Autry sing “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine”. Quite frankly, this one is irresistible.