Thursday, February 25, 2010

Mixed Genre Thursday - The Phantom Empire (1935) starring Gene Autry

Roy Rogers. Tex Ritter. Gene Autry. Singing cowboys. No, today's mixed genre exploration is not about the intersection of musicals and westerns, though we could certainly do that. Instead we're going to take it a level deeper, shoving one of these cowhands into an underground world, take away his six-guns and replace them with ray guns, and pit him against robots and a long-lost race of people. In other words, we're going western/science fiction with Gene Autry in the serial The Phantom Empire

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of serials, for now let's just say that there was a time when going to a movie involved much more than just seeing a feature film. Instead, an afternoon or evening at the movies might involve seeing a cartoon, a short subject (often some kind of exotic travelogue), a chapter of the latest serial, and then either one feature or perhaps even two (thus giving rise to the term B-movie, as they were designed to play the second half of a double-bill). The serial would be usually anywhere from 12-15 parts, normally about 20 minutes long (though the first part, which had to introduce the characters and set-up was often longer), and a new "chapter" would be shown each week. Basically you can think of them as something like today's TV shows 24 or Lost, where a complete story would be told over a series of weeks. The main differences being that since televisions were not the household fixtures they are now, the serials would be shown in theaters, and each chapter would generally end with a cliffhanger in order to draw the audience back the next week in order to find out how the hero (or his sidekick or companions) managed to survive the predicament they found themselves in.

Ok, so that brings us to The Phantom Enpire. In it we find Gene Autry as the owner and head of the Radio Ranch, a dude ranch from which he makes a daily radio broadcast. Along with the usual assortment of ranch hands (who also double as radio personalities, Autry also has as friends two teenagers, Frankie and Betsy Baxter (Frankie Darro and Betsy King Ross) who, with their friends like to pretend to be the Junior Thunder Riders, the knights of an unknown city whose horses sound like thunder when they ride.

The only problem with all of this is that unfortunately neither Gene nor the kids know that there really are Thunder Riders. You see, 100,000 years ago, the lost city of Mu sank 25,000 feet below the surface of the earth, and its inhabitants, known as the Muritanians, now live in a fantastic underground city, full of towering skyscrapers, elevators that can take them to the surface, and robots to do their bidding. The city is ruled over by the evil Queen Tika, though there are forces within her empire that are plotting to overthrow her. When it's discovered that Autry's Radio Ranch is situated on the land where the Muritanians passage to the surface opens, Tika plots to kidnap Autry so that he will lose his radio contract and the ranch will be deserted so the Muritanians can continue their ongoing raids on the surface world without fear of discovery.

Yet another twist in the story is that someone on the surface world already knows about the Muritanians and the Thunder riders. That someone is Professor Beetson, an evil mastermind who has built a criminal empire and plots to invade Muritania to seize the radium they are using as a power source. Of course, the evil professor also wants to run Autry away from his ranch so that he can have unimpeded access to the entrance to the Muritanian underground.

Autry finally comes into conflict with the secret race when Tika sends the Thunder Riders to kidnap Betsy and Frankie in order to draw Autry into her lair. From there it's a cavalcade of wonder and excitement as the cowboy and his companions must learn how to deal with this futuristic land and find a way to escape. There are plenty of ray gun fights, explosions, cheesy robots and other thrills in each chapter as the kids and their hero must attempt not only to survive, but to topple the evil queen's empire and ensure that the Muritanians and surface people can live in peace.

Here's a trailer:

All right, I guess it's time for the skinny:

Title: The Phantom Empire
Release Date: 1935
Running Time: 12 chapters, 245 min total
Black and White
Starring: Gene Autry
Directed by: Otto Brower and B. Reeves Eason
Produced by: Nat Levine
Distributed by: Mascot Pictures

All twelve chapters of The Phantom Empire are available to watch or download for free here.
If your preference is DVD, it's available in that format from Amazon: Phantom Empire.
Or, if ya just want to rent it, it's also available from Netflix: The Phantom Empire

And if you've seen this serial (or have any other recommendations for serials you'd like to see tackled in my upcoming serials week), whether you agree or disagree with my take, be sure to let me know by clicking on the "comments" link below. Feedback (about the film or any other aspect of the site) is not only welcomed but encouraged.

Until next time, Happy Treasure Hunting,
-Professor Damian


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