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Phantom Empire, The

Entry updated 12 July 2021. Tagged: Film.

Serial Film (1935; vt Gene Autry and the Phantom Empire); non-serial version as Radio Ranch (1940; vt Men with Steel Faces). Mascot Pictures. Directed by Otto Brower and Breezy Easton. Written by Gerald Geraghty, H Freedman and Wallace MacDonald, very loosely based on The Coming Race (1871) by Edward Bulwer Lytton. Cast includes Gene Autry, Smiley Burnette, Dorothy Christy, Frankie Darro, J Frank Glendon, Wheeler Oakman and Betsy King Ross. Serial release 12 episodes, total 245 minutes; theatre release 70 minutes. Black and white.

In his first starring role, Gene Autry (Autry as himself) plays a professional singing cowboy who makes a daily Radio broadcast from Radio Ranch, his dude ranch; he is helped by his two teenaged sidekicks Betsy Baxter (Ross) and Frankie Baxter (Darro) – who lead an associated boy's club, the Junior Thunder Riders – and two adult comic sidekicks, Oscar (Burnette) and Pete (William Moore). The Junior Riders, disguised in capes and cardboard helmets, model themselves on the real Thunder Riders, soldiers from an Underground realm 25,000 feet beneath Radio Ranch. These descendants of the "lost tribe Mu" were driven underground by a great Disaster aeons earlier, and have created an advanced subterranean Utopia currently ruled by Queen Tika (Christy). Here in "Murania", science and Technology have flourished, with Robots, television and "wireless telephones" omnipresent. The "Muranians" also possess a great supply of radium (see Elements): unscrupulous American speculators, led by Professor Beetson (Glendon), plan to exploit Murania for this Power Source. To get Autry out of the way, Beetson frames him for murder. Meanwhile in Murania, the treacherous Lord Argo (Oakman) is planning a revolt against Tika. After a number of adventures involving derring-do, clever trickery on the part of the Junior Thunder Riders, and hairsbreadth escapes, Autry persuades Tika that Lord Argo has betrayed both her and Murania. There is no endangering Autry's prim chastity at this point, though the Queen clearly fancies the singing cowboy. A Death Ray, activated in error, soon destroys Murania, and Tika refuses to leave her people. Autry gets back to the surface in time to do his radio broadcast and bring Beetson to justice.

The theatre version, hugely compressed, may or may not be less coherent than the twelve-part serial. The main screenwriter, Wallace MacDonald, claimed to have dreamt up the tale under nitrous oxide, in the dentist's chair. The Phantom Empire may be the first sf Western in Cinema. Without specific acknowledgement but with obvious affection, though lacking a singing cowboy, it was rewritten for Television as The Secret Empire (1979). [JC/LW]


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