Weird Western: The Phantom Empire (1935)


I used to have my own singing cowboy show, years ago. It was at a theater in Omaha, and every Sunday I would dress up in cowboy duds, play ukulele and sing cowboy songs, tell short stories, and provide other stage performances meant for children. I also showed episodes of the Gene Autry movie serial "The Phantom Empire." The kids seemed enjoyably baffled by it, and that seems about the best reaction, as it is an enjoyably baffling film.

The whole plot of the film revolves around Autry's ranch being on top of a vast and ancient world, buried deep beneath the earth, which possesses futuristic technology. Apparently, the film's creator, Wallace MacDonald, conceived the idea while under gas for a tooth extraction, but I should point out that he is not the first to conceive of Los Angeles being on top of an ancient race.

No, in fact, in 1934, the year before this film came out, geophysicist G. Warren Shufelt declared his belief that the entirety of Los Angeles was built atop a catacomb of ancient tunnels used by lizard people. I can't say for sure that MacDonald was influenced by this, but it sure seems like Los Angeles was in a grip of buried city fever.

I didn't rewatch the entire serial for this review, but instead watched a 70-minute edit made of the film in 1940, which was choppy but reminded me of the major plot points. Like all serials, it is built around a series of cliffhangers: Cars falling off cliffs, airplane crashes, and the like. Unlike any other serial, however, this one has an additional gimmick: Autry's ranch is underwritten by a daily radio show he hosts, and if he fails to show up for it, he loses the ranch. So Autry keeps being dragged below the surface of the earth by the Muranians, rulers of the titular Phantom Empire, and then must free himself and race back to his ranch to sing a children's song.

The whole series is enjoyable, but "Phantom Empire" boasts an opening episode that is superlative, the product, I presume, of laughing gas. It's just full of rich, delightful details that the remainder of the series never completely recaptures. The film opens with bandits chasing a stagecoach. When they run it down outside of Autry's ranch and demand its riches, the wagon door opens and instruments emerge, including an entire bull fiddle. The bandits, it turns out, were Autry and his band, and they take the instrument and start to sing.

It's delightful, but it only makes a gassy sort of sense: Autry is doing a radio show, so he does not need to actually reenact big set pieces like stagecoach assaults. Nonetheless, he does this throughout the show, staging elaborate gunfights on his property that a radio audience cannot see.

We first learn of the Muranians from the radio show, thanks to two children who stay on the ranch, played by the terrific child actor Frankie Darro and an actual trick rider from St. Paul, Minn., named Betsy King Ross. They tell the audience that they have a club for kids, called the Thunder Riders, which consists of them and their friends riding around with capes made from blankets and helmets made from buckets.

Darro and Ross tell of having seen actual Thunder Riders, the Muranians. And as they describe it, we see the event, a race between the two children, with Ross riding with one arm pointed directly up in the air, a circus rider's gesture that is just a spectacularly stylish way of riding a horse full-gallop.

They see a group of riders in capes and futuristic helmets and breathing apparatuses and flee them, which involves some impressive stunt riding. Finally they scramble to the top of a bluff and Darro turns and directly addresses the camera, explaining that this is how the Thunder Riders got their name.

It's a marvelous transition, and there are all sorts of these fun little details in the first episode, including the fact that Darro has a hidden science laboratory on the ranch accessed through a series of spy-like secret doors. These details, and the cleverness of the filmmaking, is missed later on in the series, but the Muranian scenes have pleasures of their own.

Firstly, the whole world of Muranian is a combination of miniatures and giant sets, with the former being rather glorious, looking as though somebody recreated the world of "Metropolis" but was inspired by Atlantis rather than Art Deco. The actual sets, however, are either painted in a sort of abstract way, looking a bit like the sets for an expressionist film, or simply consist of vacuum tubes, dials and lights glued to the wall. Much of the work in the world is done by robots that look like the sort of cardboard robot costumes parents would make for children for Halloween.

Murania is ruled by a haughty queen and in the middle of a horrifically misconceived revolution, and it is impossible to know who to root for. The film doesn't really take sides either, eventually just opting to destroy the entire world with a ray gun. Gene Autry seems wildly out of place down there, but everybody seems familiar with him — anytime someone sees him, they cry out "Gene Autry!", like they were fans of his work.

It's all a bit delirious, which is what you want in a movie serial anyway. Much of it was shot in Bronson Canyon, a former quarry that I used to walk to from my Hollywood apartment and is much smaller than you'd expect. There is a sheer cliff with a cave in it, and the cave has been used in virtually every b-movie that requires a cave. It was the Bat Cave on television's "Bat Man," it was featured in the legendary "Robot Monster," and even appears is an alternate ending to "Evil Dead 3."

So the caves are a sort of real-world entrance to Hollywood's weirdest genre films, and it will come as no surprise to anyone that they served as the secret entrance to Murania. How else would you get there?

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