Fates Worse Than Death: The Phantom Empire

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Radio Ranch is a busy place: Frankie and Betsy Baxter’s father Tom co-owns the ranch with “Radio’s Singing Cowboy” Gene Autry, whose daily broadcasts have brought visitors from all over. The Baxter kids also run the “Junior Thunder Riders,” a combination fan club and service organization (after some debate, they settle on “To the rescue!” as their motto) inspired by a mysterious group of riders they once witnessed in nearby Thunder Valley. In addition, Frankie is a tinkerer (with an enviable workshop in the barn loft), assembling electrical gadgets using instructions from Popular Science (and occasionally borrowing parts from the ranch’s radio engineer!).
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The action begins with the arrival of Professor Beetson and his crew, secretly in search of a radium deposit Beetson believes to be in the area. At the same time, one of Frankie’s devices, a radio signal “direction finder,” indicates that some scrambled signals he’s been tracking for weeks are coming from straight down, somewhere in the depths of the earth.
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Before the first chapter is over, it is revealed that the mysterious riders, the radium deposit, and the unknown radio signals are all connected to “The Scientific City of Murania” 25,000 feet below the surface, a realm of futuristic marvels ruled by the haughty Queen Tika and whose entrance in Thunder Valley is protected by her royal guard (the “Thunder Riders” the Baxters witnessed, wearing gas mask-like breathing apparatuses while at surface level). It isn’t long before the surface and subterranean worlds collide and the fates of Autry and Tika are entwined!
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As the story develops, Beetson’s greed (for both radium and scientific acclaim) and the Baxters’ curiosity endanger Murania’s secret. Beetson hopes to get Autry out of the way—if Autry misses a broadcast, he’ll lose his radio contract and the ranch—so that he won’t have any interference in his digging (or have to share any of his finds with the property owners and government). Beetson even goes so far as to kill Tom Baxter and frame Autry for the crime! Queen Tika wants both Autry and Beetson gone for similar reasons: too many visitors to Radio Ranch means risking the discovery of Murania, and their serene kingdom must never be desecrated by the presence of surface people!
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Little does Tika know, however, that there is division in her own kingdom: her Chancellor, Argo, schemes to overthrow her with a band of rebels, men he has saved from death in the “Lightning Chamber.” Will she succeed in keeping her throne? Will Frankie and Betsy discover the secret of the underground city? Will Beetson succeed in keeping Gene Autry away from Radio Ranch, or will Autry make it back to broadcast a performance at two o’clock each day?
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Thus begins the epic twelve-chapter Mascot serial The Phantom Empire, Gene Autry’s debut as a leading man (following his attention-getting appearance in In Old Santa Fe) and one of the strangest examples of the form. This is one I had actually seen before: The Phantom Empire was my introduction to the serials several years ago, and revisiting it in light of my recent exploration has not lessened its curiosity factor.

As even this brief summary indicates, there are numerous characters with competing interests to be accommodated by the story, and while some of them fit the profile of stock serial characters—the juveniles, the imperious monarch, the scientist-explorer—both the energy of the performances and the unusual situations in which they find themselves make them stand out as individuals. Even the comic relief, provided by Autry’s sidemen Oscar and Pete (longtime sidekick Lester “Smiley” Burnett and Peter Potter, credited as “William Moore,” respectively), is more idiosyncratic than the typical examples (for one thing, they actually help advance the plot).


Gene Autry is the star, of course, playing the fictionalized version of himself that would carry him through dozens of features and television episodes, bland but likeable, a good guy and friend to all except for heels like Beetson (even Queen Tika eventually comes to see him as an ally). (Incidentally, there is a perception, given his persona, that Autry sings in every chapter, but this is not so: fewer than half the chapters include musical numbers, and in some cases the film cuts to other action, the song continuing in the background.)


Most pulp heroes are intentionally somewhat blank, more active than reflective, the better for audiences to project themselves onto their characters. In this case, however, the audience identification characters are clearly Frankie and Betsy (played by frequent juvenile leads Frankie Darro and Betsy King Ross, whom we saw in Fighting with Kit Carson): their leadership of the Junior Thunder Riders (whom they address as part of Autry’s radio broadcast) and Frankie’s do-it-yourself projects are clear appeals to the kinds of young viewers who might throw themselves into fandom, who in the following generations might become Futurians, or members of the Merry Marvel Marching Society, or Trekkies, or Whovians. Were they around today, the Junior Thunder Riders would undoubtedly be attending Comic-Con.

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Obviously, the most notable element of The Phantom Empire is its mingling of genres, drawing on the “modern” Western (in which contemporary inventions such as radio, automobiles, and airplanes coexist with horses and six-guns) and space opera (albeit of the inner rather than outer variety). Very little of Murania, with its gleaming art deco spires (reminiscent of both Metropolis and the Emerald City of Oz) and fantastic machinery, including robots and disintegration rays, would be out of place the following year in Flash Gordon. Like the royalty of planet Mongo, the citizens of Murania dress with stagey, pseudo-medieval flair and favor both swords and ray guns for defense. With their flowing cloaks and ornate headgear, it’s no wonder Frankie and Betsy took the Queen’s royal guard as their models for the Junior Thunder Riders.

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The genre mash-up (which, even at this late date, is still unusual in film*) gives it a quaint appeal. Much of Murania’s technology was on the cusp of becoming real in 1935, but must have seemed as fantastic as the automobile would have been in the Old West: radium is treated as a source of almost magical power, not only powering the weapons and machines of Murania but even bringing people—including Gene Autry—back from the brink of death in a “radium reviving chamber.” The disintegrating ray that (inevitably) dooms Murania must have seemed fanciful indeed until real-life atomic bombs cast all such science fiction premises in a new light ten years later. Television is a particular object of fascination, treated here as a magic mirror, able to direct its user’s view almost anywhere with godlike omniscience. (Queen Tika’s viewer, which gets much use, even takes the form of a spiraling horizontal disc, like an oracle’s scrying pool.)

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There had been fictional treatments of a hollow earth, or at least of subterranean realms, before, by such authors as Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and underground kingdoms continued to be popular in the science fiction and fantasy pulps. The Muranians are identified as descendants of ancient Mu who went underground one hundred thousand years earlier, fleeing the advancing glaciers of the Ice Age. Separate from the “mad world” above, they cultivated an advanced science based on the abundant radium they found.


Even in the 1930s, such beliefs were the territory of fringe science and occultism: I’m sure no one involved thought they were making a documentary, but the backstory indicates that at least one of the writers had been paying close attention to such ideas. In Chapter One, after Frankie’s direction finder has detected the radio signals from underground, Betsy asks Autry, “Say, do you suppose there’s anything to any of those books that Frankie’s been reading, about a world underground, with people and cities and everything?” Without hesitating, Autry replies, “Well, of course there’s something to them,” like a regular reader of Amazing Stories.


Speaking of that esteemed publication, The Phantom Empire anticipates by several years the so-called “Shaver Mystery” that appeared in its pages. Beginning in 1943, Amazing Stories’ editor Ray Palmer began printing letters and stories from Richard S. Shaver, who claimed he could hear voices from reincarnated spirits from the past and decode markings left in stone by the long-ago inhabitants of Atlantis and Lemuria. An important part of Shaver’s increasingly complex cosmology was the present-day survival of the original Lemurians’ descendants, who, subject to harmful rays from our sun, had degenerated into “detrimental robots” or “deros.” The deros continued to live in vast cave and tunnel systems beneath the earth, and, through their mastery of the ray technology left behind by the ancients, wreaked all manner of havoc on the surface. Eventually, Shaver came to believe that all illness, mental distress, war, and other problems of the individual and society were caused by the machinations of the malevolent deros. As his stories became wilder and his memories of the ancient world became more vivid (with extensive rewriting by Palmer), letters poured in from readers claiming they had encountered the deros too, having unknowingly crossed into their realm via caves or mines, or that they were being persecuted by the deros and their surface allies. **


I am not aware of any claim that The Phantom Empire influenced the form of Shaver’s later revelations, but they both share a paranoid, hallucinatory quality that (in the case of The Phantom Empire) goes beyond the novelty value of merging two such disparate genres. I would venture so far as to say that The Phantom Empire is in many places truly surreal, not just in the colloquial sense of “weird” but in the sense of invoking a dream-like acceptance of seemingly unrelated events, making the strange seem normal and vice versa. Through the alchemy of film, obvious artifice becomes more vividly real than reality.


As an example, Autry’s easygoing music, for which he was presumably chosen to headline the production, is often juxtaposed with scenes of mystery or danger, giving it an eerie edge: in Chapter Eight (“Jaws of Jeopardy”) he sings “I’m Getting a Moon’s Eye View of the World” on an airplane while Frankie holds a gun on the unwilling pilot; in Chapter One, his then best-known song “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine” is broken up and heard from a distance while Frankie and Betsy use the direction finder in their secret workshop. The moment when they realize the signals are coming from beneath the earth achieves something often reached for but not always grasped in the serials: a sense of wonder, and in that scene The Phantom Empire anticipates the inquisitive child protagonists of Steven Spielberg and other filmmakers of the 1980s.


There is a reflexive quality to much of The Phantom Empire, and the borders between narrative elements are permeable: Autry’s daily broadcasts (at least before he is framed) include full live performances of stagecoach robberies and other dramas, supposedly staged for the live audience at the ranch rather than those listening to the radio show, but in ways that play with audience expectation and blur the boundaries between fantasy and reality. Frankie and Betsy address “Junior Thunder Riders” in the radio audience as a way of speaking directly to the film audience.


The Queen’s royal guard, nicknamed the “Thunder Riders” by Frankie and Betsy, and taken as the basis of their club, are at first referred to only as the “royal guard;” later as the “thunder guard;” and finally as the “Thunder Riders,” the same as the name given to them by the children. The robots of Murania have what appear to be built-in cowboy hats as part of their design (the logical explanation is that someone in the prop department heard the phrase “science fiction Western” and took it to heart, but I’m more interested in effect than intent); ultimately, two of the robots’ metal bodies are inhabited by Oscar and Pete, real cowboys in disguise.

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The constant reuse of key sets above and below ground, made possible in part by Queen Tika’s remote viewing from her control room, gives events a sense of circularity: Flash Gordon moves from one fantastic place to another in sequence, but The Phantom Empire moves up and down as capriciously as the city’s sole elevator, always returning to the same locations.


Queen Tika’s television viewer contributes to this same dream-like scramble of images: several times she views a succession of unconnected scenes from the surface (stock footage of traffic, boxing matches, and car crashes) in order to express her disapproval: “Fools! Surface people are always in a hurry—their world today is a madhouse. We in Murania are indeed fortunate. Death . . . suffering . . . speed . . . accidents. . . .” Almost everything Tika (played by Dorothy Christy) says is delivered in a tone of high dudgeon: “Do I have to witness this insane material because you are unable to find the Garden of Life?” she demands of her assistant, sounding exactly like an annoyed spouse whose husband continues to flip through channels at random.


In one odd scene, Tika takes Autry on a virtual tour of Murania using the viewer, and then contrasts the achievements of her kingdom with a penniless beggar: “Feast your eyes,” she says. “He is from your world; we have none of that here.” Changing the view to Frankie and Betsy, she says, “There are friends of yours. They may become beggars.” In 1935, the depths of the Depression, such a concern was far from academic.

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One moment in the final chapter (“The End of Murania”) says a great deal about the production as a whole: the underground city is melting down under the beam of the rebels’ giant disintegrating ray, now out of control. Queen Tika, resigned to die with her kingdom, remains in her control room and throws the switch which will open the hidden door in Thunder Valley, allowing Autry and his surface friends to escape. Hitching up some of the Thunder Riders’ horses, Autry sees the remaining herd and suddenly says, “We can’t leave those horses here to die!” The group takes an extra moment to free all the horses, as if they knew that the young audience they hoped to grab would say, “Hey, Gene! What about those other horses!?” I admit that, seeing the herd of animals stream out of the hidden door, my heart swelled. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.

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What I Watched: The Phantom Empire (Mascot, 1935)
Where I Watched It: Timeless Media Group’s 3-DVD set, endorsed by Gene Autry Entertainment and “sourced from Gene Autry’s personal film archive.” There are several versions on YouTube.
No. of Chapters: 12
Best Chapter Title: “Prisoners of the Ray” (Chapter Nine)
Best Cliffhanger: The bound or incapacitated victim on a conveyor belt, inexorably moving toward death in the form of a buzz saw or furnace, is one of the iconic images of the serials, but I haven’t seen it all that much in my admittedly limited viewing. Perhaps it was already a cliché by the 1930s heyday of the form, or perhaps I just haven’t watched the right examples yet. However, Chapter Ten of The Phantom Empire (“The Rebellion”) includes just such a cliffhanger: following Argo’s overthrow of Queen Tika, Autry attempts to fight his way out of Murania. During a fight in a foundry full of laboring robots, he is knocked unconscious and sprawled onto a warhead assembly line. At the end, a robot ceaselessly raises and lowers a welding torch—whether its white-hot fire touches a weld point or Autry’s all-too mortal flesh is of no concern to the mindless automaton.
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Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: After his experience in the “radium reviving chamber” in Chapter Seven (“From Death to Life”), Autry escapes into the underground city and gets into a sword fight with a group of guards. Overpowered by one of them, he falls over the railing of a suspended catwalk; at the beginning of the next chapter, he climbs over instead of being pushed, and grabs onto a rail underneath. As cheats go, it’s a small one, but there’s no question the footage is different.
Silliest Costume: The assistant who operates Tika’s television is essentially a glorified remote control, but he does serve the Queen directly so I can’t blame him for putting on airs. The bat wings on his helmet are a little much, though.
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Sample Dialogue: “So, you are the sprouts from which surface people spring!” –Queen Tika, upon meeting Frankie and Betsy (Chapter Nine, “Prisoners of the Ray”)
What Others Have Said: “Although the stories written about such central ideas are often vastly entertaining, they remain completely fallacious. The Earth is not hollow. The atom is not a miniature solar system. Mars is very different from Earth and could not support Earth life.” –Isaac Asimov, “Social Science Fiction”
What’s Next: I’ll examine another science fiction adventure, Radar Men from the Moon. Will it be as good as The Phantom Empire? Check back in two weeks to find out!

* The Western with science fiction, supernatural, or “weird” elements has a long history in both the comics and prose, but only spotty success in the medium of film. (2011’s Cowboys & Aliens is only the latest attempt to fuse the two genres, but its rejection by audiences is probably due less to its hybrid nature than its relentlessly dour tone; these days, audiences are more willing to embrace sci-fi Western elements under the mantle of “steampunk.”)

** Although mostly a footnote now, the Shaver Mystery was a sensation in the 1940s. It was overtaken by fascination with UFOs, but as late as the 1960s a vocal minority of UFO researchers claimed that flying saucers came from inside the earth rather than outer space.

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4 Comments

    • Well, there’s plenty of silliness, especially from this distance–the Muranians speak and write in English without so much as a “universal translator,” but when watching serials you just have to go with it some times. (Perhaps their ability to spy on the surface people helped them keep up with the language!)
      And you’re right about the influence on Star Wars, although I’m starting to think that’s true of so many serials it would be noteworthy to find one that didn’t influence Lucas or Spielberg!
      Thanks for reading!

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