Fates Worse Than Death: Serials at Feature Length


The studios that produced serials were nothing if not parsimonious: considering the ways in which stock footage, costumes, and other production elements were reused, it is not surprising that the films themselves would be repackaged and rereleased as many times as were profitable. During the heyday of the serial format, a popular serial could be rereleased in its entirety after a few years (there were no options for viewers to see them in any other way, of course, and since most were aimed at youngsters, a new audience would arise over time).

Serials were also frequently edited down to feature length (anywhere from sixty to a hundred minutes), either released simultaneously with the serial or later rereleased as “B” pictures. The arrival of television introduced a new market for “featurized” serials, as well. (As an example, in 1966, Republic made a number of its films available to television, both complete serials and several cut down to one hundred minutes.) Sometimes, but not always, these shortened serials reappeared under new titles: Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars was released simultaneously with the feature-length Mars Attacks the World, its title chosen to exploit the notoriety of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast; Undersea Kingdom surfaced on television as Sharad of Atlantis; and so on.

(Note that the photos on the poster are drawn from the 1936 Flash Gordon serial.)

(Note that the photos on the poster are drawn from the 1936 Flash Gordon serial.)

Since I began exploring the serials last summer, I’ve been curious about these feature-length cuts: how do they differ from the serialized originals, and how effective are they at conveying the story and its thrills? There is no one answer: even a cursory survey reveals differing approaches to editing and marketing, and the context of production and the studio’s goals can have a big impact on the final product. In theory, one could cut the titles and credits and the redundant material from the cliffhangers and have a perfectly serviceable movie. In reality, the end product would still be too long for what was considered “feature length” in the mid-twentieth century and the pacing might prove unsatisfying for one sitting. From what I can tell, most cut-down serials come in somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half. (Editing down a serial into a more modern feature length would undoubtedly be an interesting project for a film student or anyone who wants to learn more about the pacing and construction of these films. Indeed, YouTube searches reveal a range of cleaned-up and “restored” versions; how far these restoration efforts extend into actual recutting is a question I haven’t explored in depth.)

For purposes of comparison I sought out a few “featurized” versions of serials I have already reviewed for this series. An approach that I would assume is typical is seen in the shortened cut of Shadow of Chinatown: at a brisk 69 minutes, the feature zips through the major events of the serial. Much of the “Oriental” color is done away with, as are scenes that have Martin Andrews’ manservant Willy Fu briefly kidnapped, and a car chase between Los Angeles and San Francisco. What is mostly eliminated is repetitive or slow-moving, however; everything that’s left is worthwhile, and more importantly the story makes sense. Willy gets in a few of his pseudo-Confusion aphorisms, and Bela Lugosi still has enough screen time to justify his top billing.


Interestingly, however, the reduction of the action to its most exciting elements makes reporter Joan Whiting a more obvious (and sympathetic) lead character than the mansplaining Andrews, at least for a while. Also, the ending cuts off one final twist in which Lugosi’s character comes back from an apparent death to strike at Andrews: this time, he gets his comeuppance the first time. There are a few other small changes, such as the addition of musical underscore to scenes that were without accompaniment in the serial, at least the version I watched; that seems to be pretty standard practice, a way of covering the seams and updating the production. Although I enjoyed the full serial of Shadow of Chinatown, I would consider the feature version an adequate substitute for an interested viewer.


By contrast, the feature-length cut of The Phantom Empire feels rushed. Admittedly, its story is complex, with Gene Autry and his Radio Ranch friends pitted against both an unscrupulous radium-hunting scientist and denizens of Murania, the hidden realm located 25,000 feet beneath the surface. Much of what I appreciate in this serial is around the edges, however: those small atmospheric moments or character beats that make it unique. As a feature, The Phantom Empire is still very distinctive. Autry’s musical numbers, integral to the plot (he must broadcast every day or else lose his radio contract, and thus the ranch), are still there, as are Frankie and Betsy Baxter’s DIY electronics lab and their club, the Thunder Riders. Missing, however, are those scenes in which Murania’s Queen Tika spies on the surface world through her television, seething with disdain, as well as a similar scene in which she shows Autry the realities of poverty and war on the surface. Gone also are most of Autry’s fight scenes and a sequence in which, near death, he mumbles in the backwards “language of the dead” before being revived by the miracle of radium. The murder of Tom Baxter is glossed over even more than in the serial, without much time given for it to sink in.


The biggest loss is the erasure of Queen Tika’s motivation for keeping Murania hidden and, ultimately, deciding to stay with her kingdom during its destruction instead of fleeing to the upper world with Autry. Speechifying is something sci-fi fans often tolerate rather than enjoy, and it’s usually the easiest thing to cut when editing for length, but in this case reducing Tika’s presence drains the serial of much of its personality, turning her into another cardboard villain. If most viewers between the 1950s and 1990s were only able to see the feature-length cut, it’s not surprising that The Phantom Empire is appreciated only by aficionados: without the atmosphere and dramatic build-up found in the full version, it comes off as a diverting novelty in the mold of Undersea Kingdom.


The New Adventures of Tarzan was actually edited into two feature films. The first, also called The New Adventures of Tarzan, is a longer version of the first two chapters of the serial, in which Tarzan joins the Guatemalan expedition of Major Martling in order to find his friend, the downed pilot D’Arnot, who is trapped in the same “lost city” in which Martling hopes to find a legendary idol, the Green Goddess. Also hunting for the idol is Raglan, a rival explorer working for a foreign company that wants the explosive formula hidden inside the idol. Although two chapters doesn’t sound like very much, the first chapter of the serial is an unusual forty minutes long, so stretching the film to seventy minutes isn’t as odd as it sounds.

(Also worth noting: while the feature’s release date is given as 1935, a release simultaneous with the serial, the version I watched is obviously a later rerelease, as the leading man is listed as Bruce Bennett; Brix changed his name to Bennett in 1939, a change that coincided with a transition into more prestigious Hollywood fare such as Sahara, Dark Passage, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The music that accompanies these updated credits also sounds like something from the 1940s.)


As I mentioned in my review of the serial, I had trouble following the first chapter’s setup, as the sound was patchy and some of the dialogue was hard to understand. The feature version clarifies things a great deal by including extra scenes of dialogue and improving the sound. Some of the dialogue is obviously dubbed, and the voice coming from Tarzan’s mouth doesn’t sound like Herman Brix; I wonder if this version was the cause of John Taliafero’s complaints about Brix sounding like a “school master:” it’s both higher and fussier than Brix’s normal speaking voice, and it doesn’t sound like anyone’s idea of the lord of the jungle. As for the rest of the dubbing, it at least helps the story make sense, and there are also added background music and sound effects that give the film a more complete, modern atmosphere.



Even so, the film begins with an apology for the sound quality, recorded under difficult conditions, and begs for the indulgence of the audience. It’s hard to imagine any modern film making such a plea, unless it were a documentary. Taliafero mentions that the Ashton Dearholt expedition that filmed The New Adventures in Central America ended up with enough footage for both a serial and a feature film, and sure enough there is a great deal of footage that doesn’t appear in the serial. Much of it is atmospheric footage of wild animals, natives, and the exotic country, and while it is impressive on its own, its inclusion in the finished film often smacks of padding, giving the film the air of a travelogue punctuated by a few scenes of action. (Particularly shameless is a flashback to D’Arnot’s plane crash that includes almost five minutes of aerial footage of animals before the actual crack-up.)

Some of the events from the serial are rearranged slightly (and obviously the cliffhangers from the serial are simply played out as action scenes without interruption), but the biggest change is at the end: in the serial, Raglan is able to steal the idol from the lost city and make away with it, with Martling and Tarzan on his trail. In the feature, Tarzan recovers the idol from Raglan almost immediately after he steals it and Martling is able to open it right there, finding the jewels inside. A happy ending for all!


Of course, Raglan gets away, and his (as well as the lost city cultists’) attempts to take back the idol are the main thread of Tarzan and the Green Goddess, the 1938 feature that includes the rest of the serial. In this film, the raw material of The New Adventures undergoes a more interesting transformation. The last chapter of the serial takes place at Lord Greystoke’s British estate, where he is holding a Gypsy-themed costume party; some of his guests ask him to recount his recent adventure in Guatemala, and he does so in flashback, turning the last episode into a belated “economy chapter.” Green Goddess puts this frame device around the entire film, which takes up the action following the escape from the lost city. The movie barely reaches an hour in length, and without the padding found in the first feature the plot moves at a breakneck pace (although it still finds room for a scene in which Martling’s valet George chases a monkey who has stolen his yo-yo). Despite being edited together with more sophistication than the 1935 releases, I’m glad I had seen the whole serial before watching this, for the sake of clarity.


Finally, there is the issue of availability. After long years of being hard to find, even for collectors (Harmon and Glut’s 1972 The Great Movie Serials, a book I have found an invaluable resource for this series, was partially based on memories of serials sometimes seen years before, and occasionally the distance shows in distorted or jumbled details), home video made it possible for many serials to be seen as they were originally released, and websites like YouTube and the Internet Archive have made it even easier for anyone with an internet connection to watch these films. In the case of feature-length cuts, the internet is frequently the only choice, as even high-quality restorations for home video don’t usually see fit to include them (I watched the feature versions of both Shadow of Chinatown and The Phantom Empire on YouTube).

Having said that, since many serials and their feature cuts are in the public domain or can be considered “orphan works,” I have found that they also turn up on cheap movie-compilation DVDs. Both of the Tarzan features I have discussed here are included on a Mill Creek collection entitled Wrath of the Sword: 20 Legendary Movies, which includes several Tarzan movies from the 1930s, a bunch of sword-and-sandal movies from the ’50s and ’60s, and (for some reason) one random Christopher Lambert movie from 2005. There’s nothing in the packaging of Wrath of the Sword that would indicate that the two Tarzan movies are related sequentially or derived from the same serial, but that’s part of the fun of this sort of quantity-over-quality package: you never really know what you’re going to get, and you have the opportunity to make discoveries and draw your own conclusions.


Next week I’ll be back with regular serial coverage as I examine The Green Hornet.

Hitch Your Wagon to a Star: The Elusive Hollywood Sci-Fi Western

Despite the title, not a space Western

Despite the title, not a space Western

It seems like it should be easy: “space cowboys” such as Han Solo and Mal Reynolds are essentially Old West gunslingers dropped into the cockpit of a spaceship, so why shouldn’t it work the other way around: a robot on horseback or a space alien on a stagecoach? Despite the longstanding popularity of both Westerns and science fiction, the number of films that successfully bring the two genres together in this way is surprisingly small. To be sure, ghost stories, tall tales, and bloody violence are all established parts of Western lore, and some great movies have been made exploring these themes, but the “weird Western” typically explores the boundaries of fantasy and horror, myth and history, rather than science fiction. It turns out that it’s easier to move the Old West into outer space than vice versa.

Undoubtedly, the cinematic grandfather of all such hybrids is the 1935 serial The Phantom Empire (of which I have written more extensively elsewhere), in which singing cowboy Gene Autry runs up against members of a super-advanced underground civilization. In their book The Great Movie Serials, Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut characterize The Phantom Empire as the beginning of a cycle of “zap-gun Western” serials. However, the other examples they cite, such as Tom Mix’s final film The Miracle Rider, involve super-science of purely human invention, and lack the sense of weird mystery and contact with alien forces that makes The Phantom Empire so distinctive.


Perhaps the reason there have been so few overt fusions of science fiction and the Western in film is that such a hybrid is redundant: once science fiction (especially in the pulpy, action-adventure mode that has dominated popular film-making) took over the Western’s role as the main arena for playing out America’s myths and fears, it borrowed wholesale many of the plots and character types associated with the older genre, effectively replacing it. Good guys (almost exclusively white in the early years of both genres) and bad guys (sometimes literally alien, sometimes white men whose greed had overcome them); a thirst for exploration and conquest, usually in the name of civilization but often identified with commercial interests; and a sense of isolation, of being separated from the routines and mores of the old world (including meditations on the softening, corrupting influences of civilized society), were all notable features of both the Western and early science fiction, to the point that “horse opera” could be updated to “space opera” without any misunderstanding on the part of audiences. The “edge of civilization” was constantly moving outward: Star Trek’s description of space as “the final frontier” is illustrative.

Show creator Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek as "Wagon Train to the stars." A few episodes, such as "Spectre of the Gun," made it literal.

Show creator Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars.” A few episodes, such as “Spectre of the Gun,” made it literal.

Besides the gunslinger, other characters, such as the alien other, the damsel in distress (or the hooker with a heart of gold in racier manifestations: neither genre had much use for well-developed female characters, as pioneering was considered man’s work), the white man “gone native,” the amoral company man, and the wise tribesman (often the last of his kind, given a tragic nobility once no longer a threat) were translated easily. Science fiction, arriving as it did in a period of both rapid dissemination of ideas and ready access to literature of the past, became a clearinghouse of genre storytelling, absorbing themes and tropes like a sponge. From this point of view, it’s only natural that Terry Gilliam could describe Darth Vader as “the cowboy with the black hat,” that Flash Gordon’s Princess Aura fits the mold of the femme fatale, and that Seven Samurai could be remade as both a Western and as a space adventure. Ultimately, callow, daydreaming farm boys are the same everywhere, whether from Texas or Tatooine.

In that case, the distinction between the two genres is one of iconography, and iconography flourishes in visual media: comic books and cartoons have always been friendly to the robot in a cowboy hat, as have the pop surrealism movement and the artists who contribute to sites like DeviantArt. When it comes to mixing and matching, Western and sci-fi are primary colors that can be laid on in broad strokes.


Both literary and cinematic science fiction have had to work to absorb Western motifs, however: all but the most fantastic stories attempt to rationalize the mixture of Old West and New Frontier, and here the difference between the two genres is a clear obstacle.* The Western is rooted in a specific time and place, and once that historical moment was over, the Western became a genre about the past (one reflecting contemporary attitudes, to be sure, but almost always focusing through the lens of history); science fiction, especially in the early Space Age, was about the future, and whether focused on the promise of exploration or the horror of nuclear war, it used speculation about the future to examine the current moment. In short, both forms stood in the present, but the Western looked into the past, either searching for some imperialistic original sin or retreating into comforting nostalgia, while science fiction looked into the future, projecting either our hopes or fears.


Given that difference in emphasis, science fiction has often chosen to visit the Old West by means of time travel or alternate history. The “steampunk” movement has produced a wide variety of literature, some of it great, but on film it has been too often a faddish visual template that can be applied to the same old pulp storytelling: the result has been ambitious failures like the film version of Wild Wild West or “high concept” dreck like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. (Complaints about the perceived hackiness of combining the two genres aren’t new: Wikipedia’s “Space Western” entry notes pulp-era efforts to stamp out lazy updates of Western plots in sci-fi garb, including one magazine’s ad campaign claiming “You’ll never see it in Galaxy.”)


Better are films that find ways to repurpose the trappings of the Western, like Westworld, in which the Western setting is a fiction within the fiction, or Serenity (the belated finale of television series Firefly), which makes explicit both the themes of colonization and post-civil war disillusionment that are a part of the Western. In both cases, the adoption of Western dress and lingo are made to seem not only organic to the setting but essential to the stories being told: both use science fiction to interrogate the Western, and by extension mythmaking in general.

* Even excursions into outright fantasy don’t always pass the laugh test: I invite you to consider the short-lived 1987 cartoon series BraveStarr:

I’ve also just become aware of a 1999 film called Aliens in the Wild, Wild West that doesn’t look too promising; although I haven’t seen it, an imdb reviewer calls it “one of the top ten worst movies I have ever seen.” Tellingly, like The Phantom Empire and like BraveStarr and similar cartoons, Aliens in the Wild, Wild West appears to have been made primarily for children.



Next week, I’ll look at a recent example of the genre, 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens.

Fates Worse Than Death: The Phantom Empire

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!).
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.
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!
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!
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?
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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.
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.
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.