When the ancient continent of Mu sank beneath the ocean, some of its inhabitant survived in caverns beneath the sea. Cowboy singer Gene Autry stumbles upon the civilization, now buried ...
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When the ancient continent of Mu sank beneath the ocean, some of its inhabitant survived in caverns beneath the sea. Cowboy singer Gene Autry stumbles upon the civilization, now buried beneath his own Radio Ranch. The Muranians have developed technology and weaponry such as television and ray guns. Their rich supply of radium draws unscrupulous speculators from the surface. The peaceful civilization of the Muranians is corrupted by the greed from above, and it becomes Autry's task to prevent all-out war, ideally without disrupting his regular radio show. Written by
Jim Beaver <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Produced at ultra low budget and breakneck pace, Phantom Empire is a fascinating hodge-podge of 1930's cross-cultural currents, and is a milestone not only for serial films, but for cinema in general. Indeed, it is so rich in ideas and Americana that this serial is virtually a celluloid time capsule.
Much invention is evident by the way Gene Autry's radio show was so prominently woven into the plot, no doubt a shrewd business move on the cowboy's part to increase his radio audience while simultaneously breaking into cinema. In particular, there is a very clever moment when Frankie Darrow, while acting in a flash-back sequence, breaks the 4th wall to speak a couple lines directly to the audience, yet stays contained within the radio drama within the serial.
Speaking of young Darrow, as well as the young actress playing his sister, Betsy King Ross: kid and adolescent characters in these kinds of things are very often cloying, annoying and corny. Yet Miss Ross and Frankie are both likable characters, and my research indicates that Miss Ross was actually a performing trick rider in her youth. Sadly, she only does one riding trick in the whole serial.
One of the most interesting aspects to this serial is the chilling resemblance of the Thunder Riders to a KKK contingent. The riders wear flowing robes, high domed headgear, and bizarre breathing masks which strangely resemble the masks worn by the earliest 19th century versions of the Klan. The Klan, which is often called 'The Invisible Empire,' purports that its duties include the protection of white females, and in this serial the riders protect the blond, Aryan-featured Queen Tika. Note that the title sequence to each chapter is overlaid with images of smoke and flame, suggestive of the burning cross. The Klan, although less popular in 1935 than at its peak in the 1920's, was still a powerful force.(Note: In case there is doubt, I am anti-KKK.)
The similarities are too many and to great to be purely coincidental, but whether the imitation was purposeful or unconscious is unknown. Likewise, it cannot be determined from this serial whether the creators admired the Klan or not.
The theme of a rural person being transported to fantastical land was revisited in 1938, in The Wizard of Oz.
The idea of blending science fiction/fantasy elements with western movie conventions, while seemingly odd, was repeated many times after this. 1949's Captain Video, for instance, contained a futuristic hero who nonetheless supervised a large number of remote 'agents,' all of whom were western heroes. And in the 1960's, the hit show 'The Wild, Wild, West' perhaps most successfully combined these elements. But again, in the early 1970's, the hit film 'West World' did this also.
In 1993, the Fox network premiered the clever but commercially unsuccessful 'Adventures of Brisco County Jr.', combining the old west with scifi. And in 1999, Will Smith attempted a remake of Wild, Wild West, which was a spectacular commercial and artistic failure.
As far as entertainment goes, this serial is worthwhile to fans of the genre and to others seeking the unusual, but the fight scenes are quite primitive, even when compared with Flash Gordon, which appeared only 1 year later.
Things move quickly, and there are unusual situations, scenes and happenings so as to keep one interested. There is an interesting bit of stage business when a character is electronically revived from the dead, and for the 1st few minutes is unable to speak his native tongue, but instead speaks in 'the Language of the Dead,' which resembles gibberish.
The special effects are better than average for 1935, particularly the miniature work, and are most likely the work of the Lydecker Bros., who went on to do legendary work for Republic Studios after this production.
Gene Autry is not muscular, nor does he project a lot of overt courage, but he is likable and within this serial he makes a decent hero. This was his 1st starring role, and after this, of course, he went on to a prosperous movie and TV career. Because he invested and ran his businesses wisely, he died one of the richest men in Hollywood in 1998, at age 91. Autry began it all by fighting a Phantom Empire, but would up with a business empire.
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