Gene Autry and The Phantom Empire

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By Lee Weinstein: One of the fond memories from my childhood is a movie serial I followed on a Saturday afternoon kiddie television show back in the late 1950’s.  Although I wasn’t to see it again until 1980, it made a lasting impression on me.  

The Phantom Empire, a twelve chapter Mascot serial, was originally released in February, 1935. A strange concoction for a serial, it is at once science fiction film, a Western, and strangely enough, a musical. It was the first real science fiction sound serial and its popularity soon inspired other serials about fantastic worlds.

The story revolves around the subterranean city of Murania, located 25,000 feet underground, beneath the ranch of radio’s singing cowboy, Gene Autry, who plays himself.  It is a city of futuristic spires, domes and bridges, featuring robot workers, wireless phones, televisors, and other technological marvels.  Some of it was filmed at the then newly completed Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, shortly before it opened to the public.

The convoluted plot required Autry to make a broadcast at two o’clock every afternoon to maintain his contract and avoid losing his ranch, Radio Ranch.  Professor Beetson (Frank Glendon), a villainous scientist, and his cohorts want to get rid of Autry so they can freely prospect for the radium deposits detected there, and also look for the entrance to “lost city of Mu” they believe is under the ranch. At the same time Tika, the queen of Murania (Dorothy Christy, who had previously played Mrs. Laurel in Sons of the Desert), also wants to get rid of Autry, to prevent the discovery of the secret entrance to her city.

Frankie and Betsy Baxter, teenage children of Autry’s business partner, have spied Tika’s Thunder Riders on the surface, and have assembled a large “Junior Thunder Riders” club, with capes and bucket helmets, in imitation of them. 

Gene Autry was an unusual choice to star in the film. It was originally to have been singing cowboy  Ken Maynard, who had starred in the previous Mascot serial Mystery Mountain (1934), but he was fired by the studio and replaced by Autry, who was a bit player in the previous serial.  The music over the opening credits is the same in both serials.  Whereas Maynard did not sing in Mystery Mountain, Autry’s singing is an important plot point in Phantom Empire, to help make up for his lack of acting experience. His singing is played up as much as his heroics, and he manages, amid the mayhem, to perform a number of his own songs.

 In addition, he is supported throughout by numerous helpers as he weaves his way through the various plotlines. Smiley Burnette (the train engineer in Petticoat Junction) and William Moore were his adult comic sidekicks, Oscar and Pete. Frankie Darro (of The Bowery Boys) and Betsy King Ross (billed as the World’s Champion Trick Rider), who lead the Junior Thunder Riders Club, enact their motto, “To the rescue” many times to save Autry.

But the real star of the film is the city of Murania, itself.  In the opening credits, following the cast, are the words “Featuring the Scientific City of Murania” superimposed over the futuristic cityscape.  In chapter one, we learn the Muranians have descended from the ”lost tribes of Mu” who were driven underground by the glaciers during the last ice age, 100,000 years earlier.

According to various sources, the idea for the serial was allegedly dreamed by head screenwriter Wallace MacDonald while under anesthesia for a tooth extraction, after he had read a magazine article about Carlsbad caverns. MacDonald was a Canadian silent film actor who went on to a brief stint as a screenwriter, starting with this film, and a much longer one as a film producer.  His co-writers were Gerald Geraghy, who scripted a large number of westerns, his brother Maurice (who was uncredited), and Hy Freeman who later joined the staff of the Groucho Marx show.

The screenplay, despite MacDonald’s hallucinatory dreams and minor borrowings from Mystery Mountain, shows evidence of literary influences.  In an early chapter, Frankie and Betsy actually mention having read books about scientifically advanced subterranean cities.  Indeed, there is a long tradition of subterranean civilizations in imaginative literature, if not in film.  The Coming Race (1871) by Edward Bulwer Lytton is one of the more influential. The Moon Pool (1919) by A. Merritt, with its subterranean world of “Muria,” was influenced by it and was also very popular. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction suggests the serial was influenced by The Coming Race.

In Coming Race, the locale of the entrance to the underground world is undisclosed, but in The Moon Pool, Muria, as it is called, is entered on a remote Pacific island. The subterranean people in it have descended from an unnamed Pacific continent which sank. Muria is obviously a shortened form of Lemuria. Could the name “Murania” have been suggested by “Muria?”

One wonders if MacDonald or one of his cohorts wasn’t also aware of the legends surrounding Mt. Shasta in Northern California, These legends, popularized by Harvey Spencer Lewis with his book Lemuria: the lost continent of the Pacific (1931), involve a race of people descended from the lost continent of Lemuria who somehow found their way into the depths of the mountain and built an advanced underground city called “Telos.”  Lemuria and Mu, both supposed to have been sunken Pacific continents, are often considered to be synonymous.  Mt. Shasta is certainly geographically closer to Autry’s ranch than a Pacific island.

But whereas the fictional subterranean utopias created by Bulwer Lytton, Merritt, and Lewis are mainly based on advanced mental powers, Murania is full of science fictional hardware, complete with robots, television, and death rays. Bulwer’s underground race derives its power from a hypothetical form of energy called “vril,” seemingly occult, although he had intended it to be something akin to electricity.  Murania, on the other hand, is powered by the radioactive element radium and Tika’s control room has impressive looking displays of scientific equipment with glowing tubes, televisor screens, and rows of levers and switches. The Coming Race does refer in a few places to mechanical automatons who do the menial labor of the inhabitants, but they are barely described. The film makes much more use of its somewhat comical-looking metal robots for the same purpose.

As the story progresses, Autry is framed by Professor Beetson for the murder of his partner and is helped to escape by his friends, who enable him to continue to make his broadcasts throughout the early chapters.

While we see a great deal of Murania throughout these chapters, it is not until the end of chapter five, halfway through the serial, that Autry, himself, finally enters the underground kingdom. Disguised as a Thunder Rider, he is taken down a tubular 25,000 foot elevator to Murania and then to the queen’s throne room. As a “surface man” he is immediately sentenced to death by the queen, but her traitorous chancellor, Lord Argo (Wheeler Oakman), allows him to escape as part of his own plan to stage a rebellion against her.

Queen Tika, tall and statuesque (perhaps an allusion to The Coming Race, where the women are larger and more powerful than the men, or to Yolara, the high priestess in The Moon Pool), is an unforgiving ruler who wants to prevent “surface people” from discovering her utopia. During the first half of the serial, Autry, like most serial heroes, has many close brushes with death, often being rescued by his friends.

Then, in chapter seven, still underground, he undergoes an experience that has never happened before or since in a movie serial. He actually dies. After he is fatally injured in an explosion, he is pronounced dead by Tika’s chief surgeon. The queen then emphatically tells him, “No one is dead in Murania, unless we do not wish to revive him.” And she wished him to be revived so she can discover the identity of the traitor who had saved him from her previous death sentence. The chief surgeon, at her command, brings him back to life by means of the “radium revival chamber.”  When Autry comes to, he is babbling nonsense syllables, which the chief surgeon explains is “the language of the dead.” 

Once Autry is brought back, he takes a noticeably more active role, and escapes from Murania without the help of his various sidekicks.  Once on the surface, he rescues Frankie and Betsy from the professor and his men and ultimately, several chapters later after re-entering Murania, he actually saves the queen from the rebels, becoming her ally.

As in the Moon Pool, there are two factions in Murania at odds with each other.  In The Moon Pool the high priestess, Yolara, who controls the evil faction, wants to invade the surface world using such weaponry as a death ray that can vibrate the atoms of matter apart. In Murania the division is between those loyal to the queen, and the rebel faction.  The rebels, interestingly, also have a “”disintegrating, atom-smashing machine” that can destroy matter.  Even as the secret gold mine is blown up at the end of Mystery Mountain, killing the villain in the process, the activated disintegrating machine goes out of control at the end and destroys Murania. The final scenes of Murania and Queen Tika, literally melting like wax, an effect achieved by melting the celluloid film frames, are unforgettable.

In the final scenes back on the surface, Beetson is exposed as the murderer of Autry’s partner, thanks to a bit of Muranian technology appropriated by Frankie.

The Phantom Empire has its share of faults.  The writing and acting often come across as wooden to amateurish.  Nonetheless, the sheer outrageousness of the mixture of genres somehow worked, and the unique serial was quite successful at the box office. It was so successful that Universal, the following year, adapted the Flash Gordon comic strip into a 13 chapter serial. This was followed by The Undersea Kingdom (1936) from Republic (the successor to Mascot) two more Flash Gordon serials in 1938 and 1940, and a Buck Rogers serial in 1939. But the influence of The Phantom Empire can be seen most clearly in Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938), in its costuming, futuristic sets, televisor screens, and electrical death chambers.  Both Tika, and Azura are haughty queens who undergo a character change for the better when facing death at the end.  Tika, with her final effort, opens the doorway for Gene and his friends to escape the destruction while refusing to leave the melting city, herself. Azura, with her dying breath, gives Flash the magic sapphire needed to free the Clay People.

The impact of Phantom Empire went further.  It launched the movie, and later television, career of Autry as a cowboy star and Smiley Burnette as his sidekick.

Ripples of the influence of the serial may have entered written science fiction in the once popular but controversial series of stories by Richard S. Shaver, which ran in Amazing Stories starting with “I Remember Lemuria” (1944). Shaver reportedly read and enjoyed The Moon Pool. It is not known if Shaver or his uncredited collaborator, editor Ray Palmer, ever saw the serial, but the protagonist describes a futuristic cityscape, and takes a high-tech elevator ride down to Mu, which is below Atlantis in the story. Later on, an underground race known as the “deros” attack humans on the surface with ray machines, bringing to mind Tika’s viewer which can tune in on anyone anywhere, and her interference ray which causes an airplane to crash in one episode.

In the spring of 1979, the short-lived TV series Cliffhangers ran on NBC. It featured three different movie serial-like segments, one of which was titled The Secret Empire. The storyline involved a US marshal in 19th century Wyoming who discovers the advanced underground civilization of Chimera, accessed via a cavern and a Muranian-like elevator.  Unlike the Muranians, the Chimerans are bent on attacking the surface world. The subterranean scenes were shot in color while those on the surface were in black and white. Despite this, the visuals were lackluster compared to those of the 1935 serial.

The following year, PBS ran the series Matinee at the Bijou which tried to give audiences a taste of the movie-going experience of earlier decades. The first season included weekly episodes of The Phantom Empire, edited down to ten chapters.  I enjoyed rewatching it after having seen NBC’s pale imitation.

In 1988, independent filmmaker Fred Olen Ray referenced it in his low-budget horror film also titled The Phantom Empire. Explorers enter a cave leading to an underground world complete with dinosaurs, robots, cannibalistic mutants, and a race of scantily clad women.  It was very poorly received by critics and audiences.  And in 2020, the newspaper comic strip Funky Winkerbean by Tom Batiuk had a short dream-like sequence referencing the serial. In this episode, characters visiting Bronson Canyon are saved from a fire by Muranian robots and are taken into Murania where they meet Queen Tika.

The original Phantom Empire, for all its faults in acting, scripting, and direction, does retain a charm lacking in the more modern remakes.  Somehow the melange of disparate elements blends together to make a film greater than the sum of its parts.

All twelve chapters are available on DVD, Blu-Ray and YouTube.

Gene Autry and The Phantom Empire

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