“I am firmly convinced that this is the site of the buried city of Mu, and with proper excavation we’ll find more than radium: we’ll find secrets that have been lost to the world for thousands of years…”
Director: Otto Brower and B. Reeves Eason
Starring: Gene Autry, Frankie Darro, Betsy King Ross, Dorothy Christy, Wheeler Oakman, Frank Glendon, Lester “Smiley” Burnette, Peter Potter (William Moore), Edward Peil Sr, Jack Carlyle, Richard Talmadge, Warner Richmond, Charles K. French
Screenplay: Wallace MacDonald, Gerald Geraghty, Hy Freedman, John Rathmell, Armand Schaefer and Maurice Geraghty (uncredited)
Foreword: According to Hollywood legend, the idea for The Phantom Empire came to screenwriter Wallace MacDonald while he was under gas in his dentist’s chair. Be that as it may, MacDonald sold his concept to Nat Levine of Mascot Pictures, in the mid-thirties the leading producers of serials: Levine was looking for something “a bit different”, and he got it in the form of a Science Fiction Singing Cowboy Modern Western. It was Levine’s first intention to cast Ken Maynard as the lead in The Phantom Empire, who had just finished the serial Mystery Mountain (a remake of 1932’s The Hurricane Express, which starred a young John Wayne). However, a falling out between the two men saw Maynard depart and Levine – not without serious qualms – replace him with Gene Autry, known, and billed, as “Radio’s Singing Cowboy”.
Levine had justifiable doubts about his leading man: unlike most of the screen’s “singing cowboys”, who could act but couldn’t sing, Autry could sing but couldn’t act. He was even less convincing as an action hero, as became dismayingly evident as production went on. Levine attacked the problem in a number of ways—via distraction, in the form of “the Scientific City of Murania” (of which, more anon); by creating as many opportunities as possible for Autry to sing, and thus play to his built-in audience; and by almost drowning him in sidekicks. Autry’s long-time collaborator, Lester “Smiley” Burnette, teams up with William Moore (billed as “Peter Potter”) to form the serial’s Odious Comic Relief – though to be fair, they also make an important dramatic contribution, eventually; while most of Autry’s interaction is with Frankie Darro and Betsy King Ross as the teenage brother and sister, Frankie and Betsy Baxter—who come with their own sidekicks, a swarm of similarly aged friends.
One of the amusing things about The Phantom Empire is the way in which the writers dealt with the inadequacies of its leading man: the sidekicks rescue Gene Autry far more often than he rescues them. This is one of those rare serials that gets better as it goes along, rather than blowing all the good stuff in the first couple of episodes; and at least partially responsible for this is that Gene Autry had other commitments during the shooting of the later episodes and had to be somewhat “written around”. Perversely, this seems to have freed the writers up a bit, with more focus given to the supporting cast, and Frankie Darro – all five-foot-three of him – increasing taking over the action hero role.
Though only eighteen at the time, Darro was a far more experienced actor than the star of The Phantom Empire, and he is well-supported by Betsy King Ross, “World’s Champion Trick Rider”, who, if not really an actress, was comfortable with performing: the two kids are likeable and make convincing siblings; and, unlike the senior members of the cast, they did their own stunts; though curiously, Ross gets few chances to show off the riding skills she was known for.
(Although younger, Ross was slightly taller than the diminutive Darro, and spends most of her screentime hunched over in an effort to disguise the fact; while Darro, in turn, wears heels.)
While western serials were a dime a dozen at the time, the science fiction aspect of The Phantom Empire was something new—even granting that it is “science fiction” only in the Star Wars sense, with a lost civilisation both futuristic and feudal, and lots of gosh-wow whizz-bang gadgets…including, of course, robots.
Most of The Phantom Empire was shot quickly and inexpensively on familiar locations around Los Angeles (you want Bronson Canyon? – you got it), with the larger portion of the budget going on the models and sets that make up Murania—the people of which are “one of the lost tribes of Mu”, driven underground during the last Ice Age. As for the robots, they were rented, not built, and would have been familiar to the eyes of regular film-goers; their best-known and most bizarre appearance being in the Gable-Crawford vehicle, Dancing Lady.
Despite its numerous science-fiction elements, The Phantom Empire has no hesitation in casting “science” as the bad guy. Above ground, the villains are a trio of scientists looking to get rich off radium deposits, who need to drive everyone away from Radio Ranch in order to pursue their greedy goals and stop at nothing to achieve this end. Below ground, the Muranians will likewise go to any lengths to protect the secret of their existence from “the surface people”, and so also want Radio Ranch and the visitors it attracts put out of commission.
Much of the drama of the first half of The Phantom Empire is – believe it or not – built around the simultaneous efforts of the scientists and Muranians to put Gene Autry out of business, and his dogged determination to go on yodelling no matter what. During the second half of the serial, a greater proportion of the action takes place within Murania itself, with frequent deployment of gadgets and robots, and the audience offered more of what it was probably expecting.
(The Muranians are very smug and self-satisfied about their technological achievements and the superiority of their society, so naturally they eventually attract the standard anti-intellectual smackdown.)
Nat Levine knew he was taking a risk with The Phantom Empire, but it paid off brilliantly—the serial was hugely popular in spite of its obvious deficiencies, and it paved the way for a whole new kind of adventure-serial: there is little doubt that we can thank its success for the following year’s production of Flash Gordon, and the rest, as they say, is history.
CHAPTER 1: THE SINGING COWBOY
As always, the first chapter of The Phantom Empire is the longest and most story-heavy, as it sets up the various plot-points. Things start with a literal bang, as a group of cowhands whooping and hollering as one of their number tries to ride a bucking bronco is interrupted by the sound of gunfire: a stagecoach is being pursued by outlaws. As the coach drives wildly towards a ranch-house, the people watching from the porch – none of them in “western” clothing – leap to their feet in alarm; one of the men declares, “It’s Autry’s men, making another raid!” The coach is forced to a stop, and the leader of the outlaw demands that certain items are handed over—upon which, three guitars and a bass are passed out of the coach, and the “outlaws” begin to sing…
It turns out we’re at a dude ranch—a new business venture called “Radio Ranch”. Built up from (we infer) a real ranch that went broke, it is co-owned by a Mr Baxter and by Gene Autry, “the Singing Cowboy”, who with his band of back-up singers and musicians stages a radio show each day to entertain both the guests at the ranch and the radio audience. The other entertainment provided is in the form of “raids”, with frequent battles between stagecoach and outlaws: a performance that tends to culminate in much running around, ducking and diving, and parties shooting at one another—with blanks, of course. However the guests feel about these interludes, it is borne upon the viewer that they were hardly devised with the radio audience in mind, since ten minutes of “BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!” does not exactly make for riveting listening.
But it’s Gene Autry’s singing – “Real ranch music!” – that constitutes the main attraction—in fact, it’s the only thing that’s keeping Radio Ranch operational. Autry has a contract to perform on the air at two o’clock every day: if he fails for any reason, the contract will be broken, and he and Mr Baxter will lose Radio Ranch.
I just felt that I should stop and explain that point at the outset since, in a story with so much non-stop excitement and such a complex plot, it’s very easy to lose sight of these subtle and carefully hidden details.
His song completed, Autry turns the microphone over to Frankie and Betsy Baxter, who address “the members of the Junior Thunder Riders Club”:
Frankie: “…so you can come out here to our vacation camp and see a radio broadcast put on like it should be: ridin’, ropin’, real horses, real guns, real cowboys!”
Frankie seems somewhat to have missed the point of the whole “radio” thing.
After a brief dispute over whether they do or do not want girls in the Junior Thunder Riders Club (yeah, they do), Frankie responds to “all your letters” and explains how they picked their club’s name—telling the story of “a sound like thunder” and the “Thunder Riders”, mysterious caped horsemen who swept across the valley and then disappeared…
Frankie and Betsy lead their own branch of the club at the ranch, young visitors who dress up in handmade helmets and capes and ride around looking for adventures.
Autry, meanwhile, picks up the ranch’s ongoing radio serial, staging a show for both of his audiences—and here, groan, the Odious Comic Relief kicks in as we are formally introduced to Pete (straight man) and Oscar (funny man): the latter’s shtick consists of approximately 85% constant harmonica playing (via an endless supply of harmonicas, no matter how many Pete grabs and throws away), 10% wearing a dress, and 5% doing both at once. Don’t bust a gut or anything.
Anyway, we see a rancher’s wife cowering in a corner protecting her baby, (Oscar in a dress and clutching a doll), her husband (Pete) bravely protecting her, the bad guys (the rest of the back-up band) trying to break in, and then we hear the Thunder Riders (played by a sound effect) riding to the rescue…all of which takes about thirty seconds of air-time before Autry cuts them off and tells his audience to tune in the same time tomorrow if they want to know what happens next.
I can’t say that this seems to me to represent the pinnacle of radio broadcasting. Nevertheless, Mr Baxter strides forward with a beaming smile: “Say, is our ranch becoming popular!” he crows, telling Gene that more guests are arriving all the time, by train and horse and automobile, and even by aeroplane…
…but the people on the incoming plane are not there to join the Junior Thunder Riders Club, or even to see Oscar in a dress:
Villain #1: “You said that ranch was deserted!”
Villain #2: “What about the fortune in radium you promised us?”
The head of the gang (which consists of three scientists supplemented by one goon and one goon-cum-pilot) reassures his co-conspirators about the radium, and further reveals his belief that they have located “the lost city of Mu” and its many marvels.
That night, during still more singing, Betsy slips away to the secret laboratory that Frankie has hidden in the barn (no, really), where he tinkers with electronics and makes all sorts of useful gadgets—one of which keeps picking up a broadcast signal from directly below Radio Ranch. The kids tell Gene about it, with Betsy mentioning “those books” Frankie’s been reading, “About a world underground, with people, and cities, and everything!”
Frankie consults the scientists, only to have their leader, Professor Beetson, attempt to quash his excitement by insisting that he is picking up, not a radio signal, but merely magnetic static—although he tempers this by promising to “look into it”. Gene then produces a small artefact, which the Professor (being an anthropologist as well as a physicist, like all good movie scientists) pronounces it, “An interesting example of antediluvian americana.” (!!) Gene promises to show the scientists where he found it, “At the head of Thunder Valley.”
Gene: “We’ll have to get an early start. I have a broadcast at two o’clock, and if we miss it, we lose our contract.”
Once left to themselves, the gang has a meeting to discuss tactics—helpfully spelling out 50% of The Phantom Empire’s plot in the process:
Professor Beetson: “Autry’s radio program and his singing make this ranch popular. Without him, there would be nothing here to interest anyone, and the place would soon become deserted.”
Dr Cooper: “And we could go on with our secret explorations without anyone to molest us.”
Professor Beetson: “Exactly!” [To goon] “Tomorrow morning, when he leads Cooper and Saunders to the spot where he found that idol, your job is to see that he doesn’t come back…”
Consequently, Gene narrowly survives getting crushed by a boulder. He catches a glimpse of the goon and rides in pursuit, and then gets shot at from ambush. Horribly, it seems for a moment that his horse has been hit, but if anyone is hurt it’s only Gene, who goes rolling down a steep rocky slope and then lies motionless…
Saunders and Cooper are closing in for the kill from the other direction when they are distracted by the sight of a man in a helmet and cape: “It must be a Muranian!” They pursue the stranger and there is an exchange of fire, with both Cooper and the Muranian wounded. At the sound of approaching horses, Saunders runs to fetch Professor Beetson, but by the time they get back the Muranian is gone—leaving behind his helmet, which the Professor realises is also his breathing-gear. It also carries a special eyeshade. The scientists agree this is proof of a civilisation under the ground, and that the Muranians cannot survive in our world without these devices.
Meanwhile, we see that two more Muranians managed to carry their wounded comrade away. They make their way to the hidden entrance of “the Scientific City of Murania”, where we get our first look at one of the endless scientific wonders of this lost civilisation: an adorably dysfunctional robot which, to my endless delight, The Phantom Empire insists upon treating completely seriously.
Admitted by the robot guard, the Muranians enter yet another marvel, an elevator that plunges thousands of feet at a speed that, realistically, would plaster its occupants, or at least their stomachs, all over the ceiling. At a certain depth the Muranians strip off their breathing apparatus with a sigh of relief.
We are then privileged to glimpse the Scientific City of Murania, all gleaming skyscrapers and elevated walkways and 20th Century Fox-like spotlights (?), before we find ourselves in the throne-room of “Her Imperial Majesty, the Queen”. (The Phantom Empire has a lot of trouble deciding whether Murania is a city, a country, a kingdom or, well, an empire.) Queen Tika – who, we might as well state at the outset, is the only female Muranian we ever see – is not best pleased by the report made by her guards; but then, as we soon learn, Not Best Pleased is Queen Tika’s default setting: “Surface men in our Garden of Life! It has never happened before, and it shall never happen again!”
(So you’ve been there since the last Ice Age, but no-one’s ever stumbled into that valley before?)
Queen Tika does commend the other two guards for retrieving their wounded comrade (albeit rather snottily), and has the injured man sent to “the Radium Revival Chamber”.
Tika herself visits “the Television Room”, which has a nifty device for seeing and hearing everywhere in Murania, and anywhere on the surface. She demands to see the Garden of Life, but it takes a while for the operator to home in on that specific spot.
Instead, Tika catches glimpses of various other aspects of the surface world, which prompts the following denunciation (variants of which will recur at regular intervals throughout the serial):
Queen Tika: “Fools! Always in a hurry! Their world today is a madhouse. We in Murania are indeed fortunate…”
Eventually the operator homes in on Beetson and the others, and Tika hears enough to know that Murania is under threat from the surface on account of its supplies of radium. She sends out her guards to destroy the secret entrance, so that there is no chance that the surface men will find it.
(They never succeed in doing so, of course; and the longer this serial goes, the more obvious it becomes that for all of this “Garden of Life” business, the Muranians never venture to the surface except to guard the secret entrance…which they don’t otherwise need or use, except to let out the guards whose duty it is to guard the secret entrance…which they don’t otherwise need or use…)
A meeting of the Junior Thunder Riders Club is interrupted, ironically enough, by the sound of thunder. The kids rush off to see whether the real Thunder Riders are riding again. (Which they are. Although why they are, when they were ordered only to destroy the entrance, is a bit of a mystery.) They erupt from the barn just as Gene’s riderless horse trots up, and conclude that he needs their help—deciding also that the club’s motto will be, “To the rescue!” They scatter and search.
Meanwhile, though somewhat the worse for wear, Gene manages to light a signal fire, which Frankie and Betsy spot. They find Gene and give him water, and he pulls himself together—just as well, too:
Gene: “Say, we got a broadcast at two o’clock! If we miss it we lose our contract!”
Betsy: “And that means we’ll lose Radio Ranch!”
In Murania, Queen Tika, along with the High Priest and Argo, the Lord High Chancellor, are watching all this. Argo points out that if they can capture Gene Autry, Radio Ranch would soon become deserted…which Tika just heard Beetson say, so what the hell? Anyway, Tika agrees:
Queen Tika: “We can never allow Murania to become desecrated by the presence of surface people! Our lives are serene, our minds are superior, our accomplishments greater! Gene Autry must be captured! Get the Captain of the Thunder Guards on the wireless telephone!”
(Yes, you heard her: the wireless telephone. It’s all the Muranians’ fault!)
So the Thunder Guards go chasing after Gene and the kids, who try to outrun them and then to evade them but are finally driven to the desperate tactic of scattering their horses, tying a rope to a tree and lowering themselves over the edge of the canyon. It works—but the constant strikes by the hooves of the Thunder Guards’ horses cause the rope to fray and break—sending Gene, Frankie and Betsy plunging down the canyon—
CHAPTER 2: THE THUNDER RIDERS
—but it’s okay, because immediately below them is a convenient sloping bit, on which they land. Gene manages to grab a dead tree and stop himself, then grabs Frankie as he slides by, while Betsy hits the tree square on and saves herself.
Okay…not too cheaty. It’s often a measure of a serial, how they resolve the cliffhanger (call it the Annie Wilkes Test).
But Our Heroes are still in a highly precarious situation. Fortunately, the rest of the Junior Thunder Riders show up on the other side of the canyon – “To the rescue!” They throw a rope over, which is secured at both ends, and Gene, Frankie and Betsy manage to hand-over-hand themselves to safety. (I don’t think I’d’ve been quite so trusting of that dead tree.)
Frankie starts to explain what happened, but Gene interrupts him:
Gene: “We’ll tell you all about it later! We’ve just got time to get back to the ranch for the broadcast – if we miss it, we lose the contract!”
Frankie: “And Radio Ranch!”
The Thunder Guards prepare to chase them back to Radio Ranch, but Tika, eavesdropping as always, angrily calls it off, berating her Captain for almost exposing his troops to the surface people; she calls them back to Murania.
Back at the ranch, various nervous people are checking their watches, but it’s okay – phew! – Gene arrives at literally the last second and goes instantly into a song—much to the disgust of the watching (and listening) scientists:
Professor Beetson: “The only way we can keep our discoveries to ourselves is to rid this ranch of people—and the easiest way to do that is to see that Autry doesn’t broadcast again.”
Dr Cooper: “You mean—?”
Call me crazy, but I’m guessing he means the same thing he meant the last time you had this exact same conversation.
Meanwhile, the Captain of the Thunder Guard is presenting himself to Queen Tika, who is royally ticked. Or possibly Tik’d. Come to think of it, I guess she’s literally Royally Tik’d. We now learn that any failure of any kind for any reason is almost always punished by immediate execution, which seems to me just a tad…counterproductive. In this case, however, the Captain is given one last chance, despite not completing his mission…perhaps because it occurs to Tika that she was the one who called the mission off. So she sentences him to ten lashes instead—“To teach him obedience!” explains the person who just issued the unfortunate Captain with two sets of conflicting orders.
And then it’s back to the TV Room—anything good on? Ah, the Surface Channel!
Queen Tika: “Mad world!… How fortunate we are, with our advanced science, our superior mentality!”
Okay…though Tika is only too clearly riding for some karmic payback here, given her TV’s cut from rolling tanks to firing mortars to racing police motorcycles to Gene Autry’s broadcast, it’s hard not sympathise with her attitude…
It’s time for the next chapter of the serial-within-a-serial – this is the part with ten minutes of “BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!” – and it ends rather dramatically when Mr Baxter, taking part, slumps to the ground a little too convincingly… In the aftermath of the tragedy, Gene inspects everyone’s weapon…including his own, which we have just seen being tampered with…
Gene stares in horror at the real bullet he finds in the chamber, while Professor Beetson—who just happens to be standing nearby with his companions in a completely casual and not in the least bit suspicious manner—insists upon the sheriff being called in. He also manages (somehow) to have Gene confined to his room, with goon-cum-pilot on the door; but at least he allows him visitors.
Frankie and Betsy (who, after a brief outburst, give an impressive display of stiff upper lip in the aftermath of their father’s death) drop by to reassure Gene that they know he’s not guilty…but they’re the only ones who think so. Almost the only ones: the kids let Gene know that Oscar is guarding the window, and that his gun is still loaded with blanks…
So when the sheriff arrives, he finds his suspect on the run. He starts gathering a posse, and deputises Pete and Oscar (!?), while Beetson officiously offers his plane to help the search:
Sheriff: “Good! I’ve got tear-gas bombs – we’ll take them along!”
The kids’ first thought is to sabotage the plane, but they have to hide before they can accomplish their aim. Goon-cum-pilot (whose name we now find out is Sharp) takes the sheriff up, not knowing about the stowaways.
Tika and Argo watch all this from below, with Tika insisting that now is their chance to catch Gene, and Argo suggesting they just let the law run its course, why not?
Queen Tika: “Because he’s not guilty, and they’ll only let him free to continue his radio broadcasts, and menace our Muranian civilisation!”
I gotta say, I love this woman’s logic. Although mind you, considering her low-low-low opinion of the surface world, she seems to have a strange faith in our legal system.
So the Thunder Guards are sent out again, and this time they succeed in capturing Gene—much to the indignation of the sheriff, watching from the plane, who can’t figure out where the second posse came from. So he starts chucking tear-gas bombs at them…but thanks to the Muranians’ breathing-apparatus, they have no effect.
The Queen, however, immediately gets her Armament Room on the line, and orders the plane shot down. An air missile is readied and prepared for launch via an amusingly self-defeating system which requires the shot to be lined up visually with a periscope-like site, and then the launcher to turn his back, walk across the room, fiddle with some controls, and push the button.
(One does wonder in passing why this advanced, and solitary, civilisation needs such weapons; one might also be inclined to suggest that launching a ground-to-air missile might possibly attract some attention…)
Be that as it may, the missile achieves its objective and strikes the plane—
CHAPTER 3: THE LIGHTNING CHAMBER
—but it’s okay, because Frankie and Betsy have already donned parachutes and jumped out – screw the guys who thought those parachutes were for them! – while the missile does surprisingly little damage to the plane, despite the head-on collision. Also, the tear-gas bombs didn’t hurt the Muranians, but they startled and distracted them into dropping Gene.
Oooooohhh…that one’s a cheat!
Anyway, Sharp manages to put the damaged plane down, while the kids also land safely and are reunited with Gene. (We get an awkward bit of exposition about how Gene wasn’t blinded by the tear-gas because he was unconscious at the time, so his eyes were closed.) Betsy and Gene start off to help the sheriff, but Frankie argues against it, worried Gene will get arrested:
Gene: “With all that tear-gas around, he won’t be able to see enough to arrest anybody!”
Yeah, that gas is just sitting there…on the open western plain…
Sure enough—“Help me, I’m blind!” exposits the sheriff carefully, as Betsy looks after him (i.e. bandages his eyes). Gene runs over to Sharp, who is unconscious, and starts shaking him from side-to-side; which I’m pretty sure is the Red Cross-recommended way to treat a plane crash survivor. Gene then has a brainwave, and changes clothes with Sharp, so that – his face covered because of the gas – he can go back to Radio Ranch and do some investigating. The real Sharp, meanwhile, is left tied to a tree.
So the sheriff and “Sharp” are taken back to the ranch by the posse, to recover from their ordeal; while Oscar and Pete are left with the plane and some tear-gas bombs, sigh…
Of course, none of this is getting Gene captured by the Thunder Guards, who for some reason go back and report their failure…why, oh, why do they always do that?? The Captain is immediately placed under arrest – the Queen sends Argo himself to take care of it, just to get the message across to the remaining Thunder Guards – and taken to the throne room:
Queen Tika: “You have been a good commander of my Thunder Guards!” [The Captain bows] “Yet not good enough…”
After a lecture about history and the threat posed by the surface people, which seems gratuitous under the circumstances (not to say cruel and unusual), and a reminder about how the law of Murania doesn’t allow for second chances (even though he’s just had one), the Captain gets marched off to the Lightning Chamber—where, basically, he is to be fried by bolts of artificial lightning.
(The Captain’s name is spoken, but I can’t find it written anywhere. It sounds like Oyd or Moig or something like that; under the circumstances, I think I’ll call him “Captain Arrgh”.)
As Arrgh stoically contemplates his fate, Argo sidles up to him:
Argo: “Captain, you are the thirty-seventh soldier to be executed this year!”
(Good gravy! Why does anyone enlist!?)
…except it turns out no-one has been executed: Argo is plotting a little revolution, and has rescued every single condemned soldier in exchange for a promise to back him up when the time comes. Meanwhile, they’re twiddling their thumbs in a basement underneath the Lightning Chamber (although Argo prefers to call it “Rebel Headquarters”).
Made the by-now traditional offer, Captain Arrgh does briefly protest that it’s treason, but then shrugs and goes along with it like his thirty-six predecessors.
Argo returns to the TV Room to assure Tika that “all the preparations have been made”. The executions are controlled from up there (so more like a Games Room than just a TV Room, I guess), and she orders 200,000 volts sent into the Lightning Chamber…
At Radio Ranch, Gene is still impersonating Sharp by hiding his face behind a bandanna, and wailing about his eyes when anyone comes near. He doesn’t get a chance to snoop, but Beetson and the others drop by to shoot their mouths off about their need to “get rid of that rifle”. After a brief consultation with Frankie and Betsy – who were hiding in the closet during this conversation – Gene draws Beetson and the others back to his room by crying and wailing about his eyes, while the kids slip into Beetson’s room via the window and find the real murder weapon.
Outside, the sheriff is just hanging around because the brakes on his car aren’t working. Frankie and Betsy run up with the rifle, insisting that it’s the gun that killed their father—also impressing upon the sheriff (who we readily believe needs their help) the necessity for ballistics and serial-number tracking.
And then the sheriff drops the rifle casually into the back seat of his car…
It does occur to the sheriff to ask where the kids found the weapon, but just at that moment the real Sharp comes staggering up—crying and wailing about his eyes. Everyone rushes into the house except Goon, and Gene drops out of the window and ambushes him, just in time to stop him taking the rifle. Gene then drives off—not knowing that the brakes aren’t working.
Sure enough, when he reaches a steep and dangerous stretch of road, the car plunges off a cliff—
CHAPTER 4: PHANTOM BROADCAST
—but it’s okay, because Gene wasn’t in the car, and in fact he never got anywhere near the edge of the cliff, because the Junior Thunder Riders set out after him and somehow managed to catch him even though they were on horseback and he was in a car travelling at top speed after a significant head-start.
That’s not just cheating—that’s shenanigans.
And while I say “it’s okay”, well, actually, it isn’t—because although Gene had plenty of time to grab the rifle as well as save himself, he left it behind in the car…
The sheriff arrives in a second car – where did that come from? – just in time to see the first car explode (of course), and concludes that Gene is dead. (And there was much rejoicing.)
Elsewhere, Frankie is fretting over how they’re going to prove Gene’s innocence now, but Gene has his mind on more important things:
Gene: “Right now we’ve got to get ready for the next broadcast! If we don’t make it by two o’clock, we’ll lose Radio Ranch!”
He tells Frankie to rig up a remote-control microphone in his secret laboratory, and takes off on foot. The Junior Thunder Riders briefly discuss the rights and wrongs of assisting a fugitive from justice, but with about as much conviction as Arrgh when he was threatening to give Argo away to the Queen. They finally conclude that this falls within their charter of “helping anyone in trouble”.
As Frankie fiddles in his secret (and soundproofed) laboratory, the radio guys stubbornly set up for the broadcast, while Beetson and the others laugh contemptuously nearby at their refusal to accept the truth. Saunders here proves himself – not unlike Gene – a single-minded kind of guy:
Saunders: “We better start getting our equipment together. The sooner we find the underground civilisation, the sooner we’ll discover radium, and then we shall become rich.”
Back in Murania, no-one is able to locate Argo, much to the Queen’s indignation. As it happens, Argo and his co-conspirators (not the guys in the basement, some other guys) are in the Armament Room, getting ready to blow Radio Ranch off the face of the earth with a missile. Oh, sorry, it’s not a missile: it’s a Radium-Aerial Torpedo. Argo has noticed that life at Radio Ranch can be a bit…predictable:
Argo: “While the surface men are busy broadcasting, we’ll blow them all to atoms, and put an end to Radio Ranch once and for all!”
(Again…you don’t think this approach is just a teeny bit conspicuous?)
However, the Queen spots Argo in the Armament Room before he can carry out his plan and informs him frostily that blowing up Radio Ranch is her prerogative; she orders him to the Throne Room.
At the ranch, the producer – who has cast a thoughtful eye over the extra cable that has appeared from somewhere-or-other, and leads off somewhere-or-other-else – insists on starting the broadcast and introduces the Cowboy Quartet, who swing into that upbeat and toe-tapping number, “We’re Stalling As Hard As We Can”.
Frankie: “They can’t sing forever. If Gene doesn’t get here pretty quick, the radio contract will be broken, and we’ll lose the ranch.”
Not to worry. With all the activity at Radio Ranch congregated at the front, Gene manages to sneak in at the back via a hay-cart driven by Oscar and Pete. He slips through the hidden entrance to the secret laboratory and bursts into song down Frankie’s microphone—much to the horror and dismay of the scientists (among other people).
It is Dr Cooper who trips over the extra wire and figures out that Gene must be in the barn. The scientists begin forcing their way in just as Gene finishes his song: “And that, folks, completes today’s broadcast from Radio Ranch!” (One song!? All this fuss over one song!?) He and the kids start to pack up the broadcasting equipment, because otherwise, “We can’t broadcast tomorrow.”
While outside the scientists call for a battering-ram (!), Gene and the kids leave the secret laboratory via the secret door, before heading through the secret passage to the secret exit. Gene has to remind Frankie not to forget the gunpowder: “We’ll need it for sound effects.” (Really? That’s the main thing on your mind just now?) Frankie does as he’s told, but fails to notice a whacking big hole in the gunpowder bag…
As Our Heroes exit stage right, Our Villains enter stage left. The watchful Dr Cooper finds another wire, a live one this time, and helpfully drops it on the beginning of the trail of gunpowder. As Gene, Frankie and Betsy scramble along the secret passage, they realise that they are being pursued by a flame. Frankie drops the remaining gunpowder as they rush for the exit, which they discover is locked from the outside, just as the gunpowder ignites in a tremendous explosion—
CHAPTER 5: BENEATH THE EARTH
—but it’s okay, because Our Heroes were released by members of the Junior Thunder Riders who, seeing what was going on and remembering that they locked the exit, rushed on horseback to the other end of the secret passage and unlocked the secret exit just in time. Also, this explosion was strangely lacking in concussive force.
Anyway, having avoided a horrible death by the narrowest of margins, Gene, Frankie and Betsy stagger to their feet and dust themselves off:
Gene: “We’ve got to find some way to make our broadcast tomorrow.”
Frankie: “If we don’t, Gene will lose his contract!”
Betsy: “And we’ll lose Radio Ranch!”
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce to you the concept of the idée fixe.
It is agreed that the next broadcast will have to be from the Junior Thunder Riders’ secret clubhouse in Thunder Canyon, and that the Riders will get the equipment there somehow while the others worry about hiding Gene from “those scientists” (not, you’ll notice, from the forces of law and order).
But too late! – they’ve been spotted. “He’s wanted for murder!” Beetson announces for the benefit of a few random hangers-on. “We can’t let him escape!” The hangers-on take the hint and run off to call the sheriff, while the scientists and their goons agree that no-one would be particularly upset if a fugitive was shot while trying to escape…
And so, leaping into the saddle – they’re pretty athletic for a bunch of middle-aged lab-rats, I must say – the scientist gallop in pursuit. Gene sees this and makes a plan to evade them: he and the kids turn past some stray horses, where Gene drops off, taking his saddle and hiding behind a tree while concealing his own horse with the others; the kids then lead the scientists away.
Deciding that they need some help, the Riders recruit Pete and Oscar (“some help”, all right!) and arrange for them to take the broadcasting equipment to the clubhouse. An extended “comedy” sequence follows, mercifully interrupted by a cut to Murania, where Queen Tika is spying on—“Gene Autry!” she gasps, and sends the Thunder Guards – currently under the command of their lieutenant – out to, well, you know the drill.
Frankie and Betsy catch up with Gene at the clubhouse, but their reunion is interrupted by the ominous sound of thunder. Gene sends the kids to hide in the back-room, while he hides behind a curtain (that’ll fool ’em). Confronted by a flimsy wooden door and a barely adequate lock, the Muranians naturally call upon a piece of highly advanced Muranian technology to slowwwwly cut the lock out—what else could they do?
Meanwhile, Pete and Oscar find themselves being pursued by the rest of Thunder Guards; they turn their wagon around and make a run for it, plunging straight through the middle of the posse of scientists. Saunders thinks discretion might be the better part of valour, but Beetson won’t hear of them turning back, “Not when I have Gene Autry in the palm of my hand! We’re not going to let them scare us off!” he declares, just as the Thunder Guards appear over the rise…upon which the scientists turn and gallop away in the other direction.
Back at the clubhouse, the lock finally gives way. The Lieutenant bursts in, but his thorough and detailed search finds nothing (it did fool ’em!?) and he heads for the door—upon which, Gene jumps him. Why!!?? A fight ensues, during which we discover that Gene Autry gives Ralph Byrd a run for his money as the worst fake-fighter of all time. (Ralph is more entertainingly bad; Gene’s just embarrassing.) The kids have accidentally been locked in, so for once they can’t come to Gene’s rescue; and he is pretty much getting his butt handed to him when he manages to dislodge the Muranian’s breathing-apparatus.
In what is beginning to look like a fetish, Gene gets the kids to help him switch clothes with the Muranian; he promises to lead the others away and come back for them later. (Why does he have to come back? They know their way home.) This plan works even better than we expect: as soon as the “Lieutenant” announces that Gene Autry escaped again, he is basically arrested by his own men and hauled back to Murania to face the Queen; his last-minute attempt to run being interpreted as, well, a last-minute attempt to run.
Meanwhile, in a nice irony, Frankie and Betsy discover that the real Lieutenant has escaped. Presumably through the secret exit. There has to be one, right? Amusingly, we never learn what happens to him afterwards; I like to think that he learned from his predecessor’s mistake, and so steers well-clear of Queen Tika.
Taken down into Murania, Gene manages to keep disguised when his refusal to remove his helmet is interpreted as being too ashamed to show his face. He makes it all the way to the Throne Room before being literally unmasked. After all the gasping dies away, Queen Tika asks Gene with awful irony what he thinks of Murania? Gene, it turns out, hasn’t an ironic bone in his body; nor a polite one; nor a smart one:
Gene: “I think the dampness and dead air of your world is more suited to rats and moles… My business is singing. I sing about horses, and sunshine, and the plains. Well, how could anybody sing about those things here? Kinda makes ya feel good to sing, ya know?”
Possibly unable to comprehend that this is Gene’s real answer, Queen Tika takes this for defiant bravado and is rather impressed. She leads Gene into the Games Room and shows him that there’s more to life than “sunlight and plains”, demonstrating the various technological wonders of Murania—including the robots:
Queen Tika: “See? In Murania we have mechanical men for all our labour. My subjects devote their time to thought, to advancing their minds.”
…and we sure do see a lot of evidence of that along the way. Also, it probably helps that “labour” in Murania consists primarily of jerkily hitting things.
Tika then shows Gene a vagrant begging in the surface world; no such thing in Murania! (Hubris or not, this may have touched a chord with Depression-era audiences.) She flashes onto Frankie and Betsy, who may become beggars – you know, if Gene breaks his contract, and they lose Radio Ranch – and then onto the Death Chamber: “There’s where you’ll be in five minutes!”
Hey, we have Death Chambers on the surface too, you know! You can’t say we don’t!
Gene is carted away, and the Queen invites Argo to personally build up the voltage. He throws the switch, and the Death Chamber fills with lightning bolts—
CHAPTER 6: DISASTER FROM THE SKIES
—but it’s okay, because just in the nick of time the floor drops away, and Gene tumbles down into Argo’s basement Rebel Headquarters.
At last! An “out” both fair and properly prepared for!
Though actually—Gene is in the basement, or at least in a locked cell adjacent to Rebel Headquarters, from where he overhears much disgruntlement. It is at least partially quelled by the arguments of Rab, Argo’s pet scientist, who insists that the rebellion is not yet fully armed:
Rab: “My Disintegrating-Atom Smashing Machine is still in construction. When it is completed, it will be capable of destroying the universe!”
Uh-huh? Not to quibble, or anything, but why exactly would anyone want to destroy the universe?
On the other hand, Rab has also perfected a hand-weapon called a Z-Ray Lithium Gun, “Which is designed to blind anyone it is turned on.” His demonstration of the beam, however, picks up Gene’s toes poking through the grill of his cell. The alarmed rebels rush into the cell and immediately recognise Gene as a surface man, even though he is still wearing a Muranian uniform. Former-Captain Arrgh further recognises him as – gasp! – Gene Autry, and understandably wants to kill him. Rab intervenes, however, realising that Argo has saved Gene for a particular purpose:
Rab: “For vivisection! So that we may take him to our laboratories and learn how a surface man’s lungs differ from ours!”
Gene – not the world’s best at fisticuffs, we recall – manages to fight off the whole clutch of rebels, which bodes pretty poorly for the revolution to come. Then, grabbing the Z-Ray Lithium Gun, he starts backing out of the room. One of the rebels who was knocked down makes a grab at him, but only succeeds in triggering the weapon. The beam hits another rebel who recoils, clutching his face and howling:
Rebel: “I’m blinded! I’m blind! I’m blind! I’m blind! I’m blind! I’m blinded! I’m blind! I’m blind! I’m blinded! I’m blind!”
Well, at least we know it works.
Gene backs out of the room and locks the rebels in, creeping through the corridors and narrowly avoiding Argo, who is puzzled to find the door locked when he left it open. Rab breaks the glad tidings about Gene’s escape to him, prompting Argo to cry, “Incompetent fools!” (Yeah, about that whole “rebellion” thing…)
We learn here that the Z-Ray Lithium Gun is only “lightly charged” and will soon run down. Oh, and that the injured rebel is, “Only temporarily blinded.”
There are a few guards on the side of the rebels and Argo, knowing what will happen if Tika finds out that Gene is alive, sets them searching; forcing Gene to play hide-and-seek, both with the pursuing rebel guards and a number of official guard-robots (yay!).
(Gene briefly makes it outside the palace at this point, which is worth noting as the exteriors were shot at Griffith Observatory, later immortalised in Rebel Without A Cause. It had only just opened when The Phantom Empire began shooting, and this was its first screen appearance.)
Meanwhile, Tika and the High Priest are spying on Radio Ranch, where most of the guests are departing, what with Gene disappearing and being unable to sing, and being wanted for murder (yes, in that order). Beetson and Cooper announce that they’ll be leaving soon too…and then grin at each other as they contemplate having the freedom to discover the entrance to Murania.
Tika takes this as you might expect, while the High Priest reassures her that once the other guests have gone, there will be no difficulty in dealing with a handful of scientists…
Gene overhears this and, as soon as the others have left the room, he jumps in through the window and forces the TV operator, Gaspar, to get Radio Ranch for him. He tries to speak to Frankie and Betsy but to no effect; Gaspar explains that all transmissions are scrambled. Momentarily distracted, Gene is jumped by Gaspar, who seizes the Z-Ray Lithium Gun, but luckily it has already run down. Gene then manages to put down Gaspar with one punch, which I guess explains how he ended up in this career dead-end.
After some twiddling of knobs and plugging and unplugging, Gene manages to contact the kids. He tells them where the entrance to Murania is, but warns them to stay away. (So why tell them?)
Various other people descend upon the Games Room, forcing Gene to flee. Tika arrives in time to hear Frankie declare that they will come to Murania; while Argo, thinking quickly, accuses the unconscious Gaspar of collaborating with the surface people.
Tika then decides that Argo was onto something with that whole weapons-of-mass-destruction idea, and orders a Radium Bomb prepared, “To meet and destroy the surface riders who will soon be headed this way.” Gene hears this and makes a desperate dash for the Armament Room (I’m not sure how he knows where it is), with guards in hot pursuit. He makes it into an elevator, wins a fist-fight along the way with a guard, and then punches out the guy in charge of the armaments (none of which is particularly credible), before lunging at the targeting equipment and trying to divert the Radium Bomb. Armaments Guy staggers up, gets knocked down again, staggers up again, and whomps Gene from behind, knocking him out.
However, as he slumps to the floor Gene drags the control panel with him. Armaments Guy stares in horror for a moment, then leaps to his view-periscope—and discovers that the diverted Radium Bomb is headed straight for the Armament Room—
[To be continued…]
Oh, it’s back! Murania and its completely unexplained lion pit!
Invisible lions, alas!
I love how lions were one of the two animals they took with them when they moved underground.
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The worst cheat I ever saw was in a Buck Rogers serial I watched a few years back. At the end of one episode, Buck was clearly hit by a ray and fell out a window. At the beginning of the next episode, the ray missed him and he JUMPED out a window. I guess that sort of thing works better if you wait a week to watch each episode…
Thanks for this – I watched the serial on TV in the 50s – I was a cowboy/western fan & the sci-fi tie-in may well have started me on the the path to Heinlien and beyond. I found the VHS tape set online somewhere & had those until recently.
When I first watched it, I wasn’t old enough to judge the acting or the plot. After that it was pure nostalgia.