The Phantom Empire (1935)

Hello, Pam here. Nate and I are going to venture into more demanding territory today. As though reviewing Zombies of the Stratosphere wasn't bad enough, we've decided to review another serial, The Phantom Empire. However, the version of Zombies of the Stratosphere we watched had been extensively cut down from its original 167-minute runtime to 93 minutes, a pretty typical length for the movies MMT reviews, whereas we'll be watching The Phantom Empire in all its uncut 245 minutes, all twelve chapters of it. Can we go the distance? If so, can we write a review that the average person has time to read? Stay tuned...

One of the reasons we picked this movie to review was that we both vaguely remembered watching it on TV when we were kids and thinking it was pretty good. I remembered that it was full of action and took place on a ranch somewhere in the West, and there were some mysterious futuristic aliens that the cowboys got involved with. Mysterious futuristic aliens always make a movie better. When I read its Wikipedia article, I realized that I must not have seen every episode, but according to Wikipedia, this movie is actually a lot wilder than I remembered. It says that the man who wrote the screenplay came up with the idea when he was under gas to have a tooth pulled, and from the looks of the movie, I'd say this is probably correct. If this movie's even half as good as I remember thinking it was, it'll be a fine addition to MMT's roster of movie reviews. And now, on to the movie.

Right from the start, the movie shows us that this isn't your usual singing-cowboy Western. As the credits roll, we see a few shots of a futuristic-looking city, then some footage of men wearing helmets and capes galloping on horseback. Also, the credits say "Featuring the scientific city of Murania," so even the dimmest viewer will know that he's about to see something out of the ordinary. The credits also inform us that the main actors are Gene Autry, Frankie Darro, and Betsy King Ross. Our old friend from Escort Girl and Ghost Patrol, Wheeler Oakman, also has a major part. Betsy King Ross, although only 14 when she made this movie, was already a champion trick rider (although she's not that good an actress), and 18-year-old Frankie Darro was a trained acrobat in addition to being an experienced actor. Just because I like talking about fashion, I'll point out here that Betsy wears a divided skirt to ride in. By 1935, American women wore breeches when they rode English-style, but it looks as though in 1935, jeans were still considered a little too immodest for girls riding Western style. Frankie and Betsy will be doing their own stunts, although if you watch closely you'll often see the camera cut away before they actually do something dangerous.

Gene Autry was a country-western singer recently turned actor when he made this movie. This is only his third movie, and it's the first one in which he played the lead. He had zero experience as a cowboy, and he will not be doing his own stunts. In fact, some sources suggest he could barely manage to stay in the saddle for his closeup shots. He does, however, have a decent voice, and he'll be singing periodically throughout the movie.

He knows what skill brings in the checks, and it isn't acting.

The movie opens traditionally enough for a Western, with a cowboy riding a bucking bronco while several others watch. For another taste of the Old West, the cowboys are distracted by gunshots, which come from several men pursuing a stagecoach. A stagecoach and bandits? In 1935? But it turns out to be a stunt: the location is Radio Ranch, there's an audience of visitors, and the valuable cargo the stagecoach is carrying is Gene Autry's guitars, as we learn when the stagecoach stops at the main house. Gene Autry, which is the name of both the actor and the character he plays, owns Radio Ranch, and he broadcasts a radio serial from it. The newly-arrived guitars are handed to his backup musicians, and Gene begins his broadcast. Gene is garbed in authentic flashy Hollywood-cowboy style, and so are all the other cowboys and anybody else associated with Radio Ranch. However, Gene's hat isn't as big as Tim McCoy's in Ghost Patrol, although it's not what you'd call small, either.

And because he's the designated Good Guy,
his hat is blinding white.

After finishing his song, Gene introduces the other two main characters to his audience. They are Frankie and Betsy Baxter, played by Frankie Darro and Betsy King Ross, as you probably guessed. Since their last names are the same, I assume they're brother and sister. They're on the radio to advertise the Thunder Riders club. Any child who joins is entitled to stay at Radio Ranch and participate in exciting activities such as "riding, roping, real guns..." Things were different in 1935, all right.

Sister and brother Baxter, you will not enjoy
their presence after a while.

But Frankie and Betsy keep on talking, and they reveal that "Thunder Riders" isn't just an appealing name thought up to entice youngsters into coming to Radio Ranch (probably at a hefty charge -- the real-life Gene Autry had the reputation of being a very shrewd businessman). No, their version of Thunder Riders is based on real-life adult Thunder Riders. They matter-of-factly relate how one day they were out riding, when they heard what they first took to be thunder. They were mistaken, though, it turned out to be a mounted troop of what I at first thought to be members of the Ku Klux Klan (unfortunately not impossible, the Klan was still at least semi-respectable in 1935 and was at times depicted somewhat favorably in movies of the time), but on second look proved to be the helmeted-and-caped riders we saw at the very beginning of the movie. The Thunder Riders do look rather dashing, as far as I can tell from the blurry print I'm watching, so I can see why Frankie and Betsy wanted to imitate them, although they have to make do with buckets for helmets. It doesn't appear that Frankie, Betsy, Gene, or any of the other adults associated with Radio Ranch ever thought to wonder what these oddly-costumed riders were doing in the area.

Dusty trail ride.

Gene has just concluded the broadcast when we're introduced to another set of characters. They're four rather sinister-looking men in a small airplane that's flying over the ranch. One of them even has a goatee -- he must be a villain! They're bummed to find that Radio Ranch is occupied instead of vacant the way they'd thought, so Gene Autry and his compadres probably haven't been there long. What brings these men here? Are they ranchers looking for land to expand their holdings? No, the goateed man informs his buddies and us that there are two important things to be found under this particular piece of ground: radium, and (stated with amazing nonchalance) the lost city of Mu.

I'm going to end up doubting his academic credentials.

I'm not so sure that Mu's really here. After all, readers of MMT know that Atragon showed us it was somewhere in the South Pacific. I guess the Muans could have more than one city, though. That's probably it. But we see the plane isn't just passing by, it lands on Radio Ranch. Gene and another cowboy ride out to meet their visitors. The goateed man introduces himself as Professor Beeton, and he and his friends arrange to stay at Radio Ranch, which must be a dude ranch, not a working ranch.

Oh yeah, clearly a dude ranch.

Night falls, but it seems that Betsy has other things to do besides sleep. She climbs into the hayloft and opens a hidden door which leads into a room Frankie has fitted up as a laboratory, although in view of the fact that it's in a hay-filled barn, it's fortunate that he seems to prefer electronic rather than chemical experimentation. His latest creation is a direction finder that enables him to find in which direction a radio signal is coming from. The direction finder has to be floated in a container of water, and both Frankie and Betsy are surprised when they hear a strange signal on the radio (sounds like Morse code to me), and the direction finder suddenly dives to point straight down.

Hope they're paying their share of the electric bill.

They go off to find Gene, who suggests talking to Professor Beeton. Apparently like all scientists in B-movies he's an expert on everything. When they find the Professor, he's removed his hat to reveal greased-down hair, and he seems even more sinister as well as unconvincing as he tries to tell them the signals are only static. I can't tell if the three are buying this, but Gene changes the subject by producing a small model soldier and asking the Professor what it is. He says that he found it in Thunder Valley, the same place where Frankie and Betsy encountered the Thunder Riders, and its costume's the same as the Thunder Riders. (So Thunder Riders carry toys with them when they ride out?) The Professor identifies it as "an interesting example of antediluvian Americana," which makes no sense, but evidently neither his audience nor the movie audience was expected to know this. Gene promises to take the Professor to the spot where he found it, but says they'll have to get an early start, since he has to make his daily broadcast at 2:00 or he'll lose the ranch (dum-dum-dum!)

The Professor, in nifty pith helmet, surveys the scene.

The Professor, of course, realizes that if he can delay Gene long enough so he can't make his scheduled broadcast, Gene and the other cowboys will have to vacate the ranch, leaving the bad guys free to make their explanations. Keep this in mind, it'll be the driver for a lot of the action as the movie proceeds. If you were wondering why it's so crucial for Gene to make his broadcast on time, it's because he'll lose his contract if he's even a little late broadcasting, and without the contract he can't afford to keep the ranch. Clearly his sponsors drive a hard bargain. Whether or not this was realistic in 1935, I couldn't tell you, but there probably was a lot of competition for radio time among entertainers back then.

Why can't they just let the man play his guitar?
He just wants to spread some twangy joy.

The next morning, Gene is out riding when one of the bad guys drops a rock and nearly hits him, and when that doesn't work, another bad guy shoots Gene's horse out from under him. Gene goes down, and it's uncertain whether he's hurt, but the bad guys are distracted from checking when a helmeted figure in a cape darts across their path. They pursue, and one of the bad guys shoots the running figure, but when the bad guy goes to get Professor Beeton, the person is gone by the time they get back. Somehow, though, they just know that the person is a Muranian.

This entire serial was filmed in a Southern California state
forest and the scenery lends itself well to the story.

Now that I can see a Muranian close up, I can see the helmet isn't just a helmet, it has an attachment that covers the person's entire face and juts out over the mouth, looking rather beak-like. The bad guys can see this, too, because the person left his helmet behind. The Professor deduces that it's part of a breathing apparatus, and also that the Muranians have been living underground for so long, they can't breathe surface air. He figures there were other Muranians in the area who helped him escape, and he proves to be right. We see two people on horseback holding a third on a horse, and they ride up to what looks like a rock wall in a canyon.

As Edna Mode would say, "No capes!".

Inside are things that even now I find pretty cool. A robot cranks open the hidden door, and the three Muranians get into an elevator that seems to run on antigravity, because the car drops down a transparent tube with no sign of a cable. 20,000 feet below the surface, the elevator opens to reveal a city complete with canals and bridges. The "buildings" have a very Art Deco look to them, but when you look at them closely, they seem to be made of blocks and cylinders of various sizes, and don't appear to have any windows. As the action proceeds in the underground city, you catch frequent glimpses of robots walking along, but unfortunately a few closeups reveal that they're crudely made out of thin sheet metal. The Muranians dress in a mishmash Egyptian/Greek/Byzantine style, with an occasional extra wearing something that looks like a Roman soldier's armor. There's some European influence tossed in there, too, particularly in the uniform of the Thunder Riders and the Queen's royal robes.

Some Roman Catholics in there as well.

Speaking of which, the ruler of Murania is a young blonde severe-looking woman named Tika. Queen Tika is a real crankypants. Even when she commends the guards for rescuing their comrade, she snaps her words out more like she's threatening them than praising them. She gets even crankier when she uses her viewscreen to view what's going on among the surface people. These Muranians have impressive technology, for the viewscreen can not only show what's going on 20,000 feet above it, it can show what's going on all over the world.

I wonder if the Queen knit her own neck doily.

It seems that Her Majesty does not like surface people, although so far she doesn't seem to like much of anything. And you have to see the viewscreen room yourself, I can't do it justice. It's chockfull of all sorts of mysterious equipment and whirring wheels, and I think I see some neon lights flashing on and off in the background. Who knows what all this is for, but it's quite detailed and looks very science-fictiony. In fact, it looks something like the Mu power room the sub drilled into in the movie Atragon. I wonder if somebody at Toho watched this serial?

The Queen's actual throne room, however, leaves
much to desired in the interior decoration department.

However, Queen Tika's real anger is reserved for those humans she spots intruding into her Garden of Life (or Light, I can't tell for sure, the audio isn't the greatest.) The Garden of Life would be the valley the Thunder Riders have been galloping through for reasons still unexplained. She promptly dispatches her Thunder Riders to seal the entrance to the Garden of Life so the surface men can't find their way to Murania, and the riders set off. Hey, if the riders need to wear respirators because they can't breathe the air on the surface, how come the horses don't seem to be bothered?

That's a lot of royal cleavage there.

You may recall that Radio Ranch has its own Thunder Riders, who are now meeting in Frankie's secret laboratory, occupied with the vital task of finding a motto for their club. No sooner have they picked "To the rescue!" when they see Gene's horse returning riderless, which is unexpected since it appeared to have been shot earlier. The Thunder Riders duly set off, shouting "To the rescue!" as they go. In addition to the motto, each Rider appears to have selected his or her own idiosyncratic way of mounting a horse, with some preferring the more-or-less standard movie-Western vault mount, in which the cowboy runs up behind his horse, puts his hands on the horse's rump, and vaults aboard, and a couple of kids who managed to set a new style by using trapezes to swing aboard. I swear I'm not making this up. I regret to say that the Thunder Riders are not only wearing buckets on their heads, they've somehow managed to fasten a metal hook to the top, which looks really stupid and tends to diminish my confidence in their ability to do anything helpful. The wardrobe department must have had a lot of fun with this movie.

Must have bought all those buckets on sale, hope
they got a multi-unit discount.

Although barely conscious and almost unable to move, Gene has managed to set fire to some brush as a signal for help. Frankie and Betsy spot the smoke, find Gene, revive him completely with one swallow of water from a canteen, and ride back to Radio Ranch so Gene can make his broadcast on time. They seem to have left the signal fire burning. Before Gene and company can get back to the ranch, the original Thunder Riders are notified by Queen Tika that on second thought, she wants Gene captured and brought to Murania, and they obediently try to find him. It's not clear how she knows he's any more important than any of the other humans she saw on the viewscreen today, but maybe she's been observing Radio Ranch for some time. Personally, I'd try to capture Professor Beeton, since he already knows Murania is somewhere below the surface and Gene doesn't, but I'm sure the Queen wouldn't appreciate my advice.

The Queen's viewscreen (from above) looks more like
the Wicked Witch's Magic Cauldron.

Anyway, the Riders spot Gene and the kids almost immediately and set off in hot pursuit. Gene decides they can't outrun the Riders, so he and the kids dismount and drive their horses off, then Gene takes his rope (of course he has a rope, he's a cowboy, isn't he?), ties it to a tree, and he and the kids drop the rope over a cliff, climb down, and hang from it. Although it seems successful at first, unfortunately the rope's right in the Thunder Riders' path. No, they don't stop to wonder why a rope is hanging off a cliff in the middle of nowhere, but their horses' hooves cut through the rope and send Gene, Frankie, and Betsy plummeting down the cliff! Oh, no, how will they ever escape certain death? Would you please tell us, Nate?

Perhaps they should have thought this brilliant plan through better.

Thanks Pam, I'll see what can be done with this (literal) cliffhanger. First off, I'll note that every chapter opens with a lengthy recap of the story up to this point, which, cumulatively, eats up a lot of run time. I'm sure versions of this serial released as one "movie" trimmed these dead spaces down and my vague memory of watching this serial back in the 1970s as an 8-year old was that it was on TV, one chapter every Saturday morning during kids cartoons. I'm sure I appreciate all the recaps back then, considering I had the attention span of, well, of an 8-year old.

Every chapter beings with a series of cards that
remind us of who the main characters are. Kinda helpful.

So, as Pam mentioned, Gene and the two kids avoid the incompetent underworld Thunder Riders by accidentally falling off a cliff (really). They are then rescued by the rest of the upperworld Thunder Riders and shimmy on a rope across a yawning crevasse of certain death. These kids, all of them under 14 or so, really should be in school, or at least their parents should know where they are at 1:45 in the afternoon. The total lack of parental guidance in this serial is astounding to me, especially later when all these kids are in real danger of being shot and killed on numerous occasions. For that matter, where are all these kids coming from anyway? We've seen a number of establishing shots of Radio Ranch and it seems to be in a very isolated, sparsely populated area. Just where do these two dozen 13 to 17-year old kids live? Is this like Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch? Hope not.

They all seem to have their own horses, too.

Did I mention that it's almost 2 pm? As in, Gene has to burn horse rubber to make it back to the ranch just in time to entertain us with a swingin' country tune. Which he does, of course, galloping in and leaping up to the mic as the second hand sweeps towards unemployment and a farmhouse in arrears. Luckily his band is all standing around in position, instruments at the ready, to pick up his tune right on the beat. With Gene having lived to sing another day, the bad guys are bummed. The Muan Imperial Guard riders shamble back down to the innermost depths of the continental bedrock and grumble about how ten dudes on horses couldn't catch one dude and two dirty-faced kids. The eeevil scientist and his minions are equally annoyed and hatch a new plan to frame Gene for murder and get him off the ranch.

I wonder how well being in Gene's band pays.

During another performance of the "stagecoach robbery" for the radio, the two annoying Baxter kids' father is "accidentally" shot and killed. Gene checks everyone's guns and finds that they all have blanks in them, except...wait for it...Gene's own rifle. The sheriff is called in, the eeevil dudes are gloating, and things look pretty bad for Gene. So, if the bad guys were perfectly willing to kill an innocent man just to frame Gene for murder, why didn't they just cut out the middleman and corner Gene somewhere and stab him to death and bury the body out in the desert? They clearly don't have a problem with violence and death, why all the subterfuge? Just seems very Bond Villain-ish, doesn't it?

Gene conducts his own investigation but he's the only suspect.

Gene escapes from the farmhouse where he was being held and runs off like a coward into the woods (John Wayne would have shot everyone and smoked a cigar on their corpses). A quickly-deputized posse sets off after him on horseback and once again it looks like Gene's not going to be able to escape his fate. Just then a squad of Muan Thunder Riders barrels into the scene, determined to kidnap Gene for their Queen, and all hell breaks loose. The Thunder Riders seem to be either completely unarmed or unwilling to do what they should do, namely, slaughter everyone in the immediate area and go back to hiding out under the Earth's crust for another thousand years, so the best they can do is gallop around and make loud noises (ooh, scary).

1935, people, someone buy a Jeep or at least a couple of dirt bikes.

Remember the bad guys had that nifty airplane? Well here it comes to ineffectually strafe the Thunder Riders with pistol fire and smoke bombs, which does serve to allow Gene a chance to skulk away unseen in the confusion. To compound the problem, those two little bastard kids are stowaways on the airplane, having had to hide out when they were almost caught trying to mess with the controls (pissing brats...). I know the whole serial is meant to appeal to children, but I could really, really do with seeing these two scamps be eaten by sharks. The icy, thin-skinned Muan Queen has been watching all this action on her magical, all-angles, sound-recording view screen and determines that she needs to take out that airplane that's menacing her soldiers. So from a port in the mountain's side an "aerial torpedo" is launched! Love the practical effects model work here, both on the launcher set and the actual missile itself, which has those fabulous Buck Rogers fins and Coke bottle fuselage. This might actually be the best designed prop in the entire serial, especially once you get a good look at those "robot men" later on (spoiled alert: spray-painted cardboard boxes and glued-on spark plugs).

Told you so.

As Chapter 2 ends, the plane is going down in flames and surely those two meddling kids are toast. But no, they jump out at the last minute via some conveniently-placed parachutes (really?). The plane, surprisingly, comes down in one piece and the two dudes inside are actually still alive. So the Muan Thunder Guards run away like little girls and the Sheriff's posse helpfully meanders around pointlessly, allowing Gene a chance to reach the plane before anyone else. There he, stay with me, switches his clothes with one of the bad dudes who has a blinding head wound, ties the other guy, who is surely suffering from massive internal injuries, to a tree, wraps a bandana over his face, and poses as one of the henchmen so the other henchmen can take him back to the farmhouse where he hopes they will helpfully stand around giving up details of their nefarious plan because they don't realize he's actually Gene in disguise. Still with me? Good, now explain why a three-inch strip of cloth over your eyes instantly renders you able to masquerade as a guy who is eight inches taller, forty pounds heavier, and who has a completely different hair color.


But it works (of course it does) and Gene overhears the main henchman's monologue about how they have to get rid of him so they can take his ranch and get their hands on that sweet, sweet radioactive metal underneath. Meanwhile, those two bratty rugrats have snuck in and found the rifle that was used to kill their dad earlier and take off with it to preserve it as evidence. By the way, those two kids, not five hours ago, just saw their father murdered right in front of their eyes and yet both seem perfectly fine now. Clearly they weren't that attached to pops. And where is their mother?

Their love of tin hats will see them through this time of sorrow.

So the jig is up, Gene is discovered to be a fake, and the cops and the bad guys are all searching for him. But Gene dons a swaggy newsboy cap and flees again (he runs away a lot, that's his idiom), this time in one of those newfangled horseless carriages that runs on that there devil's liquid gasoline. But the brakes lines are bad! And it's not under warranty! And the road is curvy and lacks guardrails in violation of several state and county ordinances! And Gene completely forgets it's a manual clutch and he could just slow down with the engine and use the parking brake! As Chapter 3 ends, Gene's car goes flying over the cliff in Coyote Pass and all is lost.

Bulky outfit surely worn to hide the obvious stuntman used later.

Ah, but as Chapter 4 opens, and let me add a parenthetical (YAWN!) here, we see that Gene jumped out at the last possible second and has survived. Oh crap, I forgot to mention the B-line subplot that came up last chapter. While all that running and shooting and stuff was going on up in the verdant hills of Southern California, down below in the surprisingly well-lit halls of Mu, there is a mutiny brewing. The Queen's Lord High Chancellor (seriously) has decided that the time is ripe to stage a rebellion against the Queen and to that end has been gathering up trained soldiers of the Imperial Guard to do his bidding. You see, when a soldier screws up, like, say, totally not being able to kill off Gene Autry when ordered to, they are sentenced to death in some electric zappy room thingie. But the Chancellor (going with that) has been secretly saving them, securing their oaths of fealty, and hiding them away in a secret place until the time is right to stage his coup. Clearly not everyone in Mu is happy with the current hereditary-monarchist/quasi-dictatorial political system.

Bow before her now, stab her in the back later.

Anyway, back to Gene. The underage Thunder Rider pansy gang shows up to save him now (does nobody have homework to do?), blindly swayed by the Jim Jones-like manipulative power of that oh-so-annoying Baxter brother/sister duo. Wait, it's almost 2pm, no! Gene has to sneak back onto Radio Ranch and make his broadcast, using a remote mic hidden in the kids' club room to sing his contractually obligated acoustic guitar number. Once again, the movie grinds to a halt while Gene Autry does what he does best, strumming and singing. While I'm not a fan of pre-WWII Olde Timey music, I have to admit that his tunes are pretty catchy in a harmlessly inoffensive way.

I wonder if these songs are still under copyright like the actual serial?

They have to hoof it from the bad guys, even though the gunpowder keg they're lugging down the tunnel has a leak in it and the flames are chasing them! Meh. Does anyone born after 1943 even know what a gunpowder keg is? So they survive that and the first part of Chapter 5 deals with the kid Thunder Rider juvenile delinquents arranging to get some more remote radio broadcasting equipment to their secret hideout in "Thunder Valley" so Gene can keep his broadcast schedule tomorrow. Maybe some one should call their parents and let them know they won't be home for supper. Or maybe someone should call the newspapers or something, there seems to be a need for independent verification of all the spooky goings-on around Radio Ranch. For that matter, maybe someone should ask Professor Beetson's university department dean if he's abusing his expense account.

Hope he gets a deduction for all those swanky black ties.

The Muans know where they are and send out the hitherto ineffectual Imperial Thunder Guard to ferret out Gene and once and for all end his reign of punctual musical theater. The Muans burn a hole through the door to his hideout and Gene has to get in a punching fight with one of the Muan soldiers, which he only wins because he accidentally knocks the dude's airhose off. Gene once again plays dress-up with the Muan's clothes, buying time for the two Baxter kids to get away safely.

Gene is physically out-matched by every single
opponent he faces in this movie. Good thing he gets top billing.

Still in disguise (his face covered by the gas mask), Gene goes with the Thunder Guard back down to the city of Mu. He gets all the way to the Queen's throne room before he's discovered, though I'm shocked they didn't figure out something was up when he refused to remove his mask long before that. Gene seals his fate by insulting the bitchy Queen by telling her that, "Your dead air is more suited for rats and moles." Of course, they were going to kill him anyway so there's no chance he'll escape and tell the story (wise move). The Queen takes a few minutes to brag about her computers and elevators and all the technological advantages of living in Mu, even if there doesn't seem to be a single Starbucks anywhere down here. Gene seems less than impressed with the Muans mastery of robotics and wireless television, but that's probably because he was also told that he has a date with 200,000 volts in the Chamber of Death (her words, not mine). Gene is led into the pit, the switch is thrown, the electricity crackles! Pam, how, oh how, could Gene possibly survive this?!?

The Chamber set is pretty good, clearly a re-dress
from a much better movie.

I'm on the edge of my seat waiting to see, Nate. Was it really such a good idea to review this serial? The stress of all these cliffhangers is getting to me, I may not be able to go on...The Lord High Chancellor (our old friend Wheeler Oakman) throws the switch, resulting in many sparks and flashes of light, and I feel tears welling up, but just then, yes, GENE IS SAVED! There was a trap door in the Chamber of Doom (which is something I'm going to have if I'm ever an evil overlord), and somehow the Lord High Chancellor opened the door and sent Gene sliding down a chute to safety instead of barbecuing him.

Oh, he's sneaky.

We find out that Gene isn't only safe, he's learning some new stuff. The small room he's now in conveniently has a window opening into a larger room, and Gene overhears some Muranians bragging about their nearly-completed new weapons, which really are pretty impressive. One will actually be capable of destroying the entire universe. But the Muranians have some less destructive weapons, too, one of which shoots a ray that temporarily blinds people. Unfortunately, in the course of their discussion they spot Gene at the window. They all immediately recognize him as Gene Autry, suggesting Gene was a lot more famous in 1935 than I would have thought. However, they also immediately assume that the Lord High Chancellor saved him so that he could be dissected to see how surface-dwellers' lungs differ from Muranian lungs. I don't think I want to live in Murania. On this subject, Gene's no longer wearing the breathing mask, but the Muranian air doesn't seem to be bothering him any.

He's not really trying not to be seen.

Did Gene jump from the frying pan into the fire? Possibly, but you're forgetting that this is the superawesome Gene Autry we're talking about. With no effort he overcomes eight men, grabs the blinding gun, blinds one man, and escapes. The eight Muranians from the weapons room aren't coming after him, probably scared of the blinding ray, the wimps. In fact, except that he's 20,000 feet beneath the surface in an enormous, unfamiliar, and hostile city, Gene's in good shape right now. Soldiers are dispatched to catch him, and we learn from their chat that the blinding gun is almost out of juice, but of course he eludes everybody, including an axe-wielding robot (!), with no difficulty. In fact, he manages to make his way to the viewscreen room, figure out the unknown, highly-advanced communication system, and talk to Frankie and Betsy. Why was this guy content to be just a singer/actor?

I love how they use shadows of industrial-looking objects
to break up a lot of these static set shots, very nice work.

Frankie, Betsy, their bucket-helmeted cohorts, and a couple of comic-relief cowboys who pop in and out periodically are riding to the entrance to Murania (it seems their horses are kept saddled and bridled 24/7 in case of emergency), but unfortunately the Muranians caught the tail end of Frankie's conversation and are expecting them. Gene's still dashing through the streets and buildings of Murania, punching out the occasional Muranian soldier, when he makes his way onto the elevator, to the surface, and into the torpedo-launching room (not clear if he meant to go there or if he just ended up there). The Muranians have just launched an aerial torpedo, probably toward the entrance to Murania where the Junior Thunder Riders are heading. Luckily Gene, displaying his instant command of the situation and his uncanny grasp of alien technology, uses the controls to divert the torpedo, in the process unfortunately pulling the control panel down on top of him, which I suspect was a goof they didn't bother to reshoot. However, Gene was in a little too much of a hurry to be as careful as he should have been, and he managed to divert the torpedo back where it came from, right through the window into the launching room. Is this the end, if not from the torpedo then from the impact of the heavy control panel landing on him?

That's a tiny periscope. Huge, ten-feet wide viewscreens
everywhere else but in here?

No. All the formidable "radium bomb" does is shake up the room and generate a lot of dust. (What a bomb, hee, hee) However, it does give the Muranians time to capture the unconscious Gene, and it also lets the Queen know that there's a traitor somewhere who helped Gene escape the Chamber of Doom. So Queen Tika now has two problems: to find the traitor, and to stop the Junior Thunder Riders, who are still heading toward the entrance to Murania.

A third problem involves her citizens' choice of headgear.

Make that three problems. The Lord High Chancellor learns that Gene is still alive and decides to start the rebellion immediately before he can be revived and can tattle to the Queen. Let's see, what does Gene actually know, except that somebody let him out of the Chamber of Doom? Maybe the Lord High Chancellor is just being paranoid, he must be under a lot of stress from planning his coup. In addition, the Chancellor has an ace up his sleeve, since the Queen's chief physician is also in on the rebellion and is the one who's supposed to revive Gene. Gene is duly revived, but all he can do is babble nonsense words, which doesn't help the Queen any. The physician thinks he knows of an operation that will help, and the Queen orders him to get to it. Muranian medical science has obviously advanced to the point where operations are extremely simple and don't need any sort of sterile conditions, because all the doctor has to do is get himself a carving knife and start in. He's just about to stick the knife in Gene when Gene begins to speak coherently, which may not be a coincidence. Gene is only able to get out a few words when the lights go out (the Chancellor ordered the power cut as a prelude to the rebellion). Backup lighting in the form of burning torches (!) is provided in a few seconds, but Gene's gone, and the Chancellor is standing there, looking innocent.

How can you be guilty with a hat like that?

Gene shortly reappears in the company of two soldiers who are dragging him to meet the Chancellor, but did they seriously think they could keep Gene for long? If so, they find out how wrong they are when Gene punches his way loose and runs away. By now probably thoroughly familiar with the streets of Murania, Gene is able to elude the soldiers. In the meantime, the Queen hasn't let the start of the rebellion distract her from the threat from above, and she nags the technicians to restore power so that she can use the viewscreen to see what's going on at the surface. She's right to be worried, because Frankie and Betsy have spotted the entrance to Murania, and the evil Professor and his friends are already there. (It must be a back entrance, since it's too small to ride horses through.) The Professor and his pals go back to Radio Ranch to get some dynamite to blow their way in. Hard to believe there was a time when explosives were so easy to get, but I understand that in 1935, you could indeed buy dynamite easily. Farmers sometimes kept it on hand to blow up large rocks.

The rotten kids and their spittoon helmets are sure to break something.

20,000 feet down, power has been restored. It seems the elevator we've seen is the only one Murania has, and the Queen orders it guarded so Gene can't escape. However, she's just a little too late, and Gene makes it in and starts up just before the guards get there. The Muranian Thunder Riders are waiting for him, and he takes the elevator right back down to an intermediate level. The Thunder Riders follow him, and he ends up dueling them on a walkway over something we don't see. Gene, probably weakened by his ordeal, unexpectedly doesn't knock everybody out but instead is forced over the walkway and plunges to ...what?

A sword fight were clearly everyone is trying hard not to get hurt.

It turns out he doesn't plunge at all but grabs the railing of the walkway, swings down, and escapes into the elevator. Unfortunately so does one of the Muranians, and Gene is so busy fighting him that the elevator plunges out of control. But Gene is always master of the situation, and he knocks the guard out and sends the elevator back up just in time to avert a crash. This just isn't his day, because no sooner has he made it to the surface and left the elevator, when Queen Tika spots him on her viewscreen and orders all of her guards to capture him. Gene helps himself to a Thunder Rider horse, and since the Thunder Riders also seem to be in the habit of always leaving their horses saddled and bridled, Gene's able to get away before the guards get to the surface (which will take them some time anyway, since they all have to use that one small elevator.)

Not a lot of logical urban planning in this super city beneath the crust.

Although Gene managed to get away from the Muranians, his overall situation isn't looking too good. The bad guys are heading back with dynamite, and Frankie and Betsy are trapped near the back entrance they found. Frankie's trying to start a signal fire to get the attention of the Junior Thunder Riders (life was difficult before cell phones). No sooner do they get the fire started when Gene shows up, drops a rope ladder the bad guys pulled up when they left, and rescues the kids. But as I said, this isn't Gene's day, and they get out of the pit to see the bad guys' plane land. As before, they left their signal fire burning, and once the bad guys see it and the rope ladder they left dangling into the pit, they know somebody's been there. Fortunately for our heroes, they assume the intruders are still down there, and they go down themselves.

The "interior" of the "plane" leaves much to be desired.

Gene and the kids are safe for now, but it's almost 2:00, and you know what that means. How will they get back in time? It takes Gene only seconds to hijack the plane and force the pilot, who luckily was still hanging around it and hadn't gone down with the rest of the bad guys, to fly them back to Radio Ranch. Gene is far from being out of trouble, though. Queen Tika has used her all-seeing viewscreen to spot Gene in the airplane, and she also has an all-powerful ray that will destroy the ignition system and force the plane down, so he can be captured, brought back to Murania, and tell who the traitor was who helped him escape, although as I mentioned before, I don't think he knows. In addition, you'll recall he's suspected of murdering Frankie and Betsy's father, and the long arm of the law is after him. What's going to happen? He has to make that broadcast!

The band is worried!

Well, luckily for Gene, the Muranians aren't the only technical geniuses in this movie. Frankie's pretty smart, too, and he's figured out a way that Gene can broadcast over the plane's radio to meet the 2:00 deadline. I don't know if this would work in real life, but it does just fine in the movie. But no sooner does Gene solve one problem when another one crops up, and he's just stopped singing when the Muranian ray knocks out the plane's ignition system, which in Movie World if not in real life, causes the plane's engine to fail. The plane's still loaded with dynamite, and the pilot isn't going to try to land a less-than-perfectly-functioning airplane under those circumstances. What choice does he have, you may ask? It seems the bad guys are still in the practice of keeping a parachute or two stashed in the back, and the pilot grabs one and jumps out. (The plane appears to be flying too low for a parachute jump to be safe, but after all, he's a bad guy, so what do we care?) Unfortunately there's only one, which leaves Gene and the kids in something of a bind. Gene instructs Frankie and Betsy to start tossing the dynamite overboard while he tries to level off the plane. This not only makes the plane safer, but the exploding dynamite also scares off the pursuing Muranians, who seem to have no other means of surface transport than horses. But Gene's not an expert pilot, which so far appears to be the only skill he lacks, and the plane crashes!

The bad guy bails out of the bi-plane...which a second ago was a mono-wing.

Well, sort of. The next chapter opens with a less-devastating crash than we saw at the end of the previous chapter, plus Frankie and Betsy were able to jump out of the open door before it hit, and were also able to do it without getting injured. But the plane, and Gene, went over the edge of a cliff. Frankie and Betsy start to look for him, but the Muranians spot them and capture them. Queen Tika has seen the crash on her viewscreen, and she assumes that Gene is dead. She no longer seems that concerned with finding out who the traitor is, and she orders the Muranian riders to come back. However, the Professor and the other bad guys have just shown up, and the Professor, lacking an all-seeing viewscreen, wants to make sure Gene's really dead. They find him and see that he's still alive, but the people at Radio Ranch suspect that the plane might have crashed, and the Junior Thunder Riders, who've just come back, gallop forth again, not forgetting to shout, "To the rescue!" I feel sorry for their horses, the kids seem to gallop nonstop on them.

Looks like a Stinson high wing.

Frankie and Betsy are taken down the elevator and brought to the Queen. They prove less than diplomatic during their interview, and when Frankie threatens her with the might of the U.S. Army, she orders them imprisoned. Personally, I doubt the U.S. Army of 1935 would have had a chance against Muranian technology, but in short order we see that the Muranians in charge of it don't seem to be that bright. Frankie and Betsy's cell is secured by a robot who broadcasts a deadly but invisible beam, and their captors not only tell them about the invisible beam but show them exactly how to turn the beam off. In fact, Muranian technology seems to have problems with ordinary door locks, since the guards have so much trouble unlocking the cell door that Frankie and Betsy manage to get away from them, turn off the beam, and make their escape. As we saw when Gene was on the loose in Murania, the Muranian streets have lots of convenient nooks and crannies to hide in, and the kids have no trouble hiding from the Muranians.

It's like they deliberately tried to de-feminize Betsy's character, perhaps a
sign of the pre-teen boy demographic they were aiming for with this serial.

Back on the surface, the bad guys are trying to revive Gene. It seems that the "entrance" they're using doesn't actually connect to Murania, hence the dynamite to blast through rock. The Professor hopes that Gene can tell him an easier way to get into Murania, which is why he didn't just kill Gene on the spot. Gene, though, is not as out of it as he seems, and he hears the bad guys mention that the Muranians have captured Frankie and Betsy. The Professor and most of the other bad guys go off someplace, and the two comic-relief cowboys turn out to be good for something after all, when they spot the small entrance, look for Gene, and easily dispatch the two bad guys who stayed there. Gene of course has recovered completely from his crash, and he and the cowboys meet up with the Junior Thunder Riders and set off to find Frankie and Betsy.

I know they want me to laugh, but I won't, they're just not that funny.

Frankie and Betsy are lurking around the Queen's palace, and fortunately just happen to be outside the viewing room when the Queen mentions that Gene and his companions are on their way to the main entrance. The Queen also decides to set up a system whereby the entrance can be opened only from the inside. Unfortunately, as we're told in some clumsy exposition, until they can get the new system fully operational, they'll have to use more of the invisible beams to guard the door, which will have the unfortunate effect that if somebody actually tries to open the entrance, the beams will somehow spill over or something into the viewscreen room, killing anybody who's in there. I take it back, George Washington's army could have easily conquered these people. Heck, make that Hannibal's army. Frankie and Betsy overheard the part about the switch in the viewscreen room that opens the entrance, but either they didn't hear about or don't believe in the interim system's effects, and I bet everybody can guess what this chapter's cliffhanger is going to be. You're right, once they sneak in and throw the switch, lights flash, alarms sound, and Frankie and Betsy go down. What happens next, Nate?

Just can't get any decent antenna reception down this far,
going to miss tonight's episode of Game of Thrones for sure now.

Worry not, Pam, the bratty kids are fine (damn it) thanks (no thanks) to the Queen's timely intervention (grrr...). Oh, and the Muan's "Radium Chamber" where dead people are revived via the magical, mystical powers of Radium, which makes no sense. They are tossed back in a jail cell, though, so Gene's quest to save them is still on. He and his two comic relief sidekick cowboys are deep in the bowels of Mu now, hoofing it to and fro from the Imperial Guard (which isn't hard to do because they are, to a man, incompetent). While Gene Autry sure can sing and strum a six-string, he's the single worst fist-fighter this side of my 94-year old grandmother. It's quite amusing to watch all those big, burly stuntmen flopping to the ground as the buck-o-nine Autry flails at them with his skinny arms.

The cowboys don robot suits and stroll around the
suspiciously empty (and lady-free) streets of Mu.

Eventually Gene is caught and hauled before Queen again. Where before she was in such a hurry to fry him to death, now the Queen is downright cordial to Gene as she tries to butter him up so he'll spill the limas on who saved him from the pit and, by extension, who the traitor in her court is. Oscar and Pete, those two ever-happy cowboy sidekicks sneak in wearing robot suits and take over the Queen's command room. Then Gene just totally sells out the rebellion to the Queen for pretty much no reason at all (what?), giving up the details of the coming insurrection, even though he clearly has the upper hand over her now. Suddenly the Queen flip-flops on the whole "kill the surface people" thing and is all mushy about Gene and the kids (oh they better not start kissing).

Doesn't seem to be in his best interest to take sides in
what is clearly an internal affair.

Chapter 10 is mostly about the downfall of the Queen's court, as the Chancellor, his cover blown, lights off the lamps of rebellion. Gene and the kids/cowboys escape, but the Queen is caught in the fight as the rebels storm the throne room. The loyalist Imperial Guard is unable to stand against them and the rebels have taken command and an announcement is made to that effect. Gene has remarkable little to do here, and the kids have also disappeared, presumably mucking things up with their jelly-sticky hands and breaking stuff they were told not to touch. I must admit that the last couple of chapters drag heavily as we get into the tedious workings of the new leadership. We just don't care. Not one single bit. To my money the whole Queen-vs.-disgruntled populace-equals=rebellion plotline is the weakest link to this serial. All this Machivellian political stuff is just not that interesting, especially when we really know extremely little about Muan society. Who says the rebels aren't in the right? All we've seen of the Queen is her frothing and raging and ordering everyone killed, maybe she needs deposed for the good of the whole Muan world. It's not like we are really getting a good look at general opinion trends, all we ever get to see are the Queen's fawning, servile court appointees and a select group of (allegedly) loyal bodyguards. Perhaps I'd care a bit more if we had a scene or two where Gene, on the run in the slums of Mu, ran into some actual regular citizens. Pile on the Hitler analogies, you know they want to.

She kinda seems like she might be abusing her power, even if it's absolute.

I should also probably pick on the lame and inconsistent "technology" of the Muans, especially their weapons and armor. Perhaps it's because their society has (presumably) been lacking any sort of external military threat for centuries, or perhaps they are, at heart, a peaceful and just society without need of advanced weaponry, but the Mu Empire is clearly stuck in the Bronze Age when it comes to killing people. Putting aside the one-off Aerial Torpedo and a single, criminally-underused Radium Blaster Rifle, the average Mu foot soldier is armed with exclusively with Medieval pikes and Roman short swords. Their breastplates and helmets are also very Romanesque (or, at least, what 1930s Hollywood thought the Romans looked like), making me wonder if the production company raided the prop department of some Sword-and-Sandal movie set. You'd think that a civilization that could master electric death pits and sunlight-free agriculture could produce a working firearm.

These extras just came from bit parts in Captain Blood
so swinging swords is all they know.

Anyway, now that the throne has fallen, the Chancellor starts to clean house, eliminating anyone who has/had ties to the previous regime, the De-Bathification of Mu, so to speak, not that that turned out very well for anyone. They just toss the underlings into the zapper pit but they have something much more painful in mind for the Queen. The rebels (not so much "rebels" anymore as the "new leaders") have back at their HQ this hugeass ultra-death ray gun that reduces matter to a "transparent gas" via some ill-defined scientific principle known only to the Muans and Venture Brothers villains. They are going to use this monstrosity of welded copper pipes and corrugated cardboard to torture the Queen to death just for the fun of it.

It appears to be a lobster crate spray-painted silver.

Gene has other plans, though, and he risks his life and limbs (why?) to fight through the defenses to free the Queen. The door is locked, Gene and his posse escape to the surface, the Queen watches with satisfaction as the rebels try and fail to get through the door into the room she's hiding in. In a fit of rage the Chancellor tries to use the huge ray gun thingie to melt the door down, but it malfunctions (foreshadowed earlier) and ends up killing everyone in the room. The gun then just keeps on blasting away with Radium beams, eventually melting the entire city of Mu like a photograph under a hot lamp (watch the scene and you'll understand). And with that, the lost civilization of Mu is no more and only a handful of surface men will ever know it even existed.

Money well spent.

Story over, yes? No, sadly. Recall that Gene is still wanted for murdering that one dude way back when (and resisting arrest, escape from lawful confinement, tampering with evidence, etc etc...) so he's got to resolve all that before we can have your standard 1930's yuk-yuk-wink ending. After a short and unexciting horse chase, Gene captures Professor Beetson fleeing the scene and gets him to admit his guilt to him at gunpoint. And that confession was broadcast on Frankie and Betsy's pilfered television camera thingie that they stole from Mu before it melted (they did, I saw them do it). In less than an hour they managed to rig up a broadcasting system with sound and image tracking and contrast correction and everything, all with nothing more than a doorknob-sized piece of Mu electronics (sans the instruction manual) and some burlap sacks and pure Rooseveltian ingenuity. The Sheriff drops the case, ignores any qualms about that coerced confession actually being admissible in court, and Gene is free to yodel us out of this serial with a rousing rendition of "Big Band Swing Music Will Render Me Obsolete Soon" as the credits roll.

Pre-Miranda Rights you could still get away with this sort of thing.

Ok, a quibble or two, if I may. What about this ridiculous radio contract that has drive so much of the plot? What sort of draconican terms are these anyway and why would Gene sign up for that? We just saw him do twelve straight days of performances, how long does he have to do all that singing and plucking before he and his band gets a break? How long does the once-mentioned "season" last? Can he call off sick? Can he take a vacation day? What if there's technical issues beyond his control? Sunspots, anyone? And what sort of production company would put such a do-or-die clause in the contract of what was frequently stated to be a "very popular" radio program? In almost every case, in business the term "very popular" equals "lots of money" and it's hard to imagine any radio media company risking a steady revenue stream on some petty daily deadline. Did they secretly want to replace Gene with Howard Stern and this was their way of making the switch without looking like thugs? Was Gene's locked-in contract too expensive? Things like that annoy me.

Maybe they could just lay off some of the non-union
band members, save some money that way.

Now I get that Gene Autry was the star of this serial, and that's fine, but even after twelve of these twenty-minute long episodes I'm struggling to think of any way the Gene character grew or developed in a meaningful way. Gene ended the serial on day 12 as exactly the same square-jawed, wavy-haired, aw-shucks, down-home Good Guy he was in the first minute of day 1. No change in personality due to all the nutso goings-on and no crisis of conscious of note, no spirit-crushing low points or ego-boosting discovery of inner strength when the chips were down, nothing that would be considered a "character arc" in any way. Just discovered a hidden civilization? Eh, barely worth a shrug it seems and certainly no reason at all to get worked up or raise your voice now. Shot at, kidnapped, framed for murder, nearly melted into jello, nothing cracks Gene's blaise attitude about it all. Just Gene being Gene, tipping his Stetson to another day at Radio Ranch for California's most vanilla white bread country crooner.

I really want a neck bandana like Gene's, said no one ever.

And if you know me at all you know this bugs me to no end, Gene has absolutely zero personal life outside of his daily ten-minute radio show. We never see where he lives, where he eats his steak, where he hangs up all those identical button-down blue shirts and hard cotton jeans. Does he even eat steak? Does he have a family? Does he have kids of his own? Does he have a girlfriend? If not, why not? Gene's a handsome man with a regular income and a nice horse, surely there's some pretty lass in a frilly Dorothy Gale dress who has caught his eye. Pam, any thoughts on Gene's seemingly non-existent love life?

Nate, I think Gene doesn't have a girlfriend because this serial was aimed mostly at little boys. They were too young to like girls and would have no interest in a romantic subplot, and since most parents in 1935 were pretty prudish, the moviemakers would have to be so careful not to offend anyone that it was probably easier to leave Gene by himself. I haven't watched enough serials from this period, or Westerns aimed at children for that matter, to know how common it was for the hero to have a girlfriend. I know the hero in Caryl of the Mountains was engaged to Caryl, but that was necessary to the plot, and as I recall, they only kissed each other once when Caryl first came to visit her uncle's cabin, and that was more of a sisterly type of kiss. Back in 1935, when the kind of people who would like a movie like this one saw that the hero wasn't involved with a woman, they tended to think, "He's a good clean-living boy," not "He must be gay."

I've often thought that if I were to become a sociologist, a good way to track fundamental changes in society would be to look at popular literature and movies. Not great literature, since that tends to transcend the mores of the time in which it was written, but the literature aimed at the average Joe and Jane, who aren't too sophisticated and are looking to be entertained, not enlightened. I can remember a time when heroines of romance novels absolutely had to stay virgins until they married, and certainly could not cheat on their husbands. Although I haven't read a romance novel since I was about thirteen, I understand that most of them, except those aimed at a "Christian" audience, are now pretty much porn. Surely this represents a basic shift in society's attitude toward sex.

But enough of the movie's underlying messages about the society in which it was made, let's get back to the movie itself. I kind of liked it. It did get draggy toward the end, but keep in mind that its viewers were never intended to sit down and watch it all in one sitting. Instead, it was supposed to be watched one chapter at a time, with usually a week between chapters. Broken up that way, you wouldn't get so bored, and the cliffhanger endings would seem more exciting. I liked the sets, too, which were better-made than is usual for movies like this one. Compare them to the bare-bones sets in Zombies of the Stratosphere. Wikipedia says that the movie's budget was $75,000, which wasn't too bad for 1935. And those costumes! Somebody had fun designing them, and speaking of fun, most of the actors, especially Wheeler Oakman and Dorothy Christy (Queen Tika), seemed to be having a wonderful time hamming it up for all they were worth. I'm not sure Gene Autry had such a good time, though. As Nate pointed out, his athletic skills were somewhat lacking, and there are several times where he seemed to be genuinely winded. And I think rumors were right and he really couldn't ride a horse, because you never see his face when he's riding. So it's not a great movie, but it's fun to watch if you break it up. There's something that bothers me, though. If Murania was under Radio Ranch, is there a Muvian city under my house? I'll keep my eyes open for caped men galloping past. What were they doing, anyway? We were never told.

If you see anyone dressed like these guys, please call Mulder and Scully.

The End.

Written in June 2013 by Nathan Decker and Pam Burda.

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