Friday, February 09, 2007

ICFAB reviews "The Phantom Empire"

Remember that weird nightmare you once had? You know--the one with the singing cowboy and the subterranean world with the clunky, top hat-wearing robots? You don’t?

Would you like to?

Well, now, without the aid of certain hallucinogenic narcotics, you can! I’m talking about “The Phantom Empire,” a movie serial made in 1935.
These serials were short films (around 20 minutes, typically) with cliffhanger endings that would show before the main feature at a theater. Each week there would be a new chapter, and the hero would escape from last week’s peril and get into a new life-threatening situation, to be resolved the following week. The idea was that people would keep coming back to the theater to see what would happen.

The aforementioned “singing cowboy” is Gene Autry, in what is, I think, his first film role. He runs the “Radio Ranch,” a place for kids to get away from the city, and from which a daily radio broadcast must be—well, broadcast. If Autry fails to appear, he loses his lease on the ranch.

Now, throw in a group of shady scientists who have discovered rich uranium deposits on the ranch. Go ahead, throw ‘em! Nobody will complain. These scientists can’t mine the uranium ore unless Gene Autry defaults on his lease, so they take occasional steps to strand him, frame him, blow him up, etc. so he will miss his broadcast.

That’s not the most fun, though. Two kids on the ranch (one of whom is trick-riding champion Betsy King Ross. Nah, I hadn’t heard of her, either. The other is Frankie Darro, who was the guy inside Robby the Robot in “Forbidden Planet”) discover that 25,000 feet below the surface of the ranch is “The Scientific City of Murania.”

The citizens of Murania (“Murania”= “uranium” with the final “m” moved to the front) descended into the earth back when the icebergs were running free and wild across the great plains. (Yee-haw! Get along, little ice floes! Yip-yip-yippee!) The queen of Murania has taken a dislike to being awakened in the middle of the afternoon by the Radio Ranch’s broadcast of cowboy crooning, and she has the youngsters kidnapped by her army of “Thunder Riders” (so named, because the sound of their horses’ hooves at full gallop is like rolling thunder.)

Will the spoiled Queen Tika get her way? Will the plotting scientists succeed in framing Gene for murder? Will the silly-looking robots actually do something useful? Will Gene Autry learn to act? Tune in next week for another exciting chapter of “The Phantom Empire”!

It’s not the greatest movie serial ever created, but it’s rarely boring. “Wacky” is a good description. “What were they smoking?” is, at times, a better one. Rumor has it that the serial’s producer concocted the whole plot while under the influence of nitrous-oxide in the dentist chair. Check it out, and you’ll believe it! Phantom Empire created a new genre of film called, “You got your sci-fi in my western! You got your western in my sci-fi!”
This fun romp is definitely worth a gander--and if you find a seller who is willing to trade dvds for poultry, let me know.

These folks have a nicely cleaned-up & tinted version of "The Phantom Empire."


Diesel said...

Why do I think George Lucas watched this about a hundred times as a kid?

Allen said...

Well, that WOULD explain the scene in Star Wars where Luke Skywalker is singing "The Whomp Rat Hoedown"! Actually, a serial called "The Undersea Kingdom," which used alot of the same props, sets, and costumes as Phantom Empire, is often cited as a possible inspiration for SW.