Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Phantom Empire (Mascot, 1935)

 

Six-guns v. ray-guns

 

I felt it incumbent on me (rather a good word, incumbent) as a Western blogger to watch and review for you, dear e-reader, Mascot’s 1935 serial The Phantom Empire.

 

 

Because it was a ground-breaker, you know. Since Phantom Empire, sci-fi/Western crossovers have been quite common, and indeed even in this century they continue (see, for example, our assessment of Cowboys & Aliens). But as far as I know, Phantom was the first.

 

It is said that the idea for the show came to writer/actor/producer Wallace MacDonald (43 feature Westerns in one capacity or another, including some pretty good ones) when he was under gas in the dentist’s chair. Perfectly possible, given how delirious the serial turned out. He must have been high on something. Either that or he was certifiably insane. The gas story being true or not, he sold the idea to Nat Levine at dear old Mascot, who was about to achieve his greatest coup by luring Tom Mix out of retirement to do the talkie serial The Miracle Rider but who wanted “something different” first. He sure got that by taking on Phantom.

 

 

Levine at first scheduled his (then) biggest star Ken Maynard for the lead. Maynard had starred in the twelve-chapter Mystery Mountain the previous year – in which Gene Autry had an uncredited bit part. But Levine and Maynard fell out, big time, and so, with much hesitation and doubt, the studio boss cast Autry as the hero. Now, while some singing cowboys of the silver screen could act but not sing, poor Gene was rather a case of the opposite. Known (and billed) as ‘Radio’s Singing Cowboy’, he had a nice voice but was not much of a natural actor, in addition to being pudgy and far from athletic. Indeed, through most of the serial it is he who has to be rescued most of the time rather than doing the rescuing. He did improve as a screen cowboy as time went on but in this, his first leading role, well, …

 

 

 

So they surrounded him with sidekicks, including a youngish ‘Lester Burnett’ (Smiley Burnette, as he would become) and Peter Potter as Pete for very slapstick ‘comic’ relief, as well as two junior action heroes who could do the leaping about and to whom the audience (average age about ten, I’d guess) could relate. They were the ‘brother and sister’ Frankie Darro, as Frankie, and Betsy King Ross, as Betsy. Frankie was 18 but very short and could pass as a younger kid, while Betsy was genuinely young (14), though unfortunately taller than her older ‘brother’, so she had to stoop a lot when they were together and Frankie stood on boxes and wore lifts. Both were nimble anyway, and did their own stunts. Betsy was a talented equestrienne, billed as ‘World’s Champion Trick Rider’ and later ‘Queen of Young Wild West Riders’. She wasn’t the most fluid of actresses, and soon left the profession, but then on the other hand she wasn’t shown up in Phantom because there wasn’t a good actor on the whole set, I fear, which sort of added to the gauche and kitsch charm of the whole show. It has been described as a camp classic. At the end of Chapter 1 there’s a true cliff-hanger when Gene is left clinging onto a precipice; at the start of Chapter 2, Frankie and Betsy get to him OK but they all have to shimmy over a canyon on a rope to safety. We watch Frankie and Betsy do this athletically enough but the part with Gene doing it is curiously not filmed. We just see him safely on the other side.

 

Betsy and Frankie took care of the action

 

The basic idea is that Gene runs a Radio Ranch, from where he broadcasts daily on the radio, but if he fails to do that, he is in breach of contract and loses the spread. This means that at various vital moments of the plot he has to abandon the action and race back to sing a song (usually comic). However, it turns out that the ranch is rich in radium deposits and a dastardly professor (J Frank Glendon, one of the bad guys in the Western King of the Pecos that we were reviewing only the other day) and his scientific henchmen (who are actually quite good horsemen for boffins) want Gene and his friends dead and gone so that they can get their greedy hands on the radium. Obviously, towards the end, the members of the gang will fall out and start killing each other.

 

 

And he has scientific henchmen

 

Not only that, 25 000 feet (7620m) below the ranch is a secret hidden city of an ancient civilization, Murania, known as Mu for short.

 

 

It seems that there was a book, The Lost Continent of Mu, published in 1926, amazingly still in print, written by, er, let us call him eccentric, to be polite, British freemason, writer, inventor, engineer and fisherman (perhaps he was a capable fisherman) James Churchward. He thought that Mu “extended from somewhere north of Hawaii to the south as far as the Fijis and Easter Island.” He claimed Mu was the site of the Garden of Eden and the home of 64 million inhabitants – known as the Naacals. He insisted that they must have been white. Its civilization, which flourished 50,000 years before Churchward’s day, was technologically far more advanced than his own. He said the ancient civilizations of India, Babylon, Persia, Egypt, and the Mayas were the decayed remnants of Mu’s colonies. Perhaps MacDonald had read this pseudoscience, I don’t know, but anyway he had Mu lying below Gene Autry’s Radio Ranch.

 

Twaddle

 

There was also a highly publicized search in 1934 by geologist G Warren Shufelt for tunnels full of gold beneath Los Angeles, excavated by a long ago “lizard people”. Shufelt claimed to have invented a “radio x-ray machine” with which he detected an underground city (a mere) 250 feet below Los Angeles. He provided the press with a detailed map of the city, and raised money from investors to excavate Fort Moore Hill. All he uncovered was mud, and he declared that the drilling must have hit a water deposit, which had now flooded the tunnels, making further excavations impossible. The world of science must have been mighty disappointed. Not to mention the investors.

 

Shufelt and his (fully functional) radio x-ray machine

 

There sure were a lot of nutjobs out there.

 

Murania in The Phantom Empire is one of those delicious Hollywood B-movie cities with super-advanced ray guns and stuff but clunky doors (made of cardboard) which have to be winched open and ultra-scientific gadgets that wobble when they are touched. You’d think a city like Murania would have floors made of titanium or something but they are all of rough wood, and echo boomingly when the cowboys tramp about them in their boots. Best of all (by which I mean worst of all) are the robots, extras who waddle stiffly about the set in their tin suits. The Muranians occasionally emerge (they have a giant elevator) up into the sunlight and gallop about (they have a secret stable at ground level) dressed like KKK klansmen with flowing cloaks and their faces masked with helmets (they need oxygen up here, you see).

 

Howdy, Robot. Howdy yourself, dude. (Actually, this is Pete and Smiley dressed up as robots)

 

We are used to 1930s Westerns existing in some twilight world where cowboys in nineteenth-century clothes ride the range with guns on their hips in a place with automobiles and planes (and where the women all wear 1930s dresses and hairdos). But The Phantom Empire goes way beyond that, for stagecoach robberies are accompanied by robed medieval knights from an ancient civilization with ray guns from the distant future. It’s actually hilarious.

 

Slightly unusually, science is evil. The bad guys are the professor’s scientists after that radium (who knows for what nefarious ends) and Murania itself is a fascist autocracy with a secret police, ruled over by a haughty queen (Dorothy Christy, billed as Christie, frequent co-star of Will Rogers, Buster Keaton, the Marx brothers, and Laurel and Hardy) who is perfectly ready to throw dead soldiers into the lion pit and have ministers or military commanders who fail to satisfy her every whim executed. Hell, in Chapter 5 she even orders Gene to be put to death. Come on now, Queen, some things are simply not done.

 

 

The guards and so on (we never see any ordinary citizens) all seem Babylonian to me. Not that I’m a great expert on Babylon or its costumes but still. They have pointy hats and swords but those seem to be a kind of laser sword. Queen Tika boasts that she is one of a line of royal blood that has lasted 100,000 years. That’s pretty good going. Even Hitler only planned a thousand-year reich.

 

There’s also a proper wicked, plotting High Chancellor, Lord Argo (classic villain Wheeler Oakman; you can tell right off that he’s a bad ‘un because of his mustache) along the lines of Ming the Merciless. He’s planning “revolution”, though it’s not actually; it’s more of a palace coup. He is such a swine we are even invited to sympathize with Queen Tika, and Gene tries to save her, though personally I was glad that the battle-axe got melted in Chapter 12. For you see Argo’s nefarious schemes bring about the destruction of the empire, as he is hoist with his own death-ray. The whole model city melts on the screen. Anyway, the audience is encouraged to cheer when all that science malarkey gets its just deserts and is brought low by good ole cowboys. Said audience probably hated science at school.

 

One good thing (depending on how you look at it), thanks to some gadget Frankie acquires in Murania, he invents TV.

 

 

The serial was directed by Otto Brower (assistant director on some A-Westerns like Jesse James in 1939, Western Union in 1941 and Buffalo Bill in 1944), together with the famous (or infamous) B Reaves Eason, called by all Breezy Eason, and indeed billed as Breezy on the Phantom credits and titles. He is known for using 42 cameras to film the spectacular chariot race in the 1925 silent Ben-Hur and also shooting the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind in 1939. He directed the charge part of The Charge of the Light Brigade with Errol Flynn galloping down on those Russian guns in 1936 (unfortunately causing carnage among the horses which scandalized many, including Flynn) and many other famous action scenes. He acquired his nickname Breezy because of his somewhat breezy attitude toward filming – he was notorious for shooting just one take of a scene, regardless of flubs. He also had a reputation for having rather a cavalier attitude towards safety when shooting action scenes.

 

Otto

 

Breezy

 

Levine must have known he was taking a risk with The Phantom Empire, but it sure paid off. It was immensely popular, and it paved the way for a whole new kind of sci-fi/adventure serial: Universal’s Flash Gordon and Republic’s Undersea Kingdom (also directed by Eason) the following year definitely owe it a lot.

 

Today, you’d have to be something of a Western Stakhanovite to watch it all at a sitting (the total runtime is 4 hours 5 minutes) but seen in bite-sized chunks it does make merry viewing.

 

Gene would go on to lead in Tumbling Tumbleweeds in September ’35,  Melody Trail (October) Sagebrush Troubadour (November) and The Singing Vagabond (December), and the rest, as they say, is history.

 

 

10 Responses

  1. No need to look further the sources of inspiration for Ed Wood. He could have done a remake starring Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney and maybe himself as the queen. The film title ? Plan 9 from Western Space… All your avid readers are aware of your devotion towards Ed Wood’s westerns efforts as expressed in your remarkable text on The Lawless Rider for instance.
    I wonder if Ed Wood has finally received royalties from the Wizard of Oz production since the Tin Man costume is a blatant copy of the Phantom Empire robots!

    1. Yes, PHANTOM came out just about the time Ed was given his first movie camera as a young boy. I’m sure he would have been entranced by the serial.
      We might have got Bride of the Western Monster, Night of the Western Ghouls, who knows what.
      I hadn’t connected Tin Man and the PHANTOM robots but you are right, there is a remarkable similarity. I read somewhere that Mascot rented the robot suits for PHANTOM from somewhere. I wonder where…

  2. It is ridiculous to compare an asshole like Ed Wood with the people who made Phantom Empire — also who went on to great success and a life of dignity, especially Gene Autry.

    1. Barry I did not compare at all! it looks as if our senses of humor are a little different to say the less…
      About Gene Autry, I prefer his songs than his films by far, maybe his biggest achievement, to me, is the extraordinary
      Autry Museum of the American West on the edge of Griffith Park in Los Angeles, established 10 years before his death.

      1. An Autry reality check: In 1940 the motion picture exhibitors listed its top ten — the first four were Mickey Rooney, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, and Gene — I thought Jeff made the Ed Wood reference.

        1. No doubt that Gene Autry was a very popular star back in the days in the US. But as an actor I agree with Jeff.
          Being at the top of the charts is not always a convincing proof. Spencer Tracy was a damn good actor as Gable was. If you are asking the readers of this blog to give their top 10, 20 or 30 preferred western actors I really doubt that Gene will be in the list.
          Autry was cast in the films to sing (and sell the records) and he did sing very well and some of his songs such as You Are My Sunshine and Back In The Saddle Again are among my favorites. I fully recognize his contribution to the country music. As an actor, I like much better William Boyd and Roy Rogers because I let the nostalgia speak. Nevertheless neither of them, or their films, are in my top list.

        2. Gene was certainly very popular in his day but I don’t think anyone is comparing him to Ed Wood! I reckon that Wood was (though Tim Burton and Johnny Depp might disagree) pretty well talentless.

  3. Not a western at all but a film based upon the absence of talent pushed to extremes is Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant telling the true story of a singer who cannot sing but is deeply convinced she can.

  4. Jean-Marie: It is called show business, and the object is for the public or audience to relate. Opinions are just that, but paid admissions are the only test. You know what I mean, like the mindless jerks who label some successful person in the past as underrated.

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