Sometime over the summer I was surfing randomly and came across something that led me to Phantom Empire, a twelve part serial made by the Mascot Pictures Corporation in 1935 – apparently for next to no budget at all. It stars Gene Autry, “Radio’s singing cowboy”, as himself, and Betsy King Ross, “world’s champion trick rider”, as somebody else.
The whole serial is now in the public domain and available for viewing and download from the Internet Archive, in their Short Format Films section.
The story involves Gene Autry, as himself, singing from the Radio Ranch, where he records his weekly radio show. It begins with Gene and his band singing a song about Noah’s Ark. He then introduces the Junior Thunder Riders Club, who ride around with buckets on their heads and are obviously intended to inspire children all over America to do the same or similar. We then hear some guff about the mysterious “real” Thunder Riders, and see a small band of nefarious scientists and speculators arriving by plane. Of course, both of these turn out to be intimately related to Murania, the secret civilisation that has lived deep underground Radio Ranch for the last three thousand years, since the legendary continent of Mu sank.
In the meanwhile, as IMDB puts it, “The Muranians have developed technology and weaponry such as television and ray guns. Their rich supply of radium draws unscrupulous speculators from the surface. The peaceful civilization of the Muranians is corrupted by the greed from above, and it becomes Autry’s task to prevent all-out war, ideally without disrupting his regular radio show.” The underground Queen Tika, played by the almost legendary Dorothy Christy, is threatened by the evil Lord Argo, played by the not-at-all-legendary Wheeler Oakman, and Gene Autry has to save the day in time to get back to the ranch for the show – or else they will lose their contract with the network.
As a comment pointed out at Archive.org, “This is the strangest serial I’ve ever seen because of one strange circumstance. Gene Autry’s goal is to make it back to Radio Ranch to do his song on the radio every day. The problem with that is he destroys an entire civilization and kills everybody in it to do it.” True, enough, although Queen Tika dies voluntarily in a going-down-with-the-ship kind of way.
With the exception of the first episode, which is five minutes longer, the episodes are all approximately 18 minutes long. I watched the serial all the way through at the rate of about three episodes a week, because the excitement was getting too much for me.
By the end, though, I realised that anyone wishing to sample it only needs to watch the first and the last episode, possibly pausing to sample some of episode 7, where, “declared dead, the Queen sends Gene to the revival chamber so she can learn the name of the traitor that previously released him”. Yes, executed at the end of episode 6, Gene Autry is resurrected as a new man, a mind-boggling fact that somehow never gets mentioned again in his lengthy career in film and television.
Oh, and the Muranians have robots as well. You can tell they are robots because they look like men wearing cardboard boxes (and equipped, for some reason, with cardboard hats) walking unnecessarily slowly.
Do watch this: it’s what your grandparents called “mass media”.