The Back Row’s Weekly Serial Review: The Phantom Empire

Quick Facts
Released in 1935
Directed by Otto Brower and B. Reeves Eason
Written by Wallace MacDonald, Gerald Geraghty and Hy Freedman,
Starring Gene Autry, Frankie Darro, and Betsy King Ross

Basic Story Line
Gene Autry is hosting a radio broadcast on a ranch that is built over an underground civilization. Both a group of evil scientists, trying to find the hidden empire, and the Queen of the lost civilization, want to stop the broadcast in order to keep their secret.

Although I wouldn’t call it a bad serial, The Phantom Empire is definitely one of the oddest serials I have ever seen.

The serial starts with a stage coach hold up that isn’t a stage coach hold up. It is actually the beginning of a radio broadcast. It has Gene Autry, a radio singing cowboy, in his first starring role on film. He is playing Gene Autry, a radio singing cowboy. The first two chapters of this serial slide in and out of the radio show and the real world. Sometimes showing us scenes of a radio drama and occasionally having the actors break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience. After the second chapter the serial settles into more of an ordinary serial format. Or, rather, as ordinary as a 1935 Western Sci-Fi can be.

The plot revolves around the existence of an underground civilization directly under the ranch Gene Autry is broadcasting from. The Radio Ranch broadcast is drawing tourists to the area and both the Queen of the underground civilization, Murania, and the evil scientists who are trying to find Murania want to get rid of the visitors. To do this they must stop the broadcast. Now, I could be wrong, but I believe this is the only time if film history where two separate sets of villains have their plans revolve around stopping Gene Autry from singing.

The merging of the real world and the world of the radio show continues. The evil scientists put their plot into action by killing Gene’s partner during a shootout in one of the radio plays. They then frame Gene Autry for the murder. Another example of the on air and off air colliding are the two kids that are helping Gene. On air they have a club called the Junior Thunder Riders. They also have this club off air. The Thunder Riders is also the name of the royal guards of Murania. Because the two worlds merge so regularly, couple with the outright strangeness of the premise, makes me wonder if the entire serial isn’t in fact a radio show being put on by Radio Ranch. A serial with a radio drama in it actually becomes a radio drama on film. A little too meta for a 1935 film serial? The 1920 movie The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari all takes place in the mind of a psychiatric patient, so there is precedent for films being more than what they appear.

True, I may be reading a bit much into this. Perhaps it isn’t anything more than a serial aimed at kids and apparently conceived by Wallace MacDonald while under sedation during dental surgery. In any case, if you are into old Meta-Musical-Western-Cheesy-Science-Fiction, I can safely recommend The Phantom Empire to you.

Things to watch for
-Dancing robots.
-The queen of Murania saying variations on the line “Capture Gene Autry!”

The Back Row Weekly Serial Drinking Game
While watching a serial, anytime you or a friend point out a plot hole or inconsistency, take a drink. (Note: I usually have something clever to put here, but when a serial is this strange, I’m not sure what to say.)
Odds of getting sloshed: High

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