Most feature-length cutdowns of serials are hard to follow, but this 70 minute digest of The Phantom Empire (1935) compounds the strangeness of the original work to an extent that’s almost mind-warping. It was already an loopy idea to pitch singing cowboy Gene Autry into a science fantasy that prefigures Flash Gordon and Underwater Kingdom – with the bizarre, repeated suspense device that Gene has to get out of whatever pickle he’s in and rush back to Radio Ranch to sing on his live wireless program or he’ll lose the contract and the property. Imagine if Indiana Jones had to keep nipping back from the Temple of Doom to belt out a cowboy song into a big microphone before getting on with his adventuring.
In caverns deep under the ranch is Murania, a super-scientific civilisation ruled by tyrannical Queen Tika (Dorothy Christy), who is plotted against by her grand vizier/prime minister Argo (Wheeler Oakman) and his revolutionists. The skeleton of She is discernible, if filtered through Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Flash Gordon newspaper strip. Both Muranian factions are baddies, as are some scurvy surface scientists out to gain and exploits the secrets of Murania. There’s no real overlap between above-ground and subterranean plots, just that folks chase and imperil Autry and his pals – genius radio tinkerer brat Frankie (Frankie Darro), his stunt riding sister Betsy (Betsy King Ross), comedy backup musicians Oscar (Smiley Burnette) and Pete (Peter Potter) – wherever they are. The action pauses only so Autry can garglesing ‘That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine’ or ‘Uncle Noah’s Ark’. Incidentally, the star is so famous that even citizens of a lost empire recognise him at once –a seriously impressive media reach.
Muranians can’t function on the surface without breathing equipment, but unaccountably a troop of Muranian cavalry in weird tin helmets and cloaks gallop across the ranch on horses making a thunderous sound – inspiring Frankie and Betsy to form a junior posse called the Thunder Riders, with even sillier bucket helmets. Their rallying cry of ‘to the rescue!’ at first sounds a bit too specific for repeated use — only in this reality someone always needs rescuing. The grand silver vistas of Murania are obviously influenced by Metropolis, with imaginative if obvious pulp illustration-style miniatures of gleaming towers and elevated walkways. Other science fiction elements include tin-man type lumbering robot slaves (an alternate title is Men With Metal Faces) and a death ray that goes wild at the end (a bit copped from The Mask of Fu Manchu). The antediluvian civilisation is wiped out via the weird effect of showing the film melting (particularly disturbing when the Queen gets got) and none of the surface dwellers express so much as a mild regret that all these people and their culture have been casually genocided. Murania is gone forever – but, more importantly, how about a song?
Frankie brings back the secret of television, which can tune in anywhere and spy on people – the Queen used it to spot Argo as a wrong ‘un, and Frankie gets the Sheriff to witness a baddie own up to a murder Gene has been framed for. It all ends with a reprise of that Noah’s Ark song, with funny animal noises. Directed by Otto Brower and B. Reeves Eason, it’s crude but surreal – annoyingly clanky at times, skittering away from moments of simple delirium to throw in standard cliffhanging.