Release Date: February 23rd, 1935 (first chapter)
Directed by: Otto Brower, B. Reeves Eason
Written by: Wallace MacDonald, Gerald Geraghty, Hy Freedman, Maurice Geraghty
Music by: Hugo Riesenfeld
Cast: Gene Autry, Frankie Darro, Betsy King Ross, Dorothy Christy, Wheeler Oakman
Mascot Pictures, 245 Minutes total (12 episodes)
Marketed as “The most astounding serial ever made!”, The Phantom Empire is quite a bizarre piece of work even for serials. It combines the western, science fiction and musical genres, which was pretty risky, at the time. It also was the first starring role for Gene Autry, who was the quintessential singing cowboy.
Regardless of it being a strange mixture of genres and singing, The Phantom Empire was a successful serial for Mascot Pictures and Gene Autry, who would go on to be a pretty big star.
The story sees Gene Autry playing himself as a singing cowboy who runs a dude ranch where he also does radio broadcasts. The place is called Radio Ranch. Autry’s sidekicks, Frankie and Betsy lead the Junior Thunder Riders, a club featuring kids who dress like knights and ride around on horses. Gene, Frankie and Betsy are kidnapped by the real Thunder Riders, who come from a highly advanced subterranean empire called Murania. Above the surface, a group of criminals plans to rob Murania of its radium, while under the surface a group of revolutionaries plots to overthrow Murania’s evil queen Tika.
The genre mixing alone isn’t the weirdest thing about this picture. As the plot unfolds it gets stranger and stranger.
While this isn’t the best looking serial, it was fairly well shot for its time. It isn’t as exciting as the odd premise would make you hope but it is still a pretty entertaining experience.
Gene Autry was a love him or hate him kind of guy. I was never really a fan of the singing cowboy thing but this serial provides so much else outside of that popular gimmick that it isn’t bogged down by it.
The Phantom Empire is unique and it is a noteworthy body of work in film history due to giving Gene Autry a stage to prosper and for taking some risks that paid off and paved the way for creativity in future serials.