Insanity abounds in The Phantom Empire, one of the classic movie serials from the Golden Age of the Silver Screen, as tin-plated terrors take on singing cowboys on the open range and under the earth. Rumour has it that the inspiration for this manic blending of genres came about while Western movie scriptwriter Wallace McDonald was under Nitrous Oxide in the dentist's chair, and it shows. The result is the cinema's first great Science Fiction Western.
The number of genre, and medium, crossovers is enough to make a metacritic's head spin. By 1935, Gene Autry's star was in the ascendant. Talented on the microphone and with the guitar, the young Texan was discovered in 1928 and given a record deal with Columbia the following year. Through this and his consistent appearances on Old Time Radio, Autry was soon known across the country as "The Singing Cowboy". In 1934, Autry and his partner, Smiley Burnette, were tapped by Mascot Pictures Corp. to star in their Western serials. The first was Ol Santa Fe, followed in 1935 by The Phantom Empire.
In the latter, Autry plays himself - on the suggestion that producer Nat Levine didn't think much of Autry's acting ability - as big attraction of Radio Ranch, a fictional locale perpetuating the myth of radio. While the radio performances of the Singing Cowboy were all done in the confines of a Chicago studio, The Phantom Empire played up the idea that they were broadcast live from the Old West, complete with honest-to-goodness rodeo trick riding and costumed melodrama providing the quintessential Wild West stuff. Ample time is given to Autry's musical interludes, and the radio program forms the backdrop of the plot.
Into this prairie Eden flies the serpent of duplicitous radium prospectors. Bedecked in suits and fedoras as they disembark their airplane, we enter into the realm of a gangster flick. Together, the gang led by Professor Beetson plot to make Autry miss a show, which would cause his contract to be immediately forfeited and see Radio Ranch fall into receivership. Without these pesky cowpokes in the way, they would be free to mine the wealth of the radioactive element radium lying deep beneath the farm without interference.
They aren't the only ones who want Autry out of the way, and this is where The Phantom Empire literally descends into madness. Handily residing 25,000 feet beneath Radio Ranch is the radium-rich lost empire of Murania. As the Ice Age began to crawl across the surface of the earth 100,000 years ago, the people of Mu carved out a new civilization for themselves at the planet's core. The result is a fantastically advanced, Scientifictional city that would shame anything found on Mongo or at a World's Fair.
In order to preserve the security of their technotopia from invasion by the violent, bloodthirsty savages of 1935 America, the Queen of Murania decides that Radio Ranch must be destroyed. Without the ranch, there would be less of a chance of the entrance to the caverns being discovered. And so, from here gleaming chrone throneroom, the Queen's command echoes forth: capture Gene Autry!
Mind you, this is all established in the first of the serial's 12 episodes. Parts two and three digress into a murder mystery where Autry has been framed up by Beetson for the murder of the co-owner of Radio Ranch. Meanwhile, dissention and revolution ferment in Murania. Ducking the law after narrowing surviving a brakeless car tumbling down a ravine, Autry is finally captured in part five and taken down to Murania. For the rest we're caught between riding posses, airplane crashes and perhaps the best device ever for dealing with cliffhanger endings. Thanks to Murania's advanced radium technology they can even revive the dead, which works out nicely for Autry and his companions several times!
Of particular interest to film buffs is the location shooting for The Phantom Empire. It is little wonder that the Scientific City of Murania should look so dapper: this serial was the first in a long line of films to use the famous Griffith Observatory as a locale. With construction beginning in 1933 and opening on May 14, 1935, The Phantom Empire filmed and premiered months before the observatory was actually completed. Nearby Bronson Canyon - most famous as Adam West's Batcave - was also used for the entrance to Murania. It is a happy coincidence, then, that Griffith Park is the home of the Autry National Center of the American West.
Thanks to the magic of public domain and the Internet Archive, the entirety of The Phantom Empire is available online.