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THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (1935)

[Part 2]

As long as the revolutionists are in power, we'll never be able to get out of here!




  Director:
 
Otto Brower and B. Reeves Eason

  Starring: 
Gene Autry, Frankie Darro, Betsy King Ross, Dorothy Christy, Wheeler Oakman, Frank Glendon, Lester “Smiley” Burnette, Peter Potter (William Moore), Edward Peil Sr, Jack Carlyle, Richard Talmadge, Warner Richmond, Charles K. French

  Screenplay: 
Wallace MacDonald, Gerald Geraghty, Hy Freedman, John Rathmell, Armand, Schaefer and Maurice Geraghty (uncredited)

Click here for Part 1

Our story so far:  Though Radio Ranch is attracting visitors from all over the country, it is kept in business chiefly by Gene Autry’s radio broadcast: he must perform at two o’clock every day, or he will break his contract, and Radio Ranch will have to close. Many thousands of feet below the earth, directly under Radio Ranch, is the lost civilisation of Murania. The increased activity at Radio Ranch threatens to reveal the existence of Murania; Queen Tika orders Gene Autry captured, so that Radio Ranch will close. Meanwhile, three scientists seeking Murania’s rich radium deposits for their own financial gain are also trying to drive Radio Ranch out of business, so that they may conduct their search secretly. To this end, they murder Mr Baxter, Gene Autry’s business partner, and frame Gene. With the help of Frankie and Betsy Baxter, who believe in his innocence, Gene manages to evade the law and keep on meeting his broadcasting contract. However, he finally falls into the clutches of Queen Tika’s Thunder Guards and is carried into Murania, where he is sentenced to death but secretly rescued by Argo, the Lord High Chancellor, who is plotting a revolution. Gene manages to escape from captivity and begins a desperate effort to reach the surface before his two o’clock broadcasting deadline. However, learning that Frankie and Betsy are coming to his rescue, and that Queen Tika has ordered a bomb strike against them, Gene tries to divert the attack---and discovers that the diverted Radium Bomb is headed straight for the Armament Room---

 CHAPTER 7: FROM DEATH TO LIFE

---but it’s okay because, as we saw with respect to the attack on the plane, Murania’s missiles are really wimpy. This one does do some damage in the Armament Room but not nearly so much as you’d expect. Nevertheless, those rushing to the scene cry out, “The Armament Tower is destroyed! Gene Autry is dead!”

This news is reported to Queen Tika, although by the time it reaches her Gene’s condition has been upgraded to “still showing a spark of life”. Having, as she thought, recently overseen Gene’s execution, Tika is more than a little miffed by this: she orders Gene carried to the Radium-Revival Room, so that he can be healed and then tell her who saved him.

Two guards carry Gene off as ordered, though on the way down in the lift one comments that he is barely breathing, and probably won’t live to reach the Chamber. You might think this would be a sign that some haste might be in order, but you don’t know Murania: having reached the right level, the guards put Gene down, step out of the lift, and summon a robot – a slow, jerky robot – to carry him to the Chamber. Because no-one, but no-one, does any manual labour in the advanced scientific city of Murania. Even if it would be easier and quicker if they did.

One of the rebel guards sees all this and runs to report to Argo, down in Rebel HQ---reporting, in fact, that Gene Autry is dead--- 

---but it’s okay, because amongst their other accomplishments, the Muranians have the power to raise the dead. It’s all due to radium, you understand.

That’s right: Gene Autry actually dying is just a plot-point, not a cliffhanger! I mean, really, don’t you think the previous episode could have gone an extra few seconds, and ended with that!?

Although...perhaps it was considered that leaving the kids in the audience in doubt of Gene’s survival for a week would be too distressing.

Realising that the jig is up, Argo announces that the revolution must start at once:

Rab:  “But the Atom-Smashing Machine, which destroys all matter, is not yet complete!

I may say that we are never given the slightest reason why these people are rebelling. Okay, Argo’s just in it for the power, and the thirty-seven non-executees bought their life that way, but we’re not given even the slightest hint of what the other participants hope to achieve by it. Although it isn’t hard to imagine that the army was persuaded to change sides on a promise of not being executed for having their shoelaces untied; while undoubtedly Rab was bought over by given the go-ahead for his Disintegrating-Atom Smashing Machine, which Destroys All Matter, and possibly The Universe...

Speaking of Rab, it turns out he isn’t just your friendly neighbourhood mad scientist: he’s also Murania’s Chief Surgeon (!?), which means he gets to oversee all resurrections. Argo orders Rab to his quarters, from where he will inevitably called to the Reviving Chamber, and sends a couple more conspirators to the “Radium Generator Room”, to sabotage the “high-tension cable” and so cut off power to all of Murania (what, there’s no back-up system!?), although the Reviving Chamber is the main target

Meanwhile, Rab is trying to stall by arguing that Gene can’t be raised from the dead because, you know, he’s dead. Tika is understandably unimpressed by this line of reasoning and orders him to get on with it. He does, and Gene revives in a shower of sparks---only to start talking gibberish The Language Of The Dead, much to Tika’s frustration:

Rab:  “Surface people always return to life that way.”
Queen Tika:
“”But you said that I might question him!”
Rab:  “One may always question the dead, Your Majesty, but one need not always expect an answer.”

 

Fortunately for Rab, Tika is so intent on getting the truth out of Gene that she lets this piece of smartmouth deep philosophical rumination pass her by; instead giving Rab permission to perform a dangerous brain operation on Gene, in the hope of giving him back the power of communication.

Argo turns up in the middle of this and is subject to many veiled barbs from Tika; although he claims to be as eager as she to discover the traitor. Rab, with his eye on the passing time, makes preparations for a good old-fashioned trepanning...but just at the last moment Gene starts speaking English for no reason that is ever addressed, and Tika calls the operation off. She questions him eagerly, but a dazed Gene starts at the very beginning, generally (but not always) as very good place to start, and is still mumbling about the lightning bolts in the Death Chamber when---

---the power goes out all over Murania---

---and by the time someone gets a torch lit (that’s right: in the event of a power failure, the “Scientific City of Murania” relies on burning torches), Gene has disappeared...

Almost frothing at the mouth, Tika orders a Murania-wide search---calling back the Thunder Guards, who were earlier sent out to head off the approaching surface people.

Meanwhile, Gene has been hustled back down to Rebel HQ. There’s just one problem:

Conspirator:  “This door opens electrically. It will not open without power.”

Ohhhhh...so THIS is where Michael Crichton got that stupid idea!

And then---behold our revolutionaries! First Argo orders one of his underlings to overcome the whole “locked door” problem by cutting out the hinges: a response which initially gives the horrifying impression that it might play out in real-time, but from which we are saved by Gene managing to overcome his three guards in not the most convincing physical conflict of all time, before scooting off through a door which boasts the double advantage of (i) not being electrical, and (ii) having a lock on the other side. To which Argo’s people respond by slamming their shoulders against it, even though, as we’ve just seen, it opens inwards.

Meanwhile, Betsy and Frankie have discovered what they believe is the entrance to Murania (although given that it’s in a ravine and requires a rope-ladder for access, one wonders what they think the Thunder Guards do about their horses). In fact, what they have found is the opening of a digging, where the scientists’ instruments are indicating that they are still 3000 feet away from that lovely, profitable radium. They head back to Radio Ranch to get some dynamite---pulling up the rope-ladder after themselves and leaving the kids trapped.

Back in Murania, two robots have succeeded in fixing the cable, and the power comes back on. Tika notes that Gene can’t escape except via the elevator, and has it guarded.

And then we get one of The Phantom Empire’s genuinely clever touches, with Gene concealing his identity as he makes his way through the city by carrying a bundle in front of his face---but only drawing attention to himself because, in the advanced scientific city of Murania, no-one, but no-one, does any manual labour.

And this is followed by an utterly bizarre touch as, in the doorway of the elevator, Gene encounters a robot. It doesn’t succeed in stopping him, but it does give him a good whack on the rump in passing.

Don’t ask me.

Apparently the situation is all too much for Queen Tika, who doesn’t seem to know what she wants any more:

Queen Tika:  “Thunder Guards! Gene Autry is headed your way – take him dead or alive!... Now I’ll be able to find out who helped Autry escape from the Death Chamber!”

Gene finally escapes from the elevator into the power-station, but finds himself trapped on an elevated walkway and having to defend himself with sword and fist. He is outnumbered, however, and sent plunging over the railing to his death---

 

CHAPTER 8: JAWS OF JEOPARDY

---but it’s okay, because he manages to grab onto a railing on the way down and swing himself to safety. And because swords are only for pushing people with.

Much up-and-downing in the elevator, and back-and-forthing at the door, follows. This time Gene escapes at the surface level where it transpires that every single Thunder Guard has gone down into the city to search for him, leaving the door unguarded...except by two stragglers from outside, who cut off his exit. Gene manages to knock one out, and then knock the helmet off the other; rather brutally, he withholds it in exchange for the door being opened. The gasping guard staggers over to the robot that works the door and activates it. Gene leaps onto a horse and gallops off, just as the rest of the Thunder Guards, alerted by Tika, come pouring back up from below. However, Gene managers to evade his pursuers.

I feel another execution coming on.

Down in the ravine, we get an amusing interlude with Betsy and Frankie, with Frankie desperately rubbing sticks together in an attempt to start a signal-fire, and Betsy calmly beating him to the punch with the help of a magnifying-glass (which Frankie, to his credit, takes in good part):

Frankie:  “How’d I know the scientists were going to pull up that rope-ladder and leave us trapped?”
Betsy:
  “We should’ve known you couldn’t trust Professor Beetson and the rest of those archaeologists!”

 

Meanwhile, the aforementioned untrustworthy ones are loading up their plane with dynamite:

Beetson:  “That should be enough dynamite to uncover the radium deposit.”
Saunders:
  “Right! If anyone should discover it, we’d have to share our fortune with the owners of the land, and the government!”

(One does wonder who they’re planning on selling the radium to...?) 

It’s Gene who spots the signal fire. He manages to get the kids out of the ravine just before the scientists return in the plane, and they hide nearby. The scientists see that the ladder is down, and conclude that someone is in the tunnel and that – gasp! – they’ve found the radium! Beetson pulls his gun, muttering that whoever is in the tunnel is never coming out...

Betsy:  “You got us out of there just in time!”
Frankie:
  “Say, we’ve got to broadcast at two o’clock!”
Gene:
  “It’s almost time now!”
Betsy:
  “We’ll never make it back to the ranch by two o’clock!”
Frankie:
  “We’ll have to! If Gene doesn’t go on the air, we’ll lose the contract, and the ranch too!”

Desperate, Gene and the kids run over to the plane, where Sharp is starting to unload the dynamite: they manage to disarm him, and force him to fly back to the ranch:

Betsy:  “But won’t they arrest Gene for murder as soon as he appears at the ranch?”
Frankie:  “He’ll broadcast and be away from there before anyone knows.”

As Tika shakes her head over the sorry state of affairs in Murania, the new leader of the Thunder Guards contacts her to report that Gene has evaded them, and to ask that she use her Snoop-Scope to try and spot him. Tika commends his presence of mind (rather than, you know, ordering his immediate execution), and does as requested---tuning in just in time to hear Gene tell Frankie that, “As soon as this fella serves his purpose and we’re alone, I’ll tell you the exact location of the entrance to Murania.”

Uh, why?

Both the High Priest and Argo (naturally) urge Tika to blast the plane out of the sky, but she is determined to have Gene brought back so she can question him. (I hope she remembers to rescind her “dead or alive” order.) She orders an “Interference Ray” sent out to “stop the flying machine”. Because of course, causing a plane’s engine to cut out in mid-flight couldn’t possibly have any adverse consequences...

Realising that they’re not going to reach the ranch in time – Sharp isn’t exactly straining himself – Frankie grabs the plane’s radio-set and makes contact with the producer just as he is once again forced to resort to a lengthy introduction by the Radio Ranch Quartet. And once again we marvel at the tiny fraction of airtime that is causing such a fuss, as the producer and his assistant fret that, “The program will be over in a few minutes” (!!).

(So...the fact that he is wanted for murder makes no difference to his contract, but being a few minutes late is a deal-breaker!?)

But just at that moment, Frankie’s call comes through and Gene performs from the cabin of the plane. Obligingly, the Muranians wait until he finishes his number before firing up the Interference Ray. The engine of the plane cuts out...

Sharp, showing unusual presence of mind, takers advantage of Frankie’s distraction to grab back his gun, help himself to the one parachute, and bail out. Gene starts wrestling with the unresponsive controls, while Frankie starts tossing the dynamite overboard. It explodes when it hits the ground, spooking the pursuing Thunder Guards (even though <Morbo> DYNAMITE DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY!! </Morbo> ).

But Gene is unable to control the plane which, even as it touches the ground, plunges off a cliff, is smashed to pieces upon the ground below, and bursts into flames---

 

CHAPTER 9: PRISONERS OF THE RAY

---but it’s okay, because Betsy and Frankie jumped clear before the cliff (which is the important detail), while as for Gene---

Queen Tika:  “THAT is the end of Gene Autry!”

Uh...pardon me for bringing it up, but you wanted him taken alive.

The kids are looking for a way down to the crash site when they are scooped up by the Thunder Guards, who have been ordered to bring them back to Murania on the assumption that Gene told them where the entrance is...and if he didn’t, well, I’ll guess they’ll pretty soon know where it is anyway.

(So why not just kill them? Hard when you’re dealing with kids, isn’t it...?

 

Sharp sees all of this and reports to the scientists, who ride up at just that moment:

Cooper:  “If he’s dead, that means Radio Ranch will soon be deserted!”
Beetson:
  “And without Autry’s broadcasting, the guests will soon leave and that means we can continue our search for the underground kingdom of Murania, without interference.”

Recent events considered, however, Saunders suggests checking on Gene to make sure that this time, he’s really most sincerely dead. Good call, Saunders---because of course, he isn’t. The scientists conclude from the way he’s dressed that he must have been to Murania, and from wanting him definitely dead, they now want him all better so he can show them where the entrance is

Betsy and Frankie are hauled before Tika, and display even more tact than Gene did before them:

Queen Tika:  “What do you think of Murania?”
Betsy:
  “Stuffy.”

Frankie proceeds to threaten Tika with all sorts of retribution, via Gene, to which she retaliates by telling the kids that Gene is dead. She then sentences them both to life imprisonment (in a lot more words). Betsy bursts into tears over Gene’s fate, although by the time the kids reach the lower levels, like Saunders she’s finding it hard to believe. Frankie, too, has decided that Tika was just trying to frighten them

On the way to the dungeons, the kids’ guards helpfully show them just exactly how to turn a guard-robot off and on---knowledge that they immediately put to good use when they see a chance to make a break for it. Having evaded their pursuers, they stop to consider their situation:

Betsy:  “We’ll never get out of Murania!”
Frankie:
  “Well, if Gene found a way out, we should be able to.”

So, I’m guessing it was about this time that Gene Autry told the producers he had something more important to do than go on filming The Phantom Empire?

Back in the tunnel, the scientists, too, are applying the Red Cross-recommended treatment for plane crash, and shaking Gene violently while demanding to know where the entrance to Murania is; but he stubbornly refuses to regain consciousness...they think. Careless talk lets Gene know about Frankie and Betsy.

The Junior Thunder Riders – Pete and Oscar included – have been out searching for the site of the plane crash, but instead find the kids’ horses by the ravine. Pete and Oscar conclude that the scientists have the kids down in the tunnel, and climb down to rescue them. Naturally they don’t, but they do manage to jump both Sharp and Goon (what is his name?), and free Gene. The three reunite with the Junior Thunder Riders, and they all head for the entrance to Murania.

Betsy and Frankie, meanwhile, are spying on Tika & Co. from the same handy window slot that Gene did, and thus learn the glad tidings:

Queen Tika:  “Gene Autry! I thought he was dead!”

He got better.

An argument breaks out between Argo and the High Priest over the best way to handle the situation, with the self-serving Argo managing to persuade Tika not to try and capture Gene again in front of so many witnesses, but rather to have the external electric-eye switched off, and the surface door controlled from the Games Room only. This is duly done, so that the only way to open the door is via a certain switch in a panel in the Games Room, which is guarded by a robot emanating an “infra-ray”:

High Priest:  “You propose to guard the upper door mechanism by infra-ray? – which, if crossed by anyone operating that switch, will cause destructive radium beams to come from above, and kill anyone in this room?”

Unfortunately for the kids, who have been dodging the guards again, they get back in time to hear about the control switch, but miss the detail about the infra-ray. Consequently, as soon as the room has been cleared, they rush across to the panel and throw the switch---and are immediately engulfed in fatal radium beams---

 

CHAPTER 10: THE REBELLION

---but it’s okay, because Tika orders the fatal radium beams shut down before they can be, well, fatal. Frankie did manage to throw the switch before collapsing, with the result that Gene, Pete and Oscar are now inside Murania...

Tika orders the kids taken first to the Radium-Reviving Chamber (radium: the cause of, and answer to, all of life’s problems), then to “the lowest dungeons”; because low dungeons are so much nastier than any other kind.

The three intruders are spotted and chased by the guards, and pursued through some by-now extremely familiar sets locations. Pete and Oscar run into the main robot work-area where, in desperation, they take up some spare robot parts...

...and here, if you’ll excuse me, I really stop and make an observation...

As mentioned, up until this point The Phantom Empire treats its ludicrously inadequate robots with an absolutely straight face: emphasising their abilities as workers and guards, having the surface people stare at them in awe, and generally making them the symbol of Murania’s superiority, in spite of their obvious, uh, limitations. Of course, although we may find this nearly impossible to grasp at this distance, none of the characters know what a robot is: Frankie struggles to explain his theory on how they work to Betsy, while Pete and Oscar initially think they’re alive. The suggestion seems to be that viewers of 1935 would be equally uninformed, and equally impressed.

And yet--- Here a strange, “meta” sort of tone creeps in---because as soon as Pete and Oscar dress up as robots, the covert ludicrousness of these wonders of science becomes immediately overt---as if someone, somewhere, just couldn’t go another moment without winking at the audience.

And here’s another thing, equally strange: although they several times make themselves useful, as with their rescue of Gene, Pete and Oscar are the Odious Comic Relief, with all that this entails; but as soon as they dress up as robots and start stumping around, they become genuinely funny – even though they’re pretty much doing the same shtick they always were. And likewise, as soon as they shed their disguises, they immediately revert to being Odious.

Anyway--- The guards eventually break into the work-room, but find it populated only by robots. They make the mistake of turning their backs upon the mechanical men, which are all working away with their sledgehammers...with the result that when the second wave of searchers arrive – who have captured Gene – they find their comrades all lying unconscious on the floor... Orders are given for the other two surface men to be killed on sight, while Gene is dragged off to see Tika – again. One of the guards is left behind to wait for assistance, so that the unconscious men can be taken to the Revival Chamber; and no sooner is he alone than he turns his back...

Meanwhile, Gene is confronting Tika:

Queen Tika:  “You have long been a menace to Murania, by attracting people to Radio Ranch with your broadcasts!”

But it’s the name of the person who saved Gene from the Lightning Chamber that Tika wants. Gene refuses to cooperate---except in exchange for not just his own life, but the lives of Frankie and Betsy. Tika orders the kids brought to her – which, Argo realises, puts a short timeframe on his continued freedom. He begins making arrangements to start the revolution...

Tika then gives Gene a tour of the Games Room, and for no readily apparent reason starts explaining to him how it all works. In the middle of this, two robots suddenly start attacking the guards:

Robot:  “Don’t get excited, lady – we’re just taking control of Murania.”

 

Gene insists that Frankie and Betsy be located on the Snoop-Screen...which reveals them in the clutches of Argo and his people. This is enough to make Gene confirm Argo as the traitor – and, what’s more, that revolution is brewing:

Gene:  “All those you sentenced to death are down there, waiting Argo’s order to revolt!”

Uh, oops!

Gene and Tika then enter into an alliance, with Tika promising to return everyone safely to the surface in exchange for regaining charge of the Games Room. Gene and “the robots” hurry off to rescue the kids, while Tika – ironically enough – radio-broadcasts across Murania: a death-sentence for Argo, and a call to arms to her still-loyal troops (if any). This news is brought to Argo, who responds by crying, “Death to the queen!” and calling his loyal troops to “march on the palace”---all twelve of them, by my count. (Clearly, the budget didn’t stretch to the full thirty-seven guards rescued by Argo.)

Nevertheless, a panicked High Priest soon reports to Tika that, “The revolution has broken into the citadel*, and now advanced upon the palace!” (*Pronounced sight-a-dell.)

With Frankie and Betsy rescued from Argo’s cell, Our Heroes try to find their way to the surface door---except that the pesky revolution keeps getting in their way. Using “the robots” as cover, the three weave their way through the various outbreaks of fighting.

With cries ringing out of, “The palace has fallen!” (!?), Argo forces his way into the Games Room, holding a Z-Ray Lithium Gun on Tika and Gaspar and declaring himself the new ruler of Murania. His first order of business?

Argo:  “I thank you for moving control of the surface entrance to this room. Now I am sure that Autry and his friends cannot escape!”

Just at that moment, Gene and the others exit the elevator near the surface door---and the Thunder Guards stop fighting the rebels in order to pursue them. We see those same old locations again, but at the door to the robots’ work-area, the party divides: Gene sends the others away on the assumption that the chasers will come after him, and he’s right.

Despite the odds, Gene puts up a desperate fight, but is overwhelmed. He falls unconscious onto a conveyor-belt---and as the guards leave to return to the battle, Gene is carried towards the flame of a welding-gun---

 

CHAPTER 11: A QUEEN IN CHAINS

---but it’s okay, because the others have been driven back by another set of pursuers, and drag Gene off the belt just in time. (Not that this should have been an option: when Gene was “knocked out”, it was via a sword to the throat!)

Guards then pour in, but are driven back by a pair of “robots” and a short but determined teenager, each using a welding-gun as a flame-thrower. The five then make it safely to the surface door, but are under the mistaken assumption that Tika still has control of  it (and nothing more important on her mind). Pete and Oscar start stripping off their disguises...

Oh, well. It was fun while it lasted.

The pursuing guards then arrive, forcing everyone to hide. A message comes over the broadcaster, in which Argo declares himself “Regent” of Murania, and then issues two orders: (1) the surface people are to be killed, and (2) the guards are to be issued with new weapons. Evidently these are mini-versions of Rab’s Disintegrating-Atom Smashing Machine, which seems, I don’t know, just a trifle excessive. The guard sent to show the others how the new weapon works melts a rock-face, by way of demonstration:

Guard:  “There is no limit to the power of radium, when it is controlled!”

And how about when it’s in the control of idiots? Frankie pulls the old “make a noise over there, so they’ll all look around” stunt, while Gene literally lassoes the weapon out of the guard’s hands. The guards are tied up and confined by the kids, while Gene, Pete and Oscar go below once more, to rescue the queen and, more importantly, get access to the door control.

In the aftermath of the battle, shrouded bodies are being inspected and divvied up:

Medic:  “That one to the Radium-Reviving Chamber...and that one to the lion-pit.”

Our Heroes stumble into this scene, and are forced to disguise themselves as casualties, and so end up conveniently Throne Room adjacent. Inside, Argo is enjoying his executive privileges, condemning this person and that to the Death Chamber. Gene slips away but Pete and Oscar don’t get the chance and are carried to the Reviving Chamber, where it’s debatable who gets the greater shock...

Gene makes it to that same conveniently open window near the Games Room, and so sees Argo forcing Tika to stand by during the first wave of executions...and when it comes to the death of the High Priest, he links in the television screen so they can all watch. Then it’s Tika’s turn, but for her Argo plans to employ Rab’s Disintegrating-Atom Smashing Machine. Tika turns up her regal nose at him and demands coolly to be led away, while Argo returns to the Throne Room.

This development alters Gene’s focus. Meeting up with Pete and Oscar, he explains to them where the control to the Death Chamber trap-door is, planning to use the chute to infiltrate Rebel HQ.

Down below, meanwhile, Rab is gloating to Tika over her fate – calling it “an honour”, of course – though we notice he has slightly toned down his estimate of his Disintegrating-Atom Smashing Machine’s power:

 

Rab:  “When turned on full force, this machine is capable of destroying all civilisation!” 

Still, that’s probably sufficient. Rab gives a small demonstration of what his machine can do---then explains to Tika in detail what it will do to her:

Rab:  “So you may appreciate fully what is to happen to you, I shall start the machine slowly... Now, if the ray were turned on you, you would be suffering pain; but all feeling would stop the moment the notch would turn to this, because you would be paralysed... Now the very atoms of your body would begin to disintegrate...”

Okay, this guy enjoys his work way too much.

In the Games Room, Pete and Oscar have given Gene his 200-countdown...but now they forget which switch they’re supposed to throw. So they start throwing switches at random, setting off – well, stuff – all over Murania, including the lightning bolts in the Death Chamber. Luckily for Gene, the next moment Oscar accidentally leans on the right lever, and he is dropped through the trapdoor. He lands in the cell next to Rebel HQ, and through the grate can see Rab training his Disintegrating-Atom Smashing Machine on Tika (in a moment amusingly similar to the Martians of Mars Attacks! training their Honking Big Weapon on Sylvia Sidney).

The side-doors are still open, however, and Gene rushes to the rescue, knocking down Rab, shoving the muzzle (?) of the Disintegrating-Atom Smashing Machine aside and unchaining Tika. Two guards then appear: one runs after the fleeing Tika, while the other has a most unconvincing fight with Gene---one which at least ends convincingly, when Gene is knocked down---landing in the deadly beam of the Disintegrating-Atom Smashing Machine---

 

CHAPTER 12: THE END OF MURANIA

---but it’s okay because, in a bunch of footage we didn’t see before, Pete and Oscar somehow ended up in the Death Chamber, jumped down the chute and landed in the cell, and so were able to rush into Rebel HQ in time to pull Gene out of the beam.

Two guards appear dragging Tika back, but Pete and Oscar take care of them; but before anyone can escape, Argo shows up with his band of rebels cabinet. “Make away with them!” he orders dramatically

Gene immediately springs towards the Disintegrating-Atom Smashing Machine and points its muzzle at Argo and the others, forcing them into the far corner of the room while the others make their escape. Gene runs after them and locks the rebels in. As his men struggle with door, Argo runs over to Rab, who is only just now regaining consciousness:

Argo:  “The queen has escaped!”
Rab:
  “Escaped?”
Argo:
  “Yes! And if she reaches the Control Room, she will regain control of the Empire!”

Wow, that’s...some Control Room.

 

And speaking of the Games Control Room, it’s guarded, of course, but Pete and Oscar take care of that, too.

Meanwhile, Rab – apparently unfamiliar with the expression “overkill” – tries to use his Disintegrating-Atom Smashing Machine to cut through the locked door. Just the same, he’s more cautious than Argo, who calls impatiently for full power. Rab counters that he daren’t risk it – he might lose control of the machine. Finally Argo loses his head altogether, shoves Rab out of the way, and ramps up the power...

It turns out that Rab meant “lose control” quite literally: the Disintegrating-Atom Smashing Machine turns out to have a mind of its own and starts spinning around with its beam firing at full power, cutting down most of the screaming rebels---including Argo. So much for that. 

Not that Argo’s fate does Tika, looking on via the Snoop-Screen, any good; “It will eat its way through the Empire!” she gasps in horror. She then sends Gene away, promising that she will keep watch and let him and his friends out at the surface. Gene tries to convince her to come along, causing Tika to revert to Standard Mode:

Queen Tika:  “To the mad world above? It would be a living death! A suffering far greater than the destiny that awaits me here! I shall die with my people.”
Gene:
  “I can’t leave you here!”
Queen Tika:
  “You must! I command! As for me, I am glad that it’s being destroyed: it is better than an invasion from the surface world!”

Well, if you put it like that...

Gene still shows an inclination to argue, but Pete and Oscar hustle him away. Even as they reach the elevator, Murania begins to collapse (an effect achieved by melting the film image).  Reaching the top level, the three discover that the captured Muranians have escaped, and that Frankie and Betsy have been left tied up in their place. Gene frees them, and the group seizes some of the horses from the Thunder Guards’ stables on which to make their escape; but then---

Gene:  “Wait! We can’t leave those horses here to die!”

Wow. Wow. I have no quibble with the sentiment, of course – not even when back-dropped by the destruction of an entire civilisation – but that is a very early instance indeed of cinematic recognition that viewers are more likely to be upset over the fate of animals than the fate of people. (Though at this time I would imagine it only extended to dogs and horses.)

Tika is still watching and keeps her promise of opening the door, even as her empire collapses all around her. She staggers to her throne, and there awaits her fate; and, in an unexpectedly gruesome touch, we see Tika herself melting away.

(All of which comprises a climax worryingly similar to that of Atlantis, The Lost Continent---which, as we know, was produced during a writers’ strike. Did someone, struggling for an ending, dredge up memories from his childhood matinees?)

On the surface, meanwhile, having scattered the rest of the horses and removed themselves to a safe distance, the escapees are looking on the bright side:

Gene:  “I’m afraid there isn’t very much left of the city...but we’ll probably find enough radium to make us all rich: it’s under our ranch property!”

Just then the Junior Thunder Riders appear, with the sheriff. Gene takes off in the other direction, while Frankie, Betsy, Pete and Oscar ride out to meet their friends. The two kids put on a great show of grief and tell the sheriff that Gene was killed in the collapse of Murania. Oddly, the sheriff accepts this despite having just expressed his disbelief in the very existence of Murania.

In their tunnel, the scientists are discovering to their horror that the radium deposits have shifted another 3000 feet. “There has been a terrific disturbance in the underground kingdom!” concludes Cooper (you know – as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced). Sharp and Goon, however, keep their eyes on the prize and refuse to do another lick of work – particularly not 3000 feet more digging – unless they’re promoted from salaries to a fifth of the profits each. When Beetson refuses, they walk off the job. Not perhaps the smartest way to treat witness-accomplices to murder, as Cooper points out; prompting Beetson to pull his gun...

The deed done, the scientists beat feet back to Radio Ranch, “In case someone thinks we had something to do with this!” Goon’s body lies in the ravine, but Sharp – not quite dead – is still hanging limply to his galloping horse. Gene chases after him and, when he finally falls, shakes him vigorously; which I believe is the Red Cross-recommended treatment for gunshot wounds. However, Sharp dies before he can name his killer.

So let’s see...an entire civilisation has been destroyed, two more murders have been committed, and Gene is still on the run; but back at the ranch---

Kid:  “Suppose Gene don’t get back in time for the broadcast?”
Frankie:
  “Then we’ll lose the contract, and Radio Ranch too!”

But of course, he does get back, as a flashing light from the barn lets Frankie know. He meets Gene in his secret laboratory, and learns that “one of the scientists killed Sharp”...of which, Gene adds, he is “absolutely sure in my own mind”, causing Frankie’s face to fall. However, Gene has a plan...a plan which involves him broadcasting at two o’clock!

No, really.

This time, Gene gallops straight up to the main public broadcasting area. He addresses all those “unfortunate ear-witnesses to murder”, telling his audience that another murder has just been committed, and that the victim lived long enough to name his killer...and that it was the same man who killed Tom Baxter... “And his name is---”

Fortunately, despite everything, Beetson turns out to be a lousy shot. Gene dashes into the house – after yelling at his back-up band to, “Start playing!” – because, you know, if they don’t...

Beetson leaps onto a horse and gallops away, with Gene in hot pursuit. Cooper and Saunders take off in the opposite direction, but quickly fall foul of the Junior Thunder Riders. Gene and Beetson take the traditional tumble down a slope, followed by the even more traditional fist-fight. Beetson is quickly overcome and admits to the murders, but sneers that Gene will never make the sheriff believe it...

...only for the camera to pull back and reveal the sheriff watching all this on a mini-version of Queen Tika’s Snoop-Scope, which Frankie managed to whip together: a system based on television components swiped from Murania...

But while television is all very well, it can’t beat radio! – or at least, it can’t beat real ranch music broadcast every day at two o’clock on the dot...

******************************

Afterthoughts:  It’s rather difficult to know how to react to The Phantom Empire’s tacit contention that the financial security of Radio Ranch is more important than the destruction of an ancient civilisation and its technological marvels.

A couple of things in particular struck me about this serial---like the fact that it has no romantic subplot, not even of the most perfunctory kind. Of course these serials were aimed at a young audience and so generally toned down the smooch-stuff, but even so there was usually a female lead if only to have someone to be captured and rescued. Tika does end up in chains, but that’s specific to her situation; she’s no generic damsel in distress. Nor, I’m happy to say, does Betsy Baxter fill that role.

Speaking of Betsy, I think we can honestly say that for once, the juvenile characters in a serial are one of its strong points. Frankie Darro and Betsy King Ross do a really nice job here, and it makes a welcome change that the boy and girl go through their adventures together---no instances of Betsy being told, “You wait here”, or shots of her cowering in a corner during a fight. Frankie gets a couple of extra “action” moments but he is older as well as being “the boy”, so that’s okay.

(Sadly, The Phantom Empire marked the final screen appearance of Betsy King Ross---who interestingly enough grew up to be an anthropologist and an author. If The Phantom Empire turned her off acting, at least it didnt turn her off SCIENCE!!)

But surely the most striking thing about The Phantom Empire is how it treats its leading man---something most clearly illustrated by the resolution of the cliffhangers. Only once does Gene Autry manage to save himself, when he falls off the walkway, and never is the resolution that he saves somebody else. Instead, he tends to be the one rescued---once by the Junior Thunder Riders, once by Argo, once by Pete and Oscar, and once by Frankie and Betsy; while the rest of the time he survives just by surviving (including one instance of being raised from the dead!). Twice, in fact, the focus of the cliffhanger isn’t Gene at all, but Frankie and Betsy; and in neither of those cases is Gene the one to save them.

While all this is no doubt an expression of Nat Levine’s doubts over Gene Autry, it actually makes The Phantom Empire stronger---partly by avoiding the cliffhanger repetition that tends to plague serials, with the hero escaping from too many similar traps, and partly by giving weight to the supporting characters instead of just having them tag along. On the other hand...when even the Odious Comic Relief tends to be more proactive than the hero, it is a bit of a worry.

In fact, as an action hero, Gene Autry makes a great yodelling cowboy. On that subject, whatever viewers today might make of Autry’s musical stylings, we should mention the clever way his songs are used in this serial (and they are all his own songs, to avoid copyright and royalty issues), with the lyrics operating as a kind of Greek chorus. For example, the number I called “We’re Stalling As Hard As We Can” offers the line, You don’t have to worry any more, as the audience sees Gene preparing to meet his broadcast deadline; while the song played while Gene is chasing down Beetson at the end gives us, And as you sow, so shall you reap...

Like all serials, The Phantom Empire does have its draggy sequences and repetitions (I mean, good lord, how many times did I mention the main characters being chased by the guards!?), but probably less so than most---and we should note particularly that it does not have a flashback episode, that traditional serial admission that the writers were running out of ways to spin things out. The shift of the action from the ranch to Murania during the latter half of The Phantom Empire gives it a new lease of life when most serials are starting to collapse.

And, hey! – robots!

 

Up yours, SCIENCE!!

 
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----posted 10/07/2015