The Phantom Empire, Part 1: “The Singing Cowboy”

If you haven’t come to Captain Video’s Sunday evening Tutturu screenings, I highly recommend them. We watch a series of educational shorts and early 20th century public domain films, and they’re usually a mix of fun, boring, and fairly educational! A few weeks ago, we watched a 70-minute Gene Autry cowboy sci-fi musical called The Phantom Empire. It was, to put it nicely, incomprehensible. This was because it was cut from a four-hour, twelve-part serial. We were collectively unable to understand pretty much anything about the film, but I was captivated. In recapping and reviewing this entire serial, I have tasked myself with answering three questions: what happens in this? Does it make any more sense than the serial? Is it actually any good? 

An important note: This post will be significantly longer than my other eleven, because the first chapter is extra-long, and I’m going to set up a lot of plot material. Let’s begin! 

We begin with the title card: THE PHANTOM EMPIRE: A Mascot Serial in Twelve Chapters. Interestingly, Frankie Darro and Betsy Ross get top title billing, not Gene Autry (although when the cast flashes up shortly after, Autry is billed over Darro and Ross).

After the cast comes up, “Featuring the Scientific City of Murania” gets its own billing card. Good for the Scientific City of Murania. 

We open on some cowboys at a ranch. They’re riding around on horses and having a jolly time. Suddenly, another cowboy pulls in on his stagecoach, being frantically chased by pursuers! Slapstick comedy ensues before the two sides stop at the ranch. 

It turns out that this was no raid at all- it was an overenthusiastic instrument delivery! Gene Autry, Singing Cowboy Champion of the West (title given by me), and the crew set up their instruments and begin broadcasting from Radio Ranch. So far, things are happening as quickly as they did in the condensed film. Autry asserts that he and the Radio Ranch crew are going to “bust right into your homes with some real ranch music and singing!” We then cut to the first of what will probably be many horse reaction shots.

Gene Autry then repeats himself with “Nevertheless, we’re going to give you some real ranch music and singing!” We have already heard this. So far, Gene Autry has not displayed the charisma that one needs to be a film star. He is aggressively mild-mannered and seems to be not very confident delivering his lines. Let’s see if this improves over the next eleven episodes.

The cowboys sing a song about Noah’s Ark and all the animals on it. They make a lot of animal noises. It’s generally cheerful. Gene Autry seems much more confident singing than acting, but unfortunately, whoever edited the film together can’t keep the beat of the music at all.

We now meet Frankie and Betsy Baxter, president and vice president of the Niceville Thunder Riders Club. They do an advertisement for people to see “a radio broadcast like it should- ridin’, ropin’, real horses, real guns, real cowboys.” I feel like a radio broadcast should not have any of those things, and instead have radio.

We then get a flashback to why the club is named “Thunder Riders”- they saw some people riding their horses and heard thunder. Then, in the flashback, Frankie says “and that’s why we decided to call our club the Thunder Riders.” This suggests a future in which Frankie is omniscient of his own flashback, and is able to impart sayings into his past self. 

You can tell how evil a villainous crew is by how many steering wheels they have.

Now, it’s time to meet our first set of villains! They are coming to Radio Ranch to secretly mine for uranium, but their leader, Professor Beetson, (left) explains that Radio Ranch is the location of the buried city of Mu. He does not explain why or how he knows this, but he is “firmly convinced,” so that’s good enough for me. They want to discover Mu’s lost secrets, and also get a bunch of sweet uranium on the way. Gene Autry gives them lodging on Radio Ranch. Since he seems to invite everybody who hears the radio show to Radio Ranch, I wonder if they have lots of lodging or just a really small audience. 

Given that it’s nighttime, it’s confirmed that all the cowboys just sort of live on Radio Ranch. I hope they sleep in a big room with twelve identical twin beds.

The second song is called “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine.” During the song, Betsy and Frankie sneak away to Frankie’s “secret laboratory.” Even though Gene Autry will shoot them dead if they miss one second of a Radio Ranch performance, we learn some more exposition! Frankie has been stealing radio equipment to make a “direction finder,” which is basically a compass but for radio waves. It’s actually a pretty cool idea. When they put the direction finder in the water, it immediately goes haywire- there’s a mysterious signal afoot, and it’s coming from… under Radio Ranch! Don’t worry, instead of investigating the signal, we’re going to hear some more of “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine.”

Betsy explains that Frankie has been reading books about “a world underground, and cities.” Whoever wrote this is not good at building suspense. They go to the scientists (the villains from earlier) to ask for help, but the villains dismiss them, even when Gene Autry (I guess he’s there too) displays this mysterious trinket he found.

When Gene and the kids leave, the scientists hatch their plan! They’re going to assassinate Gene, that’s the whole plan. 

In the morning, the assassin tries to drop a papier-mâché rock on Gene, but Gene is able to slowly amble his horse out of the way! Then the assassin shoots the horse, and Gene silently falls down a hill. For a film with multiple singing cowboy scenes, you would think they could put in some fight music. 

When they go to apprehend Gene, a mysterious figure runs by! Instead of building suspense about the mysterious figure, a character loudly says “Must be a Muranian!” and all dramatic tension is removed from the scene! 

Our two villains follow the Muranian into a clearing and promptly shoot him with a gun. The wonders of scientific discovery. At least the Muranian gets one of them with a crossbow on his way out. 


We learn more Muranian exposition- they can’t breathe on “ground air,” and require a breathing tube, unless they’re underground, where they can breathe freely. This makes no sense. It is also confirmed that the Confederates helped the Muranians hide underground during the Civil War, which raises a lot more questions than it answers.

A lot of scenes just sort of stop and start in this, so it’s hard for me to write transitions. It’s time for our first look into the Muranian base, and nobody can represent Murania more than… the crank-turning robot with a cowboy hat! 

I love the crank-turning robot so much. The crank-turning robot cranks open the gate to let some Muranians into Mu, and this serial is already so much better. Much like a nature documentary, the serial takes us into a depiction of Muranian culture. My favorite part is that it appears to have a horse parking lot inside the mountain. 

Besides the “ground air” issue, there is no explanation as to how the Muranians are different than humans- are they another species, or are they just an evolutionary difference? We do know that they ride an elevator 20,000 feet under the surface, which is cool as hell. I hope the crank-turning robot doesn’t get lonely up there. 

The Queen of Murania enters the scene to the sound of a horrifically out-of-tune gong. Another robot trudges by, and the scene just got a whole lot better. 

The Queen explains that the “surface man” should never interfere with their ways of life. This seems reasonable, but because she doesn’t want a bunch of people plundering her land without her approval, she’s the new villain. The 1935 comes roaring back when an injured Muranian is placed in the “radium reviving chamber.” Ah, the healing powers of pure unfiltered radium. We are introduced to the queen’s viewfinder, which is a good excuse for the filmmakers to show fewer special effects. She delivers a lecture about how Muranians are better than humans because humans do too much work, and also there’s violence and suffering, and also that they drive too fast and get in car crashes? It’s a little all over the place. She calls Radio Ranch the “Garden of Life” multiple times, and watches a video of the scientists plotting to kill Autry’s friend, marking it the first time that any of the subplots in this interact. The horrible gong plays three more times. 

The Queen’s viewfinder- perfect for cutting off half of the screen!

We now get a sneak peek into the Thunder Riders club, who wear modified buckets on their heads. After discussing meeting business, the kids decide on a team motto: “To the Rescue!” They see a loose horse and chase after it, and two kids zipline onto a horse, which is very cool. I think I want to be a cowboy? They catch up with Gene Autry, who you think is injured, but he’s fine, and they all run back to Radio Ranch so they don’t miss the broadcast, because if Gene is not at Radio Ranch at 2:00 sharp every day to do his radio show, he is fired immediately. (This is established previously.)  

The Muranians realize that the key to getting the humans off Radio Ranch is killing Gene Autry. I like that they sort of just kind of know who he is.

just to cycle back around to the “modified buckets on heads” thing

The Muranians ride their horses out of the horse parking lot and run into the kids. A confusingly structured chase ensues! It would be nice if they showed closeups of people’s faces and not just black-and-white bodies wearing bucket hats. Oh no, danger is afoot! The two kids… I think? fall off a cliff in an incredibly unsatisfying way, and we smash-cut to credits!  

Will they hit the ground? Will they land on a big trampoline? Will the crank-turning robot crank his way to the rescue? Tune in this Friday, with Part Two- The Thunder Riders! 

oh my god there are so many robots in the “next time” trailer sign me UP