The Phantom Empire, Part 2: “The Thunder Riders”

Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Part 2 of my coverage of the 1935 Gene Autry singing cowboy sci-fi serial The Phantom Empire! I know I said this would go up on Friday, but I have essays to write about things like French history and not about things like serials. I’ll stick to a Monday schedule: I could probably squeeze in a few Fridays, but I don’t want regular readers to miss any of the pulse-pounding action inherent in a troupe of gunslinging cowboys who mostly care about their own radio show. If you missed Part 1, it can be found here, but I’ll catch you up when talking about Part 2. 

This episode is called “The Thunder Riders,” and before we continue, I’d like to do a brief bit of housekeeping and describe the concept of The Thunder Riders. I mentioned in last week’s recap that the Thunder Riders were the gang of kids that hang around Radio Ranch and have a little horse-riding group that goes on adventures. Their motto is “To The Rescue!” and the last time we saw them they went to the rescue when they saw a mysterious figure, except that figure was just Gene Autry and they didn’t need to go to the rescue, but then maybe two of them fell off a cliff? Straightforward enough. 

However, I did not describe why the Thunder Riders are called the Thunder Riders. The Thunder Riders, the group of kids, are named after the group of strange figures they saw riding around once (which we know are Muranians from the underground city of Mu), that they named Thunder Riders. See, the kids saw the mysterious figures when it was thundering one day, and because of that, they dubbed the mysterious figures the Thunder Riders, but then when they formed their own group, they couldn’t determine a name for the group so they also named themselves The Thunder Riders. I am 90% sure I was able to understand the flashback sequence in episode 1 and that that is what happens. If I’m wrong, I blame nobody but myself, and also Gene Autry. Let’s begin. 

We open Part 2, directed by Otto Brower and the amazingly named “Breezy Eason,” with a long credits/recap sequence that takes up a full 2 minutes of the 18 minute episode. Therefore, I can assume that 22 minutes of the roughly 160 that are present in the serial and not the movie are recap sequences. Mystery One, the mystery of how they Reverse Snyder Cutted the serial into a film, is partially solved.

The text of the recap in full, because this can do my job for me: 

“Gene Autry, half owner of Radio Ranch, is under contract to broadcast daily from his ranch.” We start off perfectly, introducing a mystery into sentence one (who owns the other half? Did they say before?) and clarifying that the contract dispute is more important than anything else, including the alien race living under the ground. 

“Prof. Beetson, secretly searching for a radium deposit, is trying to wipe out Radio Ranch to conceal his purpose.” This confirms reader Josephus Brown’s letter to the editor that it was radium and not uranium that the Muranians lived off of. You, the reader, can be featured in this series if you correct my own sloppy mistakes. 

“Betsy and Frankie Baxter, children of Autry’s partner, have organized a Junior Thunder Riders Club. Murania, located thousands of feet under the earth, is rich in radium deposits. Queen Tika, guarding the secret of her country, orders her army to capture Autry.” Now we’re cooking, because we didn’t know what the villain’s name was previously. I assumed Murania was a city because of how small it was, but I guess having independent sovereignty makes it a country. 

And we’re off! Except not, because the next two minutes consists of footage we already saw previously! The Thunder Riders (kids) run from the Thunder Riders (adult) and two of them fall off a cliff horizontally! Right before they fall off, one of them says something like “Guys, we lost,” directly into the camera. I have replayed the scene five times and cannot explain it. 

The cliff turns out to be more of a steep hill, so the kids are fine. It is confirmed that the two who fell were our main kid heroes Frankie and Betsy, and Gene Autry slides down the hill, kids in tow, to help them up.

Here we see the modified bucket hat of the Thunder Riders (kids) in action, preventing the noble adventurers from obstacles like some small pebbles, or moderate rain.

The Thunder Riders (kids) throw a rope to get the kids and Gene over the gorge. Now that last week’s cliffhanger has been resolved, we still have about twelve minutes left in the serial. 

We cut to the Thunder Riders (Muranians) again, and one of them gets an important call on his watch-phone. The Queen chimes in through a giant box hanging from the Muranian’s neck. I love when old timey science fiction tries to predict future technology, and on several occasions, if I recall, The Phantom Empire gets a lot of things right but makes them as clunky as possible. We also hear the first Muranian speak in this scene! He sounds like a regular person. The Queen basically tells them they ran out of time to do their mission, so they have to go home now. The thrills never stop.

“Hey, uh… Dick Tracy called you back on his watch phone… and he said you better watch out!”

I was certainly correct about the thrills not stopping, because guess what time it is? You guessed it, it’s time for Gene Autry to remind everyone to hurry up and get back to the studio so they don’t break the contract! This is the most emotional Gene has been so far. 

Back at Radio Ranch, the radio guys say “If Gene doesn’t get here in the next 2 minutes, we’re sunk.” I like to imagine that the radio producers made a Faustian bargain with the devil, and if Gene rides his horse in at 2:00:01, the contract will disintegrate into ashes and Radio Ranch will be swallowed up into a sinkhole that leads to the bowels of hell. The radio guys continue to worry about what they will do if Gene is not here, ignoring the eleven other singing cowboys standing around with their guitars.

Thankfully, Gene arrives at the last second, in extremely un-dramatic fashion! Beetson, staring from his window, is not amused. This week’s musical sequence is called “I’m Oscar, I’m Pete” and it mostly introduces the two comic relief characters, Oscar and Pete. Gene heavily leans on the speak-singing for this one. Oscar is played by Smiley Burnette doing a “dumb guy” voice, while Pete is played by Peter Potter not doing a “dumb guy” voice. That seems to be the only difference between the two. Gene talks about how Oscar and Pete help him a lot, while Oscar and Pete yell things like “That’s me!” and “Yep, I’m Oscar!”

He’s Oscar
He’s Pete

Beetson has decided to scale back his plan a bit- instead of killing Autry, they just have to “see that Autry doesn’t broadcast again.” Never mind, the plan is just “kill him again.” This scene feels like filler for those who didn’t watch the first episode. 

The Muranians arrive back at home, and my adoptive son greets them in. 

This absolute unit turns the crank that opens the door leading the Muranians into their horse parking lot. 

I don’t think I gave readers a look at the truly wonderful horse parking lot yet. It’s just a garage door in the side of a mountain. They had garage doors in 1935, right?

Queen Tika, watching more images of war, yet again bemoans the violent world of humans, worrying that Murania would become violent if men invaded. She’s making some good points, but also making the exact same points she made last week.

Autry is broadcasting again. He tells another radio story that appears to be completely superfluous. I’m realizing that I did not share with you what happened in the last radio story, because I thought it was completely superfluous, but I will go back and share the story-within-a-story with you all, because I am dedicated to my craft. Before I do that, I would like you to know that the story Gene is telling is about a group of characters that are just called the Thunder Riders again. We now have three separate groups of characters named “Thunder Riders.” Never forget that the writer came up for the idea for this story “while under gas having a tooth extracted.”

The story starts in medias res, with a bunch of people trying to break down the door of a husband and wife with a battering ram. But the Thunder Riders are coming to save them! That’s the entire story in episode 1. Episode 2’s radio story starts with the Thunder Riders riding to the rescue to save a stagecoach being attacked! It seems to have nothing to do with the story from episode 1, so I guess I shouldn’t have gone back. I’m leaving those two sentences in here, because if I had to write them, you had to read them. The stagecoach tips over and there’s a gunfight between the stagecoach drivers and the attackers. This is absolutely padding, but there are two funny sight gags involving a harmonica.

This is the woman’s response to her stagecoach flipping in the middle of a gunfight.

While Gene is narrating the story, he puts on a fake mustache to do another character. Gene has to know that this is radio so the audience can’t see him, and this isn’t a visual cheat for the actual out-of-universe audience because we know it’s Gene delivering a voice into a microphone. Does putting on fake mustaches help Gene convey the story better? 

Here’s where things get weird. I assumed that the action sequence in Gene’s radio story was supposed to be in the viewer’s imagination. However, they are actually being acted out by the people on Radio Ranch, even though they are only recording radio? Gene runs into the middle of the action sequence (???) and joins in the gunfight??? The good guys win the gunfight, but when Frankie and Betsy go to their dad, who was “playing dead” in the gunfight, he’s actually dead! At this point, I rewatched the previous two minutes of the episode in complete confusion. Did the action sequence interrupt the radio show? If so, why does Gene narrate over it, and why does the sound guy do foley during the gunfight? The stagecoach riders are holding a baby, and at one point they wave the “baby” (clearly a doll) in the air like a surrender flag? I’m so confused? 

The kids are now crying over their father’s dead body while Gene checks the other cowboys’ guns for bullets- they’re all blanks. So, just to go over it again, while Gene tells a story on the radio, the other cowboys elaborately stage a fake gunfight that the radio audience will never see, and that resulted in a guy dying for real. I have no other possible explanation, and you’re not the ones watching this serial, I am. Beetson arrives out of nowhere and starts shading Gene in a very shifty way. Gene, the lovable yet gullible cowboy that he is, does not immediately suspect him. 

The sheriff is on his way to take Gene away for questioning or incarceration, but Gene hightails it out the window before he can get caught!

Great foley work on this scene where Gene tries to escape out the window and clocks Oscar in the head by mistake.

Unfortunately, he rides away on his horse directly in front of the cowboys, cops, and scientists, who all give chase! Maybe he should have gone the other way! (Before the chase, Beetson yells “There’s the killer!” and none of the other cowboys stick up for him. Some friends they are. If Gene Autry let me stay on Radio Ranch, I wouldn’t be so quick to accuse him of murder, but enough about my secret fanfiction.) 

Oscar and Pete are sworn in as “secret deputies” while the sheriff readies his tear gas. The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Frankie and Betsy, having watched everyone turn on their hero/new dad, devise a plan to steal Beetson’s plane and fly it to Autry start beating up on the console for some reason! Kids flying a plane would probably be against the Hays Code, but a 1935 serial reviewer can dream. But before they can successfully whack the steering wheel into oblivion, the sheriff commandeers Beetson’s plane and takes off, with the kids hiding in the back! 

Before you can wonder about the logistical difficulties of a police science biplane taking down a fugitive horseman, it’s time for more Muranian action! The Muranians somehow know that Autry is not guilty- I assumed that Beetson was responsible for the killing, but maybe it was the Muranians! I also forgot there was a mystery angle to this, almost as soon as the kids forgot about mourning their dead dad! The Muranians know that if Gene is caught by the police, he’ll be declared innocent, and then the worst will happen- he will continue to broadcast on the radio! We also hear about their “wireless telephones.” The “wireless telephone” is a television box with a view-screen that we can’t actually see, which is weirdly close to another thing that we later invented. 

I’m beginning to worry that the crank-turning robot won’t show up anymore, and I’m even more worried when the Muranians gallop out of the horse parking lot with a cranking sound as the door cranks open, but not a single crank-turning robot in sight. 

This is the second episode in a row that ends in a horse chase, although it’s a lot easier to tell who is who this time. The Muranians chase Gene and one of the horses absolutely eats shit on the ground but takes it like a champion. I hope he’s okay. 

Gene’s horse is shot down by a Muranian! Beetson and the sheriff see the Muranians running and begin to drop tear gas on them, but the Muranians are wearing masks, so it’s fine! The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

At the same time, the Muranians see Beetson and the sheriff and the kids flying above! As peace-loving people who hate human violence, you might wonder how they are going to diplomatically deal with this attack. Just kidding, they launch a missile out of an underground window at them and the front of the plane explodes. See you next week!


How Much is in the Condensed Film?
The kids’ dad dies, but I’m pretty sure he dies either offscreen or much later, there’s almost no mystery nonsense. The big action sequences of the plane chase and the rope climb aren’t in it, and I’m pretty sure the musical sequence isn’t either. One thing that the serial definitely has benefiting it is any motivation for the Muranians. Hating human violence is pretty limited and doesn’t make sense when they like to blow things out of the sky with missiles, but it’s a lot better than them just being kind of there. 

Final Observations 
Obviously, there was nowhere near enough crank-turning robot in this installment of the serial, but that’s okay. Because this was so short, it didn’t feel very padded, even though very little of importance happened. There was a fun song, and the mystery is being set up, even if it has an extremely obvious ending (Beetson killed the dad, right?). This one is also much more action-heavy than exposition-heavy, and even though the Radio Ranch stagecoach shootout is completely illogical, it’s clear and well-directed. The other action sequences are fun as well, a huge improvement over last week. Grading on the curve of what I expect from future Phantom Empire serials, this one is a solid B. See you next Monday for Part 3, right after I finish writing my fanfiction where Gene takes me to live on Radio Ranch.