The Phantom Empire, Part 4: “The Phantom Broadcast”

Welcome back to The Phantom Empire, where Gene Autry, Radio’s Singing Cowboy, gets into it with some underground city dwellers! Last week, we left off during an exciting high-speed chase, where Gene’s out-of-control car flipping over headfirst and crashing directly into the ground. Let’s see how Gene will shake it off almost immediately. 

Chapter 4 is somewhat clunkily called “The Phantom Broadcast,” so this one is probably going to have some thrilling broadcast radio scenes. Remember, if Gene doesn’t make it to Radio Ranch by 2:00 every day, his contract is terminated and he is fired immediately. This is the main dramatic thrust of the work so far, and not the clash with the underground city dwellers. 

The recap sequence reads as follows:

“Murania, located thousands of feet under the earth, is a highly civilized nation far advanced in the use of radio activity.” This is a great sentence. The Muranians have basically invented cell phones and television, they have built robots to do menial tasks, and they can shoot ballistic missiles out of their windows. But the advanced part is that they’re really good at broadcasting on the radio! 

“Queen Tika, fearful lest surface people discover their secret entrance, has ordered her Thunder Riders to maintain constant guard.” 

“Prof. Beetson, secretly searching for the radium deposits, wants to wipe out Radio Ranch before his purpose is discovered.” 

“Gene Autry is falsely accused of murder to keep him from broadcasting at Radio Ranch, and is wanted by the sheriff. Betsy and Frankie Baxter, convinced that Beetson really murdered their father, are trying to clear Autry.” 

In a good way to both catch up the audience who missed last week and pad the runtime, we watch the last three minutes of the third episode again. The kids have found Beetson’s gun and have given it to the sheriff, but Gene has already taken off in the sheriff’s car. The car is out of brakes, and Gene’s car plunges off a cliff. We are now almost five minutes into this seventeen-minute episode before any new things are happening. 

One of the first ever film teachers, Lev Kuleshov, discovered something called the Kuleshov effect when experimenting with early editing. In brief, the Kuleshov effect is the effect that two shots edited together have on a film viewer, instead of one singular shot. Kuleshov played the same shot of a man looking followed by different objects, like a bowl of soup or a coffin. If the man and the bowl of soup were placed together, people assumed that the man was hungry, and if the man and the coffin were placed together, people assumed that the man was sad. This extremely basic “show, don’t tell” editing method was once considered revolutionary, but now is used possibly hundreds of times in a single film. 

Therefore, at the end of Part 3, when you see Gene swerving his car out of control, followed by a shot of the car driving over the cliff and crashing into the ground, the Kuleshov effect is what leads you to believe that Gene and his car have smashed into the ground. Our reactions to this sequence of shots explain why all the resolutions to the cliffhangers on The Phantom Empire feel like absolute cheats. 

Apparently, the kids’ horses were so fast that they could catch up to Gene’s car, even though the kids had to suit up on their horses and Gene’s car is going close to top speed. Gene is able to leap out of his car onto a horse and the car tumbles off a cliff. This should be an exciting way to resolve the action sequence, and it could have been one, if it had been edited correctly. But since the editing in the last episode so strongly suggested that Gene was going to fall off the cliff as well, it only leads to the feeling that the audience has been tricked. 

The car explodes on the ground, so the sheriff and scientists reasonably think that Gene Autry is dead. Nobody expresses that much emotion, considering that he was known by the town as the beloved cowboy of Radio Ranch approximately three hours ago. The sheriff is probably used to death at this point, since he has seen many die from gunfights and duels and getting tetanus off old cans of beans. 

Horrible gong check! The queen is back! Apparently, the “Lord High Chancellor of the Realm” is missing. I assume that’s the guy named Argo who is secretly leading the rebellion. The head of the “secret police” didn’t check the viewing screen to see if they could find Argo, leading the Queen to deliver a perfect “Nitwit!” It’s my favorite line delivery in the whole serial so far, she puts so much feeling into it that her entire face moves. One more disgusting gong and we’re back to the Thunder Riders (youth). 

Beetson’s gun exploded in the car, but Frankie wants to go back and salvage the parts. Gene sagely reminds him that being exonerated for murder is nowhere near as important as making it to the ranch on time for the 2:00 broadcast! When the kids remind him that he is wanted for murder, Gene says “Don’t worry about it, I’ll be there,” which isn’t even slightly answering the question. Frankie has all the kids “swear secrecy” that they should help Gene. They mention their dead dad, and they sure got over him really quick, didn’t they?

Swearing to secrecy is always cooler with bucket hats.

Frankie and Betsy are now getting ready for the “secret broadcast” in Frankie’s science lab. Apparently, the lab is soundproof, so if Gene is singing nobody will hear him. In this week’s Future Technology Corner: Gene is going to use a “remote-controlled microphone,” and it is never explained what that does or how it is different from a normal microphone. 

The kids have radio interference, and Frankie’s “direction finder,” making a reappearance from the first episode, shows that there is a signal blocking them coming from underground. Frankie then says “You know, I bet there are people living underground, just like in the book I’ve been reading.” I typically don’t criticize this serial’s plotting, because it’s not bad, but I really hate the way this is being “foreshadowed.” We know that there are people living underground, but we still want to see Frankie discover the truth. We don’t need to discover it with him, but having him know that there are people underground just because we know that there are people living underground is frustrating. 

Cut back to the Muranians, who are preparing to launch a torpedo at Radio Ranch. We also learn an important thing that answers my question from earlier- Gene Autry must sing in person for the Radio Ranch broadcasting contract to be valid. Therefore, the other ten cowboys hanging around have absolutely no use if Gene isn’t there. The cowboys get ready for the broadcast, even though Gene isn’t there. One of them says “maybe he’s here, maybe he isn’t,” even though he objectively is not there. The scientists look out a window, laugh at the cowboys, and restate their evil plan again to themselves for the audience. 

The queen looks on her view screen for Argo, and since it’s been a few episodes since she used it, I’ll show some pictures of it. It’s basically a circular table that depicts security camera footage of where she wants to look at. Because the images are not exactly crystal clear in this, cutting off half the screen does not do the audience any favors. 

The view screen is this giant circular thing that she leans over to look through.
This is what the audience sees through the view screen, a good way to eliminate half of the available space.

The Queen says that having mechanical men do all the labor is better than living on the surface, and we see the cool robots again. If there’s no crank-turning robot in this episode, this was a partial consolation. The Queen easily sees Argo on her viewfinder, but he’s not doing anything suspicious, so it’s fine. I was worried there was going to be dramatic tension for a second. 

The Muranians continue to prepare for the launch of their “radium aerial torpedo,” which is apparently strong enough to explode one hundred ranches. 

Brother-sister bonding is when you look through the makeshift telescope together to try and find the guy who you’re pretty sure did not kill your dad.

Gene arrives at the ranch in secret! Oscar and Pete have hidden him under a big bundle of hay. Or maybe Gene hid in their bundle of hay and they’re too stupid to know. 

The cowboys start the radio broadcast without Gene, even though a few episodes ago we learned that the radio broadcast absolutely could not start without Gene or they would all be fired. This is a great moving of goalposts. They sing a proto-”Hakuna Matata” song about how “there ain’t no need to worry anymore,” but it cuts off after one verse, because the directors don’t want us to have fun.

The queen calls Argo on the video phone to ask why he was missing earlier. Argo explains that it is because everyone is “terror-stricken” that Gene Autry and the guests at Radio Ranch will come down to the surface. It’s here where I realize that Argo and his crew were preparing the torpedo against the queen’s wishes. Hopefully, readers’ favorite part of this series is when I get confused once or twice an episode by the blurry camerawork and don’t go back to correct any mistakes. I’m taking you on the journey I go on. The queen pronounces “robot” like “robut.” 

This is the video screen, which is basically a flat-screen TV about 70-80 years early.

Pete and Oscar do shenanigans, as they try to lift a bale of hay into the barn loft and Oscar slips around and grunts. 

Oscar pokes the bale of hay he lifted with a pitchfork, and Gene yells in the bale of hay. Oscar gets so startled he falls out of the loft. This could be a funny bit of slapstick, but the editors of The Phantom Empire seem to make all their slapstick bits unfunny and all of their serious action bits funny.

Oscar should already be standing on the edge of the loft before he does his pratfall. Here he has to run all the way around Gene before he slips, and it’s not as funny.

Gene uses the distraction to sneak in the science lab and deliver his secret broadcast! He sings a song about his Uncle Henry, which we don’t hear. Scientists and cowboys alike are shocked- is it a ghost? The scientists and cops tear through the ranch trying to find Gene while the kids use their science equipment to do fun foley work. Gene yodels. The song is fine. 

Unfortunately for Gene, you still needed a ton of long wires to broadcast on the radio, and the scientists find the wire which leads to the barn! They halfheartedly attempt to bust down the locked door while Gene sings his song. With only one Gene song, the broadcast is complete and they can power down I guess. Instead of escaping immediately when the song is done, Gene and the kids make sure to pack away the radio equipment, because if they can’t take it with them, they can’t broadcast tomorrow. Never have I seen anything featuring underground cave dwellers, car chases, false accusations of murder, horse riding, robots, and future technology that is still primarily focused on a radio broadcasting contract. 

This unnamed guy who finds the wire has shown more emotion in three seconds than Gene has in four episodes.

The scientists batter open the door while the kids and Gene go out the “secret exit” of the barn, which is a fireman’s pole to a hidden underground basement and then a tornado shelter door which leads to an underground tunnel. 

Earlier in the scene, Gene has reminded Frankie to bring live gunpowder with him, for “sound effects.” The camera zooms in on Frankie roughly grabbing the gunpowder bag and spilling it everywhere. When the scientists walk in the main room, some loose wires (?) touch the loose gunpowder and trigger a small explosion. The explosion somehow leads to a series of bigger explosions along the gunpowder, and after a few seconds of a poorly shot explosion chain, the cliffhanger of the episode is revealed. Gene and the kids are trapped in the secret tunnel, which is “locked from the outside,” and there is a big fireball heading straight for them!

What will happen to Gene and the kids? Did the scientists get hurt in the explosion? Do secret tunnels usually have lockable doors on the end? Most importantly, is all of the radio equipment safe? Tune in next week to see what happens on The Phantom Empire!

This is the explosion that somehow triggers a deathly fireball.

How Much is in the Condensed Film? 
I am even more sure than I was last week that absolutely no content from this film appeared in the fourth episode of the serial.

Final Observations
This one was slightly less exciting on its own terms than the second and third episodes, and the lack of a big action scene hurts the episode. I liked that they returned to musical sequences after the third episode had none, but given that this was the shortest episode yet, there could have been some more time spent on both songs so we could enjoy them. Unfortunately, there are no crank-turning robots or hilariously blunt cuts to black, but I’m realizing that the performances are actually kind of good. Gene is a complete blank slate, but the kids are able to find a good register for their corny dialogue, as do the actors playing Beetson, Argo, and the queen. Maybe I’m starting to care about the characters of The Phantom Empire? Nonsense, I must do what the film asks and purely focus my critical attention on the radio broadcasting-themed content. Grade: B-