And so we begin The Phantom Empire! Approximately eight hours late. I originally posted these Monday at 1 PM, but having fully gone off schedule this week, I have decided to commit to a different schedule. In true Gene Autry fashion, if I do not finish each week’s installment by 2:00, I will be fired immediately. By you, the commenters; you’ll have to unionize or something. Hopefully, I will feel the shame that Gene Autry would feel if I break my new 2:00 contract.
Chapter 5, “Beneath the Earth,” begins with the classic recap sequence.
“Murania, located thousands of feet below the earth, is rich in radium deposits. Prof. Beetson, in his secret search for the radium, is trying to wipe out Radio Ranch. Gene Autry, part owner of the ranch, is falsely accused of murder, to stop his broadcasting. Queen Tika considers the popular radio artist dangerous to Murania, and orders his capture. Betsy and Frankie and the Junior Thunder Riders are helping Autry escape to save Radio Ranch.” While the wording is slightly different than last week, I have made the maximum amount of pithy jokes I could make about the recap sequence, so I won’t make any more.
Last week’s cliffhanger was a bit shit. Some spilled gunpowder led to a contrived Rube Goldberg esque fireball shooting at Gene and the kids, locked in a secret underground tunnel! After watching all that again, we cut to the Junior Thunder Riders, who have observed Gene and kids going into the locked tunnel. They mount their horses to rescue them, which would be a lot cooler if they didn’t use clearly recycled footage from the second episode. I had a cool gif of the “to the rescue” sequence last time, but there’s no point showing it again.
We get some new footage of the kids unlocking the door to the tunnel (do tunnels usually have locked doors?), and Gene and the kids escape unharmed. This doesn’t feel like as much of a cheat as it usually does, because the fireball was clearly not that close to them.
We then hear this dialogue.
Gene: “We have to find a way to make the broadcast tomorrow.”
Frankie: “If we don’t, we’ll lose the contract!”
Betsy: “And we’ll lose Radio Ranch!”
WE KNOW THIS. Remember what the recap sequence said? Gene has been falsely accused of murder! Killing another person! Killing the kids’ dad! Why do you still care about the contract? Gene has not said or felt anything whatsoever about his false accusation of murder. The only time we have ever seen or heard him express feeling is when he worries about losing his contract to broadcast on the radio! I’m so mad right now! I have never been mad about The Phantom Empire before! Get me some crank-turning robot immediately.
The Thunder Riders promise to bring their “secret radio equipment from Thunder Canyon.” The scene ends. What????? They have a “Thunder Canyon?” Why didn’t they bring the secret radio equipment before? Why did they even think they needed secret radio equipment? I am losing my mind. A week ago I said this serial was getting better!
Gene takes one step out of the woods. The scientists see him immediately and he runs back in the other direction. Beetson tells his compatriots “as a fugitive from justice, I don’t think anyone would blame us if he were to be shot.” We’re reintroducing the threat of Gene being shot into the serial. I’m excited for that to give way to more radio-based content as soon as possible.
I haven’t really found any good pictures to share yet, so here’s a gif of sped-up horse riding, because horse riding is still pretty cool. What if… they made a serial based on horse riding and chases… and removed all the focus on radio? No, that would never work.
I’m only just starting to realize that I don’t know if all the horse-riding footage is sped up or not. How fast do horses go?
Autry and the kids hide in a ditch- some climb up trees. The scientists somehow lose them. It’s quite a large ditch. I feel like they could just look in it, but I’m not a uranium scientist myself.
The scientists leave, and Gene and the kids are good to go. Five minutes and forty seconds into the twenty-minute episode, we have finally resolved last week’s cliffhanger.
Pete and Oscar join the Junior Thunder Riders Club. They do some sweet wordplay. (Frankie: “You have to take an oath of secrecy.” Oscar: “Where do we have to take it to?”) After the wordplay sesh, Frankie lays out the plan of delivering the “secret radio equipment,” which we see in action.
Pete loads the secret radio equipment onto a wagon while Oscar arrives, disguised as a milkmaid. Oscar and Pete then yodel into the radio equipment and make animal sounds into it.
As they ride away, we cut to the underground city of Murania, with the title card “Murania- 25,000 feet below the Earth’s surface.” This is a confusingly placed card- it didn’t come up at all in episodes one through four, so why is it coming up now in episode 5? It doesn’t describe what anyone is doing or anything.
Queen Tika and Argo view Autry through their view-screen, again. They explain their evil plan to kill Gene Autry, again. They call the Muranian Captain on the television-phone, again. They explain that failing to kill Autry too many times will lead to his death, again.
This scene is absurdly repetitive, but I can’t be too upset, because we finally get to see the crank-turning robot! After he wasn’t there last week, I started to miss him. I’m glad to know he’s doing okay. The Muranians ride away to capture Gene Autry in the shack at Thunder Canyon. Gene sings a few bars of a song. When he hears that Pete and Oscar are bringing the equipment, he says “Oh.” in a way that suggests he did not remember his line. Gene Autry might be a bad actor.
At the halfway mark of the episode, the Muranians pull up to the shack! Something that’s not derivative is finally happening! Gene hides behind a curtain and barely even tries. While the other Muranians leave because they see surface men in the distance (we don’t see them!), one stays around to flamethrower the door open.
As the metal knob of the door twists up and falls off, we cut to Gene’s mildly concerned face, and then to Pete and Oscar playing harmonicas. They were the surface men that the Muranians were so worried about. They hear the thundering sound of the Thunder Riders, so they put up their umbrella. I kind of love Pete and Oscar. At least they’re the only ones doing something interesting at this point.
Pete destroys Oscar’s harmonica and Oscar wordlessly produces another harmonica. This is another repeat joke from episode two, but it’s even funnier this time because Oscar does it so naturally. The one good joke in this entire thing is about a character’s propensity for harmonica. Pete and Oscar turn around from the Muranians and flee, crashing through Beetson and the scientists on the way, who turn around and flee as well.
That doorknob is still melting! Eventually, the melt saturation becomes high enough that the Muranian can get in. Of course, he doesn’t notice the kids in their rudimentary hiding spaces- Betsy is even hiding inside a barrel! Gene appears and punches him in the back of the head, and the first fight scene in the serial ensues. The physical combat is sped-up, but is clearly shot, so it’s not bad. I’m only now realizing how little fight music there is, or how little non-diegetic music there is at all. I would think that score would be more important for a serial about a singing cowboy.
After the Muranian grabs Gene in a very unconvincing choke hold, he produces the flamethrower to burn Gene to death instead of just still choking. Gene breaks free, and the two of them waltz for a bit around the flamethrower.
Gene lightly nudges the Muranian’s helmet off, and he starts to choke, because he can only breathe underground air! He passes out, or dies, and Gene steals his clothes. The kids carry the corpse to the back of the shed to keep an eye on it.
Gene pretends to be a Muranian, apparently doing a passable Muranian voice even though he had no idea what the Muranian he just killed and stripped sounded like.
The kids, ordered to keep an eye over their prisoner, immediately go to look out the window at Gene, a man that they see for hours a day. When they turn back around, the Muranian is gone. The shack very clearly has one door and therefore no way for the Muranian to escape but I don’t care because the crank-turning robot is here.
The crank-turning robot cranks Gene, disguised as the Muranian Captain (who is now named a lieutenant, so that’s what I will call him) into the horse parking lot.
Everyone takes off their helmets inside the elevator, but Gene can’t take his off! Even though we see his ears and the back of his head through the helmet! Gene gets distracted staring at a robot, but overall, having to keep the helmet on is great for him- he doesn’t have to react to anything or express any emotion to what is happening at all. He’s basically a meat puppet at this point.
Horrible gong, queen enters, etc. Apparently it is an insult to wear the oxygen helmet in the queen’s presence, so he has to take it off! Gene Autry is in Murania! The queen immediately adopts a “welcoming” tone that feels like the tone you would make talking to a particularly stupid dog. This makes perfect sense, as Gene radiates the energy of someone who needs to be spoken to loudly and slowly.
Gene falls for the bait instantly, except he insults the queen by mistake by saying that Murania is “a better fit for rats and moles.” After all, he can’t sing about happy things underground, because nothing happy is underground.
With a gong, the queen takes Gene to the circular view-table and shows him all the good things that they have in Murania, like robots, the cool elevator, and radium! She shows him images from the surface world of war and poverty.
Any sort of welcoming pretense is dropped when she shows him the death chamber with the line “The death chamber. That’s where you’ll be in five minutes.” Gene just stands there. No reaction. The camera is placed away from his face so you don’t have to see him think or feel anything. He is taken away, quietly.
This episode ends on a customary cliffhanger, as Argo shoots electricity into the chamber of death, which begins to spark. My first thought was “Argo clearly let Gene out ahead of time, since we know that he has been letting people out if they join the rebellion. This cliffhanger is terrible.” However, the last shot is of Gene in the room with the electricity, implying that he is going to be shocked to death. I’m sure that what I just said would happen will happen, but at least they show Gene in the room, and don’t just show the electricity shooting into the room. See you next week!
How Much Is In the Condensed Film?
This one was unfortunately pretty bad. Maybe it’s just because I’m eight hours late, but this one felt really, really repetitive. The final scene is the only one that really mattered to the story at all, so over half of it feels like padding. The fight scene between Gene and the Muranian was the best one yet, and Pete and Oscar are always fun, but there’s just so much treading water. I’m sure I will have more fun if I’m not publishing this eight hours late, so I promise I will do it over the weekend next time! Grade: C