|Autry with the evil queen|
THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (1935) Directors: B. Reeves Eason; Otto Brower.
Gene Autry (radio singer Gene Autry) is host of a radio show with songs and dramatic serials called Radio Ranch, because it is, well, broadcast from a ranch. A group of "archaeologists" headed by Professor Beetson (Frank Glendon) suspect that there's radium on the property adjacent to the ranch, as well as the remains of a lost civilization, and want to get rid of Autry and his gang so they can proceed with their investigations; to this end they frame Autry for the murder of his partner. Frankie (Frankie Darro) and his sister Betsy (Betsy King Ross ), the children of the murdered man, are members of a teen group they call "Junior Thunder Riders" after some mysterious horsemen they encountered only once [who do indeed make a thunderous clamor when they ride]; wouldn't you know these horsemen are actually called Thunder Riders in the underground world they come from, Murania, which is enclosed in a vast cavern 25,000 miles below the earth -- that can be reached by a elevator tube! Murania is ruled by a horrible queen Tika (Dorothy Christy), who seems to think her society is so much nicer and more advanced than the surface world, but is constantly ordering her slave-like soldiers put to death and even tries to kill Frankie and Betsy, two children, with a missile! [Better she should kill off the Thunder Riders, who apparently ride through the surface desert periodically and could easily lead people to the hidden entrance to Murania.] In the meantime, Murania's Lord Argo (Wheeler Oakman), who is supposed to kill off those who displease the queen in a lightning chamber, actually saves them so they can join his revolution, although he isn't much nicer than the queen.
The feature-length version of Phantom Empire was frequently shown on television when I was a boy and I have to say I didn't like it much even then. One can say it has a loopy charm, but whatever its assets it simply isn't very good. Autry isn't an especially dynamic leading man for an adventure sci-fi serial -- hard to believe that once upon a time he was a tremendous star -- although Christy, who was excellent as Stan Laurel's wife in Sons of the Desert, is at least somewhat forceful as the evil queen. Frankie Darro was always okay in this stuff, but while Betsy is cute, she was really a specialty horse rider and not an actress. The two morons Oscar (Smiley Burnette) and Pete (William Moore) are tiresome. The serial doesn't do much with the whole idea of what should be a fascinating underground city, and a sequence in which a disintegration weapon goes wild isn't very memorable [certainly not like a similar scene in Atlantis, the Lost Continent.] Watching Murania kind of melt is a mild sort of fun, however. Mascot made much, much better serials than this.
Verdict: Everyone should see this once and then completely forget it. **.