The Phantom Empire (1935)

Subterranean Drugs

I’m involved in a study of ‘folding’ in film; folding is a matter of overlain or referenced narratives. Sometimes the folding is something only of interest to highbrow specialists, but usually it is a matter of fun.

Some folding is a matter of introducing bizarre conventions, and once they enter in one film they promulgate throughout the system. And then through our imagination. So part of my study is looking for examples of folding and most especially the first appearance of specific types.

This serial is usually considered an oddball second-rater compared to more famous (if not better) examples. But I am putting it on my list of films that everyone should see before they die. This brief description should indicate why, for those not excited about sitting through five hours of mediocre production.

Gene Autry was already a famous radio star before making this. He was the first one to combine hee haw Appalachian folk music with the notion of a western cowboy to create the so-called “singing cowboy.” The juxtaposition is amazing if you know the history, and in fact the subsequent history of ‘country and western’ music (now just ‘country’) spins from this one man. But that’s all before this.

This is his first movie, so they preserved the radio show. Every day at 2:00, Gene (playing himself) must give a show or lose his ranch. The show is live from that ‘radio ranch’, where his ranch helpers play parts in the show. Okay: one simple fold, right? Now add: in producing the show instead of just doing sound effects and voices, the players actually do (in skits) what they are portraying. Odd. (Another fold.)

The purpose of the ranch is to provide a place for kids to do their ‘ridin’ and ropin’ stuff, and indeed there are kids in attendance who form a secret society called the ‘thunder riders’ after local legends (and experiences) of seeing bands of riders inexplicably accompanied by thunder. This gang of kids is at the same time a feature of the story of the radio show, inhabitants of the ranch, and participants in the larger story we’ll elaborate in a bit. A feature of the radio show is recruiting kids at home to join the riders in a sort of boy scout affiliation.

Gene’s ranch happens to sit on a radium deposit. Nuclear fission, even the idea, would be years away but radioactive stuff held a special place in the popular imagination. Needless to say, there is an evil professor and henchmen who want to eliminate Autry so they can get the radium. So far so good.

But there is also a subterranean culture under the ranch as well, a huge city at 20,000 feet under, sustained by the radiation and rebellious robots. (Note: this is before ‘Flash Gordon’.) They have all sorts of advanced gadgets including something that gives their evil young queen effective remote vision, providing her with the creation of the movie. They, too, want Autry eliminated. The original ‘thunder riders’ are the special forces of this city who emerge for whatever project is at hand.

Thus, science fiction takes to horses and indeed every time some motion is needed as a break from the talking (and singing!) heads, there’s a passel of panicky ridin’, usually in groups of 20-30, which seems to be the most that can fit in a frame.

The serial consists of all the ordinary captures and escapes (always by 2:00!) you might expect. In that sense, the thing is pretty ordinary, excepting that the substance of the radio show and the movie overlap and separate constantly. It is the novelty and complete oddity of the strange framework that makes the thing interesting and important. Film would never be the same after.

The framework is clearly a matter of psychotropic hallucination, and indeed you can see the very same folded structure in the similarly drugged out ‘Tell your Children’ written immediately after. (The creator of the show imagined it in a dentist’s chair under nitrous oxide.)

If you decide to see it, don’t use the DVD (which is technically horrible and is missing key elements), nor the silly movie they edited out of it. The VHS tapes are the thing to seek out.

Ted’s Evaluation — 4 of 3: Every cineliterate person should experience this.

IMDB

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