An early example of science fiction serials, 1938’s The Phantom Empire was a 12-part epic featuring robots, ray guns, the dastardly ruler Queen Tika (Dorothy Christy) and the futuristic, underground city of Murania. The hero drawing their ire wasn’t Flash Gordon. His first serial, starring Buster Crabbe, came the following year. Strangely enough, Gene Autry and his Radio Ranch Gang interacted with futuristic foes in chapters with such ominous titles as “Beneath the Earth,” “Jaws of Jeopardy,” “From Death to Life,” “Disaster From The Skies” and “A Queen in Chains.” Considering the bizarre nature of the film, imagined while writer Wallace MacDonald was under anesthesia for dental work, it actually made for a spirited and entertaining serial that aged better than you might assume.
An Unlikely Sci-Fi Adventure
It begins as a standard singing cowboy film, with Autry’s radio friends all living together on a dude ranch. His supporting cast there includes comedic sidekicks Oscar (future Petticoat Junction regular Smiley Burnette) and Pete (Pete Potter) and the young leaders of the Junior Thunder Riders–siblings Betsy (champion trick rider Betsy King Ross) and Frankie Baxter (child star Frankie Darro). As it turns out, all of this good, clean fun happens 20,000 feet above the watchful eyes of Queen Tika and Lord Argo (Wheeler Oakman).
When criminals led by Professor Beetson (Frank Glendon) seek to exploit Muranian natural resources, it puts Autry’s very freedom in jeopardy. The fantasy adventure that unfolds looks pretty slick and advanced, considering the film’s age. Directed by Otto Brower and B. Reeves Eason, the Mascot Pictures serial does better than these silly-looking stills imply at blending the worlds of serial Westerns and science fiction.
Four-Plus Hours of Cliffhangers and Country Songs
Its big flaw may be its length. As a serial adventure, the story lasts much longer than an hour-and-a-half film. The episodic tale’s box office success relied on some often unbelievable cliffhangers. It’s easy to see how a teased plane crash might’ve gotten kids back to the theater in ’35. Nowadays it’s too obvious that the heroes need to survive since there’s quite a few episodes left to binge watch.
Minor complaints aside, it’s worth powering through this easy to find public domain footage. The payoffs include Hollywood’s strangest treatment of the singing cowboy craze and Autry’s amazing rendition of “I’m Getting a Moon’s Eye View of the World.”