The (Easter) Monday Matinee, Chapter One: The Singing Cowboy

I’ve had plenty of reminders over the years that I *must* see THE PHANTOM EMPIRE, so I have made a start. It’ll be Shadowplay‘s new weekly serial.

So much to enjoy in this one so far — I must try not to use up all its surprises in the first installment — the makers of the serial seem keen to do exactly that.

Firstly, there’s a great logo.

And a the model city gets its own star credit.

And then we’re into the lame, lame world of the singing cowboy, as exemplified here by Gene Autry, broadcasting from his “Radio Ranch” — I guess radio fans would have enjoyed seeing him in the flesh, and the fantasy that his show was really performed out west in the country rather than in a metropolitan studio must have had appeal.

As Gene’s first song, a moronic “cows go moo” type affair, is expelled at us, the editor does an interesting thing. Apart from cutting different shot sizes and angles together at random in a desperate and confused attempt to generate “excitement,” he cuts in animal shots to illustrate such Cole Porteresque lyrics as “the duck goes quack.” But he doesn’t have sufficient of these cutaways to really make a consistent go of it. But at the climax of the song, inspiration strikes, and he very quickly cuts in all the previously used farmlife shots, in the wrong order, so the visual duck stand in for a lyrical cow, etc. Quite nice, and if it were more sustained, one can readily imagine this getting little kids hysterical. One of the things little kids love is wrongness. Especially grown-ups being wrong.

This editing strategy comes back later, in a far stranger form.

But first, a couple more strange things that just won’t wait.

  1. Autry’s broadcast includes the latest installment of his serial (a serial within a serial? How meta!) This consists of a homestead besieged, the plucky patriarch using his arm to bar the door as exterior ruffians batter it with a ram, and the portly Mrs. cowers in a corner. This is all very BIRTH OF A NATION, especially with the heroes riding to the rescue. A “clever” cutaway shot (above) shows the exterior and interior action at the same time — it also shows the edge of the set. This farmer seems to live in a three-quarters-unbuilt corner of a house, open to the elements, and if his attackers had any sense they could simply stroll through the unbuilt fourth wall and murder him to death. But that’s not the strange thing. Having recapped his serial, Autry leaves his listeners with exactly the same cliffhanger they came in with. His serial seems to exist in stasis, the flinching homesteader, the cowering wife, the battering baddies and the heroes riding perennially to the rescue but never arriving. An analog of human frustration.
  2. Autry’s co-stars, who get if anything more screen time than him this week, are juveniles Frankie Darro and Betsy King Ross. More on them in subsequent installments — I’m sure there will be time to dwell on their merits and defects at length. In this episode, they’re asked to explain why their horseback youth club vigilante gang are called the Thunder Riders. We go into their flashback, and discover them being pursued by a mysterious band of caped, helmeted brigands. So naturally they decide to form their own gang, modeled on the villains who terrorized them. Doesn’t make a lick of sense, but the fun part is the end of the flashback, where the kids turn directly to the camera to wrap up their account. Unusual playfulness!

And maybe that’s the reason for the weirdness with Queen Tika of Murania. Murania is some kind of underground science city. The Queen uses a weird device to spy on goings-on in the world above. As a guy in a patchwork of historical costumes furiously pulls levers, stock footage unspools before her in a sort of circular pit. Here are her reactions ~

SHOT OF TRAFFIC: “Fools. The surface people are always in a hurry.”

SHOT OF RACEHORSES: “Their world today is a madhouse. We in Murania are indeed fortunate.”

SHOT OF A BOXING MATCH: “Death! Suffering!”

My theory is that the editor is having a bit of fun here, the way he did with the ducks going moo and the cows going quack, earlier. Clearly, more appropriate images could have been located in the stock footage library, or else more suitable dialogue could have been recorded to run over them. But why be appropriate, why be suitable? This is THE PHANTOM EMPIRE!

To be continued…

And if I refuse?

Can’t say fairer than that.

I don’t know. You brought it up.


7 Responses to “The (Easter) Monday Matinee, Chapter One: The Singing Cowboy”

  1. Perhaps it is all the editor’s work. Perhaps they were challenged to use out-takes from several unconnected films and make something from them. Coherence not required.

  2. Well, the serial as a whole is bizarre, and feels more incoherent than it is — a consequence of it blending genres that don’t really relate (singing cowboy & sci-fi). But the montage of stock footage is just peculiar. And there’s more in episode 2. I hope they keep it up.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    A few years previous, Queen Zika was Mrs. Laurel in SONS OF THE DESERT. She was reportedly a late replacement for the short and pugnacious Patsy Kelly, who was on another feature. I think Dorothy Christy worked out far better than Kelly would have. Kelly and Mae Busch together would have added up to funny but overwhelming shrewishness; Busch plays normal and nice in her scenes with the plausibly pretty Christy and they come across as believable mates for the boys. They sell the grief at the bad news, the fury at the truth, and the oddly touching argument where they defend their respective husbands.

    Also of note: A 1979 television series did a more or less straight-faced update of the serial format, running three different chapter plays in a weekly hour format. A pastiche of PHANTOM EMPIRE balanced two modern-day stories:
    I faintly remember an episode or two. They presented the above-ground western in sepia tone and the underground kingdom in color.

  4. bensondonald Says:

    One last footnote on the meta-serial: There was a famous melodrama of the 1800s very, very freely based on Davy Crockett. In a moment of high drama, Davy uses “The Strong Arm of a Backwoodsman” to bar the door against a pack of wolves. It evidently became a bit of a cliche, as John Held Jr. used it in one of his mock nostalgic woodcuts.

  5. Buster Keaton does a nice bit of arm-barring in The Frozen North, obviously a familiar cliche along with all the William S Hart business he’s parodying.

    I *thought* Queen Tika looked familiar! She plays the part with all the simmering, sullen rage of an L&H spouse.

  6. chris schneider Says:

    Cole Porter may not have written a “cows go moo” song, but Noel Coward *did* write “Any Little Fish” which is within the same proverbial ballpark. “Any little horse can neigh / And any little cow can moo, / But I can’t do anything at all / But just love you.” Faux-naïf stuff, meant for crooning and offering ample opportunities for double-entendre.

  7. And some great triple-rhymes!

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