The Monday Matinee, Episode 4: Phantom Broadcast

So many people have their names misspelled or “alternately spelled” in the credits of THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (well, these things happen)… Co-director B. Reeves Eason is credited as Breezy Easton, the first name being an amusing western style nickname, the surname being surely just a mistake. So it’s unsuprising to learn that the underground kingdom of Murania has mastered “radio activity.” That sounds more like the specialist of star Gene Autry, a man who is shown performing dangerous action sequences weekly on the wireless.

Eason/Easton’s fellow helmsman, Otto Brower, sounded familiar, and sure enough, I’d admired his handiwork on HEADLINE SNAPPER. He mainly staged serials and B-westerns, though, as well as second unit on big movies like DUEL IN THE SUN.

Anyhow, last we saw, beefy vocalist Gene Autry had just driven his car off a big cliff, so he’s definitely dead, leaving the serial nine episodes to run without a leading man.

Now read on…

The solution to this cliffhanger is particularly sly, with an entire new sequence interpolated between Gene driving off in a car without brakes, and plunging off a precipice to certain perdition. In the helpful insert, the Junior Thunder Riders get the GO signal — a lightbulb on a stick raised through a hole in the roof of their clubhouse — and start off  “To the rescue!” as their catchy motto has it. Had we known about them last week, we needn’t have felt so concerned for the poor motorist hero.

These youngsters worry me, though. I pondered in episode one the strange fact of their basing their look on the Muranian Thunder Guard, who pursued and menaced a couple of them. Well, let’s face it, the Thunder Guard, a bunch of masked and caped riders patrolling the west, are basically the Klan, aren;t they? The teenage emulators make me think how glamorous the KKK might seem to little kids who don’t know any better and whose parents tell them racist lies. I’m starting to get creeped out by this serial.

But I like the way we fade out from a buncha bad guys looking into a ravine: “Can’t be anything left of Gene Autry now” — to a science city far beneath the earth’s surface. A simple, blunt transition suddenly reminds me how deeply bananas this show is, and I’m happy again. Queen Tika enters her throneroom to the sound of a deafening, untuned gong (how does one tune a gong anyway?), which must get pretty annoying for her. Maybe that’s why she’s so persistently cheesed off. That brazen percussion instrument is hardly what you want if you’ve been sinking a few with the Thunder Guard the previous evening. Which she looks like she has.

Somehow, with a lost civilisation conniving against our hero, this episode contrives to be about whether he’ll be able to make his radio broadcast while wanted by the sheriff. He does, using a hidden microphone.

Meanwhile, Queen Tika can’t find her chancellor, Lord Argo (as in, “Argo fuck yourself”). She calls one underling a “nitwit,” rather reverting to her Laurel & Hardy days. Then she uses her “television”, a sort of sunken pool monitor in the floor, and again embarks on one of her strange monologues, though this one is about how great Murania is rather than how lousy the surface world is. “My Murania. Is that not better than living on the surface, mechanical men doing all the labor?” I’d like to see our own dear Queen take a few pointers from Tika when she delivers her next Christmas speech.

The Muranians prepare to hit Autry’s Radio Ranch with a missile, while Frankie Darro impresses by looking earnestly into a periscope made from a bit of pipe and a stick. Betsy King Ross, a remarkable trick rider, has an equally fancy way with a line, delivering the words, “The scientists have found the remote-control wire and they’re coming to the barn,” as if she’d just been promoted to the role of narrator.

Kids at the time must have envied the Junior Thunder Riders their clubhouse — it not only has the lightbulb on a stick signal and the periscope, but a sound effects kit (for the remote-control phantom broadcast) but firepoles to slide down too. Pretty cool.

But anyway, as Gene and the kids are escaping by their secret tunnel, they all get blown up by dynamite. No coming back from that. I don’t care how good a singer he is.

To be continued…


3 Responses to “The Monday Matinee, Episode 4: Phantom Broadcast”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    A little credit is due to Mascot for casting Ross, who doesn’t look or sound like the stock pre-ingenue.

    I appreciate serials that do things a little differently. “Flash Gordon” is the only serial I know that recognizes sex as a motivation. “Tailspin Tommy” grants its young hero vestiges of a life: he lives with his parents, gets a job, and takes his girl to a dance. “The Phantom” has henchmen honestly worried about each other’s safety. “Jack Holt of the Secret Service” has the undercover hero and heroine pretending to be married: all business when alone, but bickering and yelling in front of company. Holt, by the way, is almost comically hard-boiled as he shoves around the real criminals (impressive, as he was old enough to have an adult son starring in B westerns). And anything directed by James Horne is going to have some gratuitous silliness, usually from Runyonesque hoodlums.

  2. Ross reminds me of Tatum O’Neil except she really can’t act. But her trick riding is damned impressive — wish there was more of it on display, but I’m sure there will be soon.

  3. John Seal Says:

    Get it on. Tune a gong. TUNE A GONG.

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