THE PHANTOM EMPIRE
MEN WITH TIN FACES; RADIO RANCH
The Phantom Empire is considered fondly among many. Its merits would seem to be mostly nostalgic ones or from those who are fans of country-and-western singer/cowboy star Gene Autry. Seen outside of this today, The Phantom Empire is crude and primitive even as the lowered standards of serials go. It is poorly directed the two directors idea seems to have been merely to aim a camera at the action and film what ever happened in front of it with no attempt made to dramatically stage shots. Even for a serial, the plot seems padded by endless numbers where Gene Autry sings (not to mention the terribly contrived plot device of him having to return to the ranch every so often lest he lose his contract. It is nearly half the serial before he ever gets to go down to Murania, for instance). As with some of the cheaper films of the early sound era, there is not even any musical score for the most part.
The Phantom Empire seems to be mostly cast with non-actors. Betsy King Ross, a child stunt rider, comes across as nasal and whiny. As Queen Tika, Dorothy Christie seems out of her depth trying to muster up even the cardboard regality and threat required of serial villains. And of the excruciating lowbrow comedy relief between Lester Smiley Burnette and William Moore as they accidentally let off tear gas grenades in their own faces or forget the magic word to make their horse gallop, the less said the better. (Although the slapstick scenes with them clunking about in the tin man suits bring about the only moments of amusement that The Phantom Empire offers).
Serials always had a wonderfully naive charm to them. They created a world of pure exoticism where dauntless heroes could venture forth into the realms of exotic jungles, lost cities, the Far East, Darkest Africa, the Wild West and modern crime venues with about equal interchangeability. The Phantom Empire is perhaps the most famously example of this in attempting to blend Western elements with a journey into a super-scientific kingdom a la Flash Gordon. Portrayals of these exotic realms was always dominated by jingoistic assumptions where the two-fisted white hero was unquestioningly the centre of the action and would lead the natives to set things right there seems something here that is akin to the assumptions made by imperialism that people in other countries need to be led by the benevolent hand of white men.
The Phantom Empires depiction of a super-scientific kingdom is crude. The model city is passable and the script musters a few wonderful-sounding serial-esque disintegrating atom-smashing rays, interference rays and radium missiles. The clunky robots with the tin ten-gallon hats are hysterical today and have afforded the film a certain camp value.
The Phantom Empire was later released in condensed form as Men with Tin Faces (1940) and The Phantom Empire (1988). The Phantom Empire is unrelated to Fred Olen Rays cheesy B-movie The Phantom Empire (1989), also about a series of underground adventures.
Full serial available online beginning with Chapter 1 here:-