The Phantom Empire

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The Phantom Empire

The Phantom Empire (1935) is a movie serial, directed by Otto Brower and B. Reeves Eason. It stars singing cowboy Gene Autry, and partly takes place at his Radio Ranch, a Western ranch from which he broadcasts his regular radio program. But part of it also takes place in the imaginary underground kingdom of Murania, a vast, highly advanced science fiction city far underneath the Earth.

Storytelling Strategies

The Phantom Empire contains a delirious mix of genres and narrative strategies. Partly this relates to its status as hybrid musical-Western-science fiction epic. It combines all of these genres, with great enthusiasm and elaborate detail.

It also relates to the film's recursive look at show business. Some of the scenes are "real". Others are scenes being staged at the Radio Ranch for cowboy show biz purposes. In this it recalls Otto Brower's previous Scarlet River (1933), a Western about the making of a Western movie. Both films have a full, reflexive-recursive structure, with imaginary scenes being mixed with real action. Both films are set squarely in the present, the 1930's, and have a documentary like quality, showing what a Western film company or radio broadcast might be like.

In addition to mixed genres and recursive structures, there are other mixed narrative approaches as well. A character in the film narrates the legend of the Shadow Riders, and a flashback like scene illustrates his story. This scene is not supposed to be either "true" or "false". Instead, it narrates a legend, a cowboy myth popular in the area. It conveys ideas shared by the characters, but the film neither endorses nor denies its reality. We soon know, or at least suspect, that the Shadow Riders are actually sf visitors from the underground city. But still, the particular sequence of the myth does not correspond with an actual historical reality in the film. Rather, it permanently stands as the portrayal of a local legend. Scenes with a mythical status like this are extremely rare in film history.

Another strange element of the narration: several characters are playing "themselves". This is true of the star Gene Autry; it also seems to apply to young Betsy King Ross, whom the credits say is a national youth horse riding champion. Ross is an astonishing rider, and the scenes where she and her friend are galloping over the hills are some of the best in the movie. Ross just seems to be hanging out at the Radio Ranch, having adventures. There is a long tradition in cowboy movies of series heroes playing themselves. So the status of the characters in The Phantom Empire is nothing new. However, it does add to the complex mix of narrative strategies employed by the film.

The science fiction elements of the film also add to the film's mixed modes. The film has some elaborate model work, a standard approach to creating special effects in this era. Its models of the underground city, and its elevator going up to the surface, are strikingly beautiful.

Furthermore, television is extensively employed in the underground scenes. Commercial television broadcasting would begin in the New York City four years later, related to the futuristic New York World's Fair, but would not become common in the United States till after 1945. The Phantom Empire was the first exposure to television for many Americans, and it created an electrifying effect on its viewers. The television scenes add to the narrative complexity of the film. Some scenes in the movie are viewed on television monitors in the underground city, one more complex narrative approach in the movie.

The Phantom Empire has the freest, more creative narrative strategies of any commercial movie till Max Ophuls' La Ronde (1950) and Lola Montès (1955). As in Ophuls' work, the viewer always knows what is going on, and what sort of strategy is being employed. This makes these works different from Dreyer's Vampyr (1932), for example, a movie that blends reality, the supernatural, hallucinations and abstract images in ways that are deliberately confusing to viewers. Even repeated viewings make it hard to establish what is real in Dreyer's horror masterpiece, and what is not. By contrast, the narrative strategies in Ophuls and Brower are usually completely lucid, and well understood by the viewing audience.