The Phantom Empire (1935) (NTSC)

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Released 22-Jul-2013

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Science Fiction Featurette-”To the Rescue!” The Story of The Phantom Empire
Theatrical Trailer
Biographies-Cast-Gene Autry Bio
More…-Bonus Gene Autry Movie Boots and Saddles
Gallery-Poster
Music Video-Gene Autry Doe C Doe’s
Rating Rated G
Year Of Production 1935
Running Time 278
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered
Dual Disc Set
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 1,2,3,4,5,6 Directed By Otto Brower
B. Reeves Eason
Studio
Distributor
Gryphon Entertainment Starring Gene Autry
Frankie Darro
Betsy King Ross
Dorothy Christy
Wheeler Oakman
Charles K. French
Warner Richmond
J. Frank Glendon
Smiley Burnette
Peter Potter
Edward Peil Sr.
Jack Carlyle
Case Amaray-Opaque-Dual
RPI ? Music None Given


Video (NTSC) Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 480i (NTSC)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.37:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

     The Phantom Empire is a 12 part Mascot Pictures (which later became Republic Pictures) serial from 1935. Mascot was the most prolific maker of serials in the early 1930, out-producing its closest rival Universal. The Phantom Empire is a real oddity: part western, part science fiction, part musical, it was the first starring role (and only serial) for radio singing cowboy Gene Autry, (real name Orvon Grover Autry) who went on to star in dozens of features and a TV show during the 1930s, 40s and 50s, mostly playing himself.

     In The Phantom Empire, Gene Autry (as Gene Autry) is co-owner of Radio Ranch in the desert from which he and his singing group each day broadcast his radio program. At the ranch are also the two teenage children of his partner, Frankie (Frankie Darro) and his sister Betsy (Betsy King Ross), co-founders of the Junior Thunder Riders Club: motto “To the Rescue”. However, 25,000 feet below the Earth under the ranch, and with access to the surface via the nearby Thunder Canyon, is the advanced city and civilization of Murania, ruled by the despotic Queen Tika (Dorothy Christy) who is nevertheless trying to save her people from the evils of the surface people, such as war, crime and poverty. However she has secret opponents within her empire, as her Lord High Chancellor Argo (Wheeler Oakman) is plotting rebellion.

     Murania is also home to massive deposits of radium, which draws Professor Beetson (Frank Glendon) and his thugs to Radio Ranch. He has some knowledge of both Murania and the radium, but cannot begin exploration when the program Autry is broadcasting from Radio Ranch is popular and bringing visitors and guests to the area. The solutions of both Queen Tika and Professor Beetson are fact the same: if Gene Autry disappears, the radio broadcasts will cease and everyone will else leave the area. So while Beetson sets his thugs to kill Gene, the Queen sends her Thunder Guards to the surface to capture him.

     The introductory episode of The Phantom Empire introduces everyone and run for 31 minutes, the other episodes are all between 17 and 20 minutes in length. As usual, each episode ends with our heroes facing certain death, this cliff-hanger (sometimes literally) neatly overcome at the start of the next episode. The situations are pretty silly, and very contrived, the plot illogical, the sets are cheap and the special effects, such as the underground city, quaint but that is part of the charm of these serials. The costumes, including mechanical robots and Junior Thunder Riders wearing funny hats, are a hoot.

     Gene Autry has a pleasant personality and this serial cemented his popularity while Dorothy Christy is impressively icy as the despotic queen. Other roles are not as interesting, with Frank Glendon as Professor Beetson bland while Autry’s comic sidekicks Lester “Smiley” Burnett and William Moore undoubtedly played better in the 1930’s than now. In this serial there is no female in distress to be saved by the hero on numerous occasions, instead it has cute teens who, in contrast, sometimes save the day. This was in fact Betsy King Ross’s only serial and 3rd and final screen role, whereas the diminutive Frankie Darro had a lengthy career and is listed on IMDb 181 times, although many were uncredited or bit parts.

     Mixing science fiction and a singing cowboy, for pure inventiveness The Phantom Empire must be near the top of the serial pile. If at times the serial feels like two separate plots stitched together, one the requirement to present radio broadcasts each day to save the contract and the ranch, and the other the activities underground in the hidden city, the show is fast paced and exciting with some nice cliff-hanging moments, while Autry sings pleasantly. The Phantom Empire is indeed an oddity, but a very interesting and entertaining one.

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Transfer Quality

Video

     The Phantom Empire is a NTSC black and white print from 1935 presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and is not16x9 enhanced. The original ratio was 1.37:1. The featurette has been partially restored, as the ”To the Rescue!” The Story of The Phantom Empire featurette shows, but obviously the source elements were not great, and a full restoration would have been cost prohibitive.

     Over the 12 episodes the print is very soft, with variable brightness and contrast. Detail is poor but gets by. Scratches and dirt marks are frequent, but none are too distracting and I have seen far worse in films considerably younger than 75 years old! There were some frame jumps but, unlike other old serials I have watched, interlacing and macro blocking are mostly absent, with Chapter 9 perhaps the worst affected. Blacks, if not really deep black, are at least solid grey and do not waver across the frame. Not surprisingly, shadow detail is indistinct to occasionally impossibly blurry. Obviously there is no surround or subwoofer use.

     There are no subtitles.

     For its age, The Phantom Empire looks pretty good and the overall scores take account of the film’s age.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

     Audio is an English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track at 192 Kbps.

     The audio is pretty much as you would expect. There is some slight hiss, and the volume level does occasionally drop. Effects are flat but satisfactory, and when the Thunder Riders are on screen the boosted hooves are crackly. However, the dialogue is mostly fine and the songs perfectly audible.

     There are some slight lip synchronization issues occasionally but nothing serious.

     The audio is pretty good for a 1935 serial from a defunct production company.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

     This old serial comes with a surprising array of decent extras.

Disc 1

”To the Rescue!” The Story of The Phantom Empire (6:23)

     Made in 2008, written by Clifford Weimer and narrated by Jonathan Webb, this is a short but interesting look at the Mascot Pictures studio, the production of The Phantom Empire, its subsequent history and its partial restoration.

Trailer (5:32)

     The story in 5 minutes. Unrestored, it shows how much worse the serial could have looked.

Gene Autry Bio (3:41)

     Eight pages of good sized text.

Disc 2

Bonus Gene Autry Movie Boots and Saddles (53:14)

     Boots and Saddles from 1937 stars Autry and sidekick “Smiley” Burnett (who appeared with Autry in over 80 westerns). It is directed by Joseph Kane, who was the leading western director for Republic Pictures making films not only with Autry but also with Roy Rogers and John Wayne. He also co-directed the 1936 Republic Serial Undersea City, which co-stars Lon Chaney Jr..

     Boots and Saddles is a typical Autry film with singing, comedy, romance and a bit of action as Autry tries to save a ranch by winning a horse race to gain a contract to sell horses to the army, along with romancing the girl (Judith Allen).

     Boots and Saddles is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, the original ratio being 1.37:1, with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound. It has the scratches and artefacts one might expect but is generally in pretty good condition, and is never unwatchable. The film was apparently originally released with a running time of 58 minutes: this is the edited version running just under 54 minutes.

Photo Gallery (3:32)

     Movie posters advance automatically accompanied by music.

Gene Autry Doe C Doe’s (7.10)

     A 1935 equivalent of a music video! Seven minutes of Autry and others singing, taken from the 1934 film In Old Santa Fe.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

     This Australian version of The Phantom Empire is a Region 0 NTSC release. The serial has been in the public domain for a while so there are various releases still listed on Amazon.com, but reading the various specifications none have the extras on our release and, worse, some have the endings and text beginnings cut out. If The Phantom Empire is of interest, there is no reason to go outside our Australian release.

Summary

     Mixing science fiction, comedy, action and a singing cowboy The Phantom Empire is fast paced with some nice cliff-hanging moments. Gene Autry sings pleasantly and has a nice personality.

     The video and audio are better than expected of an NTSC print from 1935 and there are a surprising number of interesting extras, including a bonus Autry feature film. The Phantom Empire is an oddity, but a very interesting and entertaining one and good value for fans of Gene Autry or anyone interested in 1930s serials.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Ray Nyland (the bio is the thing)
Monday, November 25, 2013
Review Equipment
DVDSony BDP-S580, using HDMI output
DisplayLG 55inch HD LCD. This display device has not been calibrated. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080p.
Audio DecoderNAD T737. This audio decoder/receiver has not been calibrated.
AmplificationNAD T737
SpeakersStudio Acoustics 5.1

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