“Cowboys And Robots: the Birth of the Science Fiction Western” by Jeffrey Richardson

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As soon as the effects of the gas had worn off, Wallace MacDonald knew he had the perfect story idea.

In 1934, MacDonald, a writer for Mascot Pictures, had been tasked by company president Nat Levine to come up with an idea for a serial that “invaded uncharted realms of imagination.” MacDonald was thinking of his latest assignment when he visited the dentist for a tooth extraction. He thumbed through a folder on the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico as he waited. When the dentist finally turned on the anesthetic gas to begin the extraction, MacDonald dreamed up an amazing story of an advanced race of humans dwelling in the huge underground caverns of a lost empire named Murania. The Muranians ultimately engage in a fierce conflict with the surface people who discover them.

MacDonald brought his story idea, entitled The Phantom Empire, to Levine the next day. The company president accepted it immediately. From this surreal beginning, the Science Fiction Western was born. More accurately, the Science Fiction Singing Cowboy Western was born.

Movie serials were extended motion pictures which were divided into chapters or episodes. Designed to be shown weekly in conjunction with a standard feature film, serial chapters often featured cliffhanger endings showing the hero or heroine in a perilous situation from which there seemed to be no escape. Mascot Pictures specialized in serials, and the company produced a total of 31 between 1927 and 1935.

Mascot President Nat Levine, always cognizant of his company’s limited resources, used a diverse group of lead actors in an attempt to save money. Levine used stars whose careers were winding down (such as Tom Mix in The Miracle Rider (1935)), non-actors who had gained fame in fields outside of Hollywood (such as Harold “Red” Grange in The Galloping Ghost (1931)), and young actors at the start of their career (such as John Wayne in The Hurricane Express (1932)). In 1934, Levine cast cowboy star Ken Maynard in the Mascot serial Mystery Mountain (1934).

Levine planned on using Maynard in another serial, so he commissioned Wallace MacDonald to write something that would combine two popular genres of the day: Science Fiction and the Western. MacDonald’s story idea for The Phantom Empire was exactly what Levine was looking for, but as preproduction on the serial began, disagreements between Maynard and Levine caused the actor to leave the studio. Levine thus turned to an up and coming cowboy recording artist named Gene Autry.

Gene Autry got his start on radio in 1929 as “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy” at KVOO in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He quickly gained a following, and he was signed to a recording contract with Columbia Records. Autry’s first big hit was “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine” in 1932. Two years later, while Autry was performing on the National Barn Dance for radio station WLS in Chicago, he was offered a movie contract with Levine’s Mascot Pictures.

Autry’s first onscreen appearance occurred in the Ken Maynard feature In Old Santa Fe (1934). “Autry was completely raw material,” Levine confided years later, “knew nothing about acting, lacked poise, and was awkward.” But unlike Maynard and other cowboys who sang, Autry’s voice did not need to be dubbed, and he performed two songs in his screen debut. Autry’s next screen appearance (although he did not sing) was in the Maynard serial Mystery Mountain (1934). Both roles were brief, and Autry was not credited on either film. But all of that changed with The Phantom Empire. When Maynard left Mascot in 1934, Levine decided to cast the relatively unknown Autry in the lead role.

Gerald Geraghty, Harry Freedman, and John Rathmell were tasked with turning Wallace MacDonald’s story into a screenplay. Levine, hoping to offset Autry’s lack of movie experience with his reputation as a radio star, told his scriptwriters to have Autry sing as many songs as possible in each chapter. Always mindful of the budget, Levine also made certain that Autry sang only his own compositions, thereby avoiding any copyright issues or usage fees.

Besides Autry, Levine cast child star Frankie Darro and fellow juvenile Betsy King Ross in key roles. Lester “Smiley” Burnette and William Moore were tapped to play Autry’s comedic sidekicks Oscar and Pete. (The use of children and comedic sidekicks would become a staple of all of Autry’s films.) Rounding out the cast was Frank Glendon as the evil scientist Professor Beetson, Dorothy Christie as Muranian Queen Tika, and Wheeler Oakman as Muranian High Chancellor Argo. Interestingly, the credits also listed “the scientific city of Murania,” the factitious underground empire at the center of the film’s story.

As was typical with most serials, the film had two directors, Otto Brower and Breezy Eason. Other key members of the crew were supervisor Armand Schaeffer, photographers Ernest Miller and William Nobles, editor Earl Turner, and sound engineer Terry Kellum.

The typical Mascot serial cost somewhere between $30,000 and $50,000, but for The Phantom Empire, Levine agreed to a budget of approximately $70,000. The relatively lavish budget, at least by Mascot’s standards, was a result of the film’s unique demands. The outdoor western scenes, shot at a variety of locations throughout Los Angeles, were rather inexpensive to shoot. But the scenes that included the futuristic city of Murania involved much more time and expense.

Elaborate sets were built at the Mack Sennett Studios for the interior shots of Murania. To further enhance the scope and appearance of the city, Howard Lydecker, Jr., built highly detailed models that were often combined impressively with live action. (Lydecker would go on to become a legend in the special effects field.) Futuristic props such as death rays, missile launchers, televisions, moving sidewalks, vacuum tube elevators, and even a lightning chamber were also constructed. For exterior shots of Murania, the newly constructed Griffith Observatory, a beautiful art deco building in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park, was used. The futuristic design of the structure was ideal for the film’s purposes, and it was the first time the observatory, probably best known for its use in James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), had ever been shown onscreen. The only thing missing from the futuristic city were the robots.

Despite all the time and effort that went into creating Murania, the filmmakers chose not to construct their own robots. In fact, the robots were purchased from the Western Costume Company, a Hollywood institution that began supplying wardrobes to the film industry as early as 1912. The robots, which were primarily made out of cardboard, had been used previously in the Joan Crawford and Clarke Gable musical Dancing Lady (1933), where they were shown infringing upon Crawford’s personal freedoms.

Unlike other films that used robots as menacing villains or easy cannon fodder, the robots in The Phantom Empire were shown helping the citizens of Murania: they operated machinery, forged iron, opened doors, stood guard, and did other manual labor. As Queen Tika asks in the film, “Is that not better than living on the surface; mechanical men doing all the labor?” (The robots survived The Phantom Empire shoot and made a third screen appearance years later in the Columbia serial Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere (1951).) With the cast, crew, and robots in place, filming began in November of 1934 and concluded later that year.

The Phantom Empire centers on the exploits of radio star Gene Autry (played by Gene Autry), who broadcasts from his ranch daily at 2 pm. Autry’s contract stipulates that if he misses a single show the contract is null and void. Unbeknownst to Autry, the ranch is also the site of rich radium deposits, and it is near the secret entrance to an advanced underground empire called Murania. The evil Professor Beetson (Glendon) comes to the ranch in search of both. Beetson does everything he can to void Autry’s contract so he can have the ranch to himself – even framing Autry for murder. Autry goes about clearing his name, and in doing so, he stumbles upon Murania.

The beautiful Queen Tika (Christie) rules the lost empire, and she keeps track of events on the surface with an innovative television monitor. When the Queen learns that Autry has discovered their empire, she instructs her royal guardians, the Thunder Riders, to capture Autry. Autry is detained, but he manages to escape with the help of the duplicitous Muranian High Chancellor Argo (Oakman), who is planning a rebellion against the Queen. Autry ultimately informs the Queen of Argo’s plans, and he agrees to help her in exchange for safe passage back to the surface.

Argo’s men manage to capture the Queen, but Autry frees her by trapping Argo and his men in the control room of the “disintegrating atom smashing ray.” Argo had hoped to use the ray on Autry and his fellow surface people, but he reluctantly employs it on the door of the control room in an attempt to escape. The machine malfunctions, and the entire city begins to collapse. Autry tries to leave with the Queen, but she says she would rather die in Murania than live on the surface. Autry escapes to the surface before the city is completely destroyed, and he even manages to make it back in time for his daily radio broadcast. While on the air, Autry tricks Beetson into confessing to the murder he had tried to frame on Autry. The radio broadcast and the film come to an end as Autry sings one final song.

The final film was 25 reels, spread out over 12 chapters, with a running time of approximately 250 minutes. The first episode was 3 reels (approximately 30 minutes), while the remaining episodes were 2 reels (approximately 18-20 minutes each). The Phantom Empire was copyrighted on February 23, 1935, which is commonly listed as the American release date.

Mascot Pictures, like most studios of the era, distributed a press kit to help exhibitors sell the film. The press kit made it clear that the “weirdly astounding serial” should be marketed “not as a Western, but as the first serial to portray the fantastic type of adventures so popular in newspaper comic strips.” It noted that the unique theme of The Phantom Empire allowed for “innumerable ticket-selling tie-ups for smart showmen,” including sending out men to walk around town in robot-suits like those in the film. Novelties such as radio wrist bands, flying gliders, magic magnifying glasses, Thunder Rider masks, toy balloons, and whistling guns were offered to exhibitors for resale to movie patrons.

The press kit also provided ready reviews for immediate publication in local newspapers. One review triumphantly heralded the film as “the most amazing picture the writer has seen in years,” noting it was “done with a realism that sends thrills chasing each other down one’s spine.” The press kit even went so far as to claim the story was “based on fact,” citing the controversial and unsubstantiated work of individuals like James Churchward who claimed a lost empire actually existed in the Pacific Ocean. In an open letter to exhibitors everywhere, Mascot President Nat Levine said simply, “I offer you ‘The Phantom Empire’ with the sincere belief that it is Mascot’s greatest chapter play achievement.”

It quickly became clear that exhibitors and audiences agreed. “The producers deserve credit for this new idea in serials and the clever manner in which this has been produced,” wrote exhibitor J. E. Stocker of Detroit’s Myrtle Theater in June of 1935. Stocker and other exhibitors were happy because The Phantom Empire was a resounding success at the box office, ultimately becoming the third highest grossing serial in the history of Mascot Pictures.

More importantly, the film’s success, both critically and financially, had a tremendous impact on the Western and the Science Fiction genres. The Phantom Empire was not the first Western to feature music, and Gene Autry was not the first cowboy to sing onscreen. However, the film did mark the transition from cowboys who sang (such as Ken Maynard, Warner Baxter, and even John Wayne) to singing cowboys. The singing cowboy phenomenon, which lasted until the mid 1950s, was an important part of the motion picture industry and the nation at large. In the words of author Peter Stanfield, the singing cowboy was “one of the most important cultural figures to emerge from the tumultuous years of the Great Depression-a character that represented the fantasies, desires, and ambitions of those who felt keenly the economic hardship and the threat (and fact) of dispossession and dislocation.”

Gene Autry was the embodiment of the singing cowboy, and he went on to a successful career in film, television, and business. Autry eventually became the only person to receive all five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (one each for radio, recording, motion pictures, television, and live theatre/performance). His business dealings saw him acquire several music publishing companies, broadcast stations, and the California Angels (now the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim) professional baseball team. Amazingly, it all started with The Phantom Empire.

As for Science Fiction, the success of the film helped the genre gain wide public attention, ushering in the first golden age of Science Fiction. “Had there been no Phantom Empire, there may have been no Flash Gordon from Universal in 1936, budgeted at $360,000, or Buck Rogers from the same studio in 1939,” author Jon Tuska speculates, “nor would science fiction have become so much a staple of serial production for the next fifteen years.” As Science Fiction stories from comic books to films became increasingly more complex throughout the twentieth century, writers drew heavily on the conventions of the Western genre to frame their visions of the future. Themes such as homesteading, community building, mining, and urbanization provided common ground that informed the writing of both genres. Once again, it all started with The Phantom Empire.

By directly incorporating elements of Science Fiction into a Western setting, The Phantom Empire also gave birth to a new genre, the Science Fiction Western. Science Fiction Western stories have since appeared in films (such as Westworld (1973)), novels (The Dark Tower series (1982-2004) by Stephen King), television (The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (1993-94)), comic books (Iron West (2006) by Doug TenNapel), and almost all other forms of media. The genre has unique appeal because it explores one of the great periods in American history, the opening and subsequent closing of the frontier, in new and exotic ways. Science Fiction Westerns are thus the manifestation of American progress and possibility, providing key insights into where the country has been and where it is going.

Even under the effects of the gas, Wallace MacDonald could not have dreamed up a more bizarre and fascinating story than the true history of The Phantom Empire starring Gene Autry.

Jeffrey Richardson is the Assistant Curator of Film and Popular Culture at the Museum of the American West, Autry National Center, in Los Angeles. Gene Autry founded the museum in 1988 to “exhibit and interpret the heritage of the West and show how it influenced America and the world.” Jeffrey’s current exhibit projects include an exploration of Space Westerns, paying particular attention to the works of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and an examination of the golden age of television Westerns.

Jeffrey can be reached at jrichardson@autrynationalcenter.org. Please go to www.autrynationalcenter.org for more about the museum. For more on Gene Autry, please go to www.geneautry.com.

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  1. […] Cowboys & Aliens is hardly the first film to mix Western and science fiction elements. That honor appears to go to the Gene Autry serial, The Phantom Empire (1935). I remembered this film when speaking to my Dad about Cowboys & Aliens. I saw it, or at least part of it, many years ago when I stumbled upon it when it was being broadcast in the wee hours from a New York City station. Who could not be intrigued by a Western with a robot? The truth is that despite the advances in special effects evident since 1934, when The Phantom Empire was made, Cowboys & Aliens did not have any of the charm of the micro-budget Autry film. Read more about it here. […]

  2. […] Cowboys & Aliens is hardly the first film to mix Western and science fiction elements. That honor appears to go to the Gene Autry serial, The Phantom Empire (1935). I remembered this film when speaking to my Dad about Cowboys & Aliens. (My Dad gave a copy of the film to my stepmother, a Gene Autry fan. She watched it until the science fiction elements entered, then said, more or less, “WTF!? Turn that crap off!” The Cowboys & Aliens producers should have taken note.) I saw The Phantom Empire, or at least part of it, many years ago when I stumbled upon it when it was being broadcast in the wee hours from a New York City station. Who could not be intrigued by a Western with a robot? The truth is that despite the advances in special effects evident since 1934, when The Phantom Empire was made, Cowboys & Aliens did not have any of the charm or sense of the marvelous as did the micro-budget Autry film. Read more about it here. […]

  3. […] last chance to read and/or buy the Western issue! With some terrific stories, a great article about the first ever science fiction western, and the first cover of ours done by Nicc Balce! Nicc’s done a couple more covers for us […]

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