September 18, 2008
We all know what Charles Starrett was doing in 1935. He was climbing onto a horse for his first western. He would climb off again 17 years and 135 films later.
In our continuing series on what other cowboy stars were up to that year, we discover that future sidekick Smiley Burnette and soon-to-be mega-star Gene autry were busy — they were fighting aliens.
Proving that pot did indeed exist in 1935, “Phantom Empire” is a serial that is part B-Western, part Flash Gordon. The Muranians live 20,000 miles beneath Autry’s Radio Ranch. To stop scientists from invading their world, Queen Tika has ordered her soldiers to stop Autry from broadcasting his radio show. There’s also a framed-for-murder subplot, a bunch of kid detectives and plenty of songs.
This was brought to us by the same people who made the serial “Mystery Mountain” starring Ken Maynard (see “Other Cowboys Stars – Ken Maynard”). In fact, Maynard was offered the role. He went to work at Columbia with Charley instead.
Smiley is listed in the credits as “Lester (Smiley) Burnette”. There’s less of him to hate (weight-wise) but he’s still annoying, doing double-duty as a member of the band, and playing various roles in the radio-drama broadcast each week.
Gene is wooden, but that’s a good part of his charm, right? Since he can’t, or won’t, act, he’s considered sincere. That’s just me guessing.
Interestingly, like Charley’s 1945 “Cowboy Canteen”, this Sci-Fi/Western has a contemporary setting — I mean, in the film it is 1935 and there are planes and radios and so forth. Along with Muranians and Singing Cowboys.
It’s a pretty fun serial. Goofy. And the robots are a hoot.