One of the most frequent e-mail subjects/questions received by ye Old Corral webmaster is about Nat Levine, Gene Autry and THE PHANTOM EMPIRE serial. Lots of folks fondly recall this twelve episode cliffhanger for its crazy blend of traditional B-western with robots, ray guns, the underground city of Murania, Thunder Riders, Radio Ranch ... and a singin' cowboy who does a lot of singing. Most never saw it at a theater - instead their intro to this serial was on a small B&W TV screen in the early 1950s.
Mascot owner and producer Nat Levine starred Ken Maynard in the feature IN OLD SANTA FE (Mascot, 1934) and the chapterplay MYSTERY MOUNTAIN (Mascot, 1934). And Levine had thoughts of Maynard as the lead in THE PHANTOM EMPIRE. But Ken's antics or attitude or temper or whatever killed his chances of doing more work for the thrifty Levine. Circa 1934, Levine signed Gene Autry as well as Lester Alvin 'Smiley' Burnett to contracts. At the time, both were performing on the National Barn Dance radio program which originated from Chicago's WLS. Gene and Smiley headed to Hollywoodland and got their initial film experience in both of the Maynard Mascots. With Maynard out, Levine took a gamble and starred Autry in THE PHANTOM EMPIRE which was released to the theaters in February, 1935. And as they say - the rest is history.
Years ago, when Beta and VHS videotape machines first hit the market, THE PHANTOM EMPIRE was among the initial batch of public domain films that could be purchased. And those videotapes were often created from well worn TV prints or used and abused rental library prints. As time went on, many folks bought or traded for THE PHANTOM EMPIRE, but the videotape quality was terrible - the print used was full of splices, lines, hiccups ... the image was too light, too dark or had a soft focus ... the soundtrack was muffled. And those quality issues were magnified when the videotape was a second or third or fourth generation copy. The end result was that fans who were once enthralled by THE PHANTOM EMPIRE wound up being disappointed with their videotape.
In 2008, there's some good news - THE PHANTOM EMPIRE has been digitally restored by VCI (VCI Entertainment) of Tulsa, Oklahoma. This is a two DVD set and the cover art and special features are shown on the left. Note that the Autry BOOTS AND SADDLES western is included.
The VCI restoration is absolutely stunning. Not perfect though - but this is about the best you'll ever see of this seminal western serial. A big thanks to VCI for doing this restoration.
A personal tidbit about the serial: viewing this, I was reminded that Frankie Darro was a really good actor. Darro (1917-1976) was about 17 years old when he did this film.
Below are some screen captures that I made and all are from Chapter 1, "The Singing Cowboy". All were done when playing the DVD on my PC using Nero Showtime (version 7). I made no adjustments to lightness/darkness, contrast, sharpness, etc., nor did I change the sizing of the screen captures (which are about 640 pixels wide). The only change was to convert the screen grabs from Windows Bitmap (bmp files) to jpeg/jpg files.
You can order THE PHANTOM EMPIRE direct from VCI for about $20.00: http://www.vcientertainment.com/HollywoodLandProduct.aspx?id=2463. And online stores such as amazon have it for a few bucks cheaper: http://www.amazon.com/Phantom-Empire-Gene-Autry/dp/B0011Z5NFK/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1205843819&sr=1-1
Clifford Weimer (alias "Laughing Gravy") wrote the Autry bio as well as some info on the serial which are part of the VCI DVD special features. His In The Balcony website has more info on the serial restoration: http://www.inthebalcony.com/cliffhanger/page34.html
Normal disclaimer: ye Old Corral webmaster doesn't get a "piece of the pie" if you buy this serial or not. There are no companies who sponsor or underwrite the Old Corral. And there are no banner advertisements, link exchange ads, pop-ups, pop-unders, nor are we part of any money-making 'associates' or 'referral' programs with click-thru icons and banners that take you to other websites to purchase something.