Gene Autry’s Empire – ‘Phantom’ or Otherwise, by Michael H. Price
“So how did I get to be a movie star, anyhow?” Gene Autry (1907–98) asked George E. Turner and me in 1985.
George and I were consulting with Old Hollywood’s preeminent make-believe cowboy about his donation of a large collection of motion-picture footage to the Southwest Film & Video Archive at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. (I had begun working with the SMU film library in 1983 in connection with the preservation of an extensive batch of black-ensemble movies from the 1920s –1950s that had been salvaged from an abandoned warehouse in East Texas. Hence the Tyler, Texas, Black Film Collection, which amounts to a story for another day.)
Anyhow, on this 1985 occasion, Autry had recognized George and me as the authors who had taken him to task a few years earlier – politely, of course – for his having usurped the greater celebrity that had belonged to an authentic cowboy-become-movie star named Ken Maynard.
Now, being admirers of Maynard, George and I had assumed a resentful attitude in a book called Forgotten Horrors. The movie that at once cinched Autry’s stardom and signaled Maynard’s decline is The Phantom Empire (1935). And yes, The Phantom Empire is a horror movie, with nuclear-age science-fictional foreshadowing. And a Western adventure. And a country-music showcase, on top of all that. Only in Hollywood.
“Well,” Autry was saying, “I reckon I wasn’t fit to polish Ken Maynard’s boots. He was a real ranchman and a rodeo champ, besides. Neither of us could really act, not hardly, but Ken had the edge, and the physique and the experience, where I had started out as kind of a pudgy ol’ boy who knew just enough about horsemanship to be a danger to myself. And the only thing Western about me, really, was where I came from [Tioga, Texas] and the fact that I had made a mark, singin’ cowboy songs.
“But these things happen – don’t you know? – and I just happened to find myself in the right place, at the right time, to pick up a movie role that Ken was about to get himself fired from,” continued Autry.
“I’d never have strategized any such development – heck, I was a fan of Ken’s, too, y’know – but luck kicks in at the doggonedest moments.”
The meeting with Autry proved sufficiently cordial and productive to lead to George Turner’s and my involvement as consultants in the development of Autry’s own Western Heritage Museum (now part of the Autry National Center) in Los Angeles, where Turner had become editor of The American Cinematographer magazine. It helped that Autry had a deep-seated fondness for the Fort Worth–Dallas metropolitan area – my home base in the newspaper racket – stemming largely from a happy experience at shooting The Big Show (1936) on location at Dallas’ Texas Centennial grounds, and from his status as the first movies-and-radio big-timer to headline Fort Worth’s Stock Show & Rodeo, in 1944. Autry was on temporary leave from the movie business that year, having joined the Army Air Corps as a munitions transporter in the Sino-Indian Theatre of Operations.
Name-brand entertainers had graced earlier Stock Shows – including the great blues singers Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith, during the 1930s – but Autry’s appearance raised the ante considerably on mass-audience appeal: At 33 in 1940, he had become one of Hollywood’s top-10 box-office draws – ranking fourth after Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy.
And Autry already had trumped all the other horse-opera heroes of the Depression-into-wartime years to become the movie industry’s Public Cowboy No. 1, as the very title of an Autry film from 1937 gloated. (The year 1944 also marked the Fort Worth Stock Show’s move to the Will Rogers Memorial Center, lending a sense of homecoming for Autry – who credited Rogers’ influence with a breakthrough into radio broadcasting and the phonograph-record business.)
Autry had not exactly come out of nowhere to win such distinction. For as early as 1929 – a time when, for example, the Western Swing pioneer Bob Wills was still playing back-country hoedowns around Fort Worth as a more-or-less obscure fiddler – Autry had become a protégé of the down-home humorist Will Rogers and gained a berth as “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy” on Tulsa-based KVOO-Radio. A major-label recording deal had followed, along with a move to the National Barn Dance program at WLS Radio in Chicago.
But the movie business in those days was a world apart from the broadcasting and recording industries, and Autry had found it necessary to crack Hollywood the hard way – starting at the bottom of the bit-player ladder at the smallest of studios, and trusting to a combination of dumb luck and hopeful ambition.
The fans who turned out in 1944 to catch Autry’s Stock Show act might not have noticed him in Mystery Mountain and In Old Santa Fe, low-budget productions built around the biggest Western star of the early 1930s, the exhibition rider Ken Maynard. Maynard’s devotées, though, might have pegged an unbilled Autry as the ornery owlhoot who shoots Maynard out of the saddle at one tense moment in 1934’s Mystery Mountain. Likely few people had given a second thought to that small scene, which would prove prophetic for both actors.
But that earliest generation of Autry’s fans had sure-enough noticed him in The Phantom Empire (1935) – the basis of Autry’s stardom, and perhaps the unlikeliest springboard to recognition that any actor could find.
Nat Levine’s Mascot Pictures was a big-time moneymaker among Old Hollywood’s so-called Poverty Row studios, specializing in serialized films – one new chapter a week, 12 weeks or more at a stretch – that dispensed gee-whiz thrills as opposed to dramatic weight.
By the time of Autry’s arrival in Hollywood, Mascot had launched John Wayne toward stardom with the railroad adventure The Hurricane Express and the aviation thriller The Shadow of the Eagle. And Mascot had made movie stars, however briefly, of football champ Harold “Red” Grange (in 1931’s The Galloping Ghost) and circus entertainer Clyde Beatty (in 1934’s The Lost Jungle). The company also had become a candidate for absorption into an upstart bigger studio, also specializing in serials and Westerns, called Republic Pictures. And by the time of Autry’s arrival, the mighty Ken Maynard had so thoroughly alienated big-time Universal Pictures, with his ill temper and his demands for creative autonomy, that he was fortunate to get work on Poverty Row.
Nat Levine first announced Maynard as the star of The Phantom Empire, whose wild scenario screenwriter Wallace MacDonald had dreamed up while under the influence of nitrous oxide in a dentist’s office. Or so MacDonald told George Turner and me, anyhow, around 1970, while we were researching that first Forgotten Horrors volume.
The story would have been ideal for Maynard, whose fondness for offbeat themes already had yielded such films as 1932’s Tombstone Canyon, a frontier takeoff on The Phantom of the Opera, and 1934’s Smoking Guns, which takes place on a Halloween night in a purportedly haunted house. The formula-busting audacity of Smoking Guns got Maynard fired at Universal Pictures, and so it was no wonder that Maynard was happy to land afoot at Mascot Pictures, where weirdness was a cherished commodity.
Nat Levine was less happy to be dealing with Maynard, “a temperamental cuss,” as Levine described him in a late-in-life interview. Levine, aware of Gene Autry’s major-league recording career and grateful to have the singer under contract for a modest $100 a week, took a rare gamble and sacked Maynard – replacing him with Autry in The Phantom Empire and throwing in Autry’s singer-comedian pal, Lester “Smiley” Burnette, for good measure. Produced for $70,000 (an epic, by Mascot Pictures’ standards), The Phantom Empire laid the foundation of a lucrative career for Autry; changed the course of Hollywood’s cowboy-picture sector, by popularizing the musical Western; and established a vogue for science-fiction serials that would last into the 1950s.
Our story, so far: Gene Autry’s Radio Ranch is a resort famed for its musical broadcasts. The property is invaded by radium pirates – nuclear claim-jumpers – who in turn disturb the underground kingdom of Murania, which dispatches an army of steel-masked Thunder Riders to menace the surface world. The criminal mob frames Gene for murder, but he eludes a posse in time to get home to Radio Ranch and stage his usual show. Eventually, Gene finds himself at large in the phantom empire of Murania, where he dies in a radium explosion but is brought back to life my Muranian super-science. And so forth for a whopping 245 minutes of screen time, until a rebellion in Murania moves Gene to attempt to rescue the ruler (played by Dorothy Christie). Queen Tika chooses, however, to remain enthroned as a disintegrating ray melts the subterranean kingdom in a barrage of primitive special effects. Gene makes it home in time to clear his name and stage a big musical finale.
If The Phantom Empire should sound like an acquired taste to the present-day movie buff, its drug-induced pageant of make-believe is nonetheless a delight for those who have acquired the taste. Autry’s music, including the early million-seller “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine,” is as spirited as anything he ever delivered at Columbia Records, and Smiley Burnette’s comedy relief is pure corn-fed hokum. The film resurfaced during the 1940s in three condensed versions of an hour-and-change each: Radio Ranch, which emphasizes the musical element; Men with Steel Faces, which emphasizes the science-fiction; and an edition that played in England under this droll title: Couldn’t Possibly Happen.
So how did Gene Autry get to be a movie star, anyhow? He lacked the robust presence that one associates with the likes of John Wayne, Buck Jones, and Ken Maynard. He started out as a poor horseman, but he learned fast and well under the tutelage of movie-stunt experts Yakima Canutt and Yancey Lane. And his bland screen personality took on an edge of resilience with experience before the cameras.
And Autry’s surge to an enduring stardom is proof that only the stars and their fans – and not the studios, or the critics – can define the elusive concept of “star quality.” Many of his nearly 100 movies and 600-or-so phonograph records remain in circulation, and his namesake museum makes a point of showcasing the other movie cowboys and the real-life pioneers who defined the mythology and the history of the Western frontier. Which makes it something of a foregone conclusion that Gene Autry’s restless spirit should hover yet.
On the Web: www.geneautry.com
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price’s Forgotten Horrors movie-lore books are available from Midnight Marquee Press. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com.