Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Contempt (1963)****


In Contempt, Jean Luc Godard issues a scorched earth assessment of the movie industry and, not surprisingly, finds that hypocrisy and hackery abound. It was a bit of art imitating life, for Contempt was Godard’s first high budget film with big name international stars. So while this young lion of the nouvelle vague was decrying the nexus of money and art, he was busy making a few compromises of his own.


Not that the film suffers for it. Contempt is likely Godard’s most accessible and entertaining work. The story - and there is a story – is simple, clear and, mon dieu, linear in presentation. The casting is eccentric, to say the least, but the collection of well known names and faces is interesting and fun to watch. The ubiquitous Michel Piccoli anchors the film as a free-lance writer named Paul Javal, who has been brought onto the set of a troubled production of The Odyssey by a tactless and tasteless American producer (Jack Palance). The film’s director, Fritz Lang (yes that Fritz Lang…portraying himself) has been delivering footage that, in Palance’s mind, doesn’t have nearly enough sex and violence. Palance hopes that Piccoli will rewrite a few scenes of Homer’s classic and make the epic tale a bit more popcorn-friendly.


Traveling with Paul is his new wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot), a woman of such intense sensuality she seems to literally float through the air. Palance eyes her like a hungry wolf, and begins to see an association with the Javals as a way of fulfilling all of his needs at once.



Godard is quite frank in his allusions to the supreme and overriding power of money in his characters’ motivations. Palance is deathly afraid is losing it, and launches into Lang with a vicious tantrum peppered with film cans tossed into the air. Surprisingly, Lang just sits there and takes it with an air of bemusement. The rich successes of films like Metropolis and M were many years ago, and the legendary but aging director needs this job. Piccoli, initially appalled by Palance’s ideas, begins to see this assignment as a way of paying off his flat, and setting his marriage to Bardot on solid financial footing.


Ironically, it’s the artists in this film who seem to get the least joy out of life. Lang sullenly goes about fulfilling his contract with all the enthusiasm of a man waiting for a bus. Piccoli attempts to grin and bear his unsavory task, but finds his wife most unappreciative of his artistic sacrifice. Palance, on the other hand, barrels through life fueled by his desire for money and Bardot. Speaking of Bardot, Godard manages to get her naked as often as reasonably possible, although according to the director it was not nearly enough to satisfy his Italian producers.


But ultimately this is a Godard film. And to drive home the point, the middle section of the film is comprised of a lengthy sequence filmed in the Javals' fashionable Roman apartment, where Piccoli and Bardot spend an afternoon expounding on philosophical abstractions. The look and feel of this extended set piece is classic Godard and seems almost like a film within a film. Godard even goes so far as to have Bardot don a short haired brunette wig, which makes her eerily resemble Anna Karina, Godard’s muse and favorite leading lady of this period.


The blu-ray disc has a number of interesting bonus features, including the director’s reactions to screening the film 45 years later. Plus, there’s a conversation between Godard and Lang filmed in the 1960s where Godard sheepishy admits that he doesn’t know how to film action scenes in the Hollywood style; using stuntmen, wrecked cars and so forth.


Contempt is considered Godard’s version of 8 ½ or Day for Night, i.e. a great director’s internal and slightly indulgent musings on the true nature of his craft. But Godard’s scope is wider, and forcefully makes a point about how western culture has managed to transform virtually everything into a commodity; whether it’s art, ancient history or Brigitte Bardot’s shapely tuchas.

IMDb

Contempt (1963)****


In Contempt, Jean Luc Godard issues a scorched earth assessment of the movie industry and, not surprisingly, finds that hypocrisy and hackery abound. It was a bit of art imitating life, for Contempt was Godard’s first high budget film with big name international stars. So while this young lion of the nouvelle vague was decrying the nexus of money and art, he was busy making a few compromises of his own.


Not that the film suffers for it. Contempt is likely Godard’s most accessible and entertaining work. The story - and there is a story – is simple, clear and, mon dieu, linear in presentation. The casting is eccentric, to say the least, but the collection of well known names and faces is interesting and fun to watch. The ubiquitous Michel Piccoli anchors the film as a free-lance writer named Paul Javal, who has been brought onto the set of a troubled production of The Odyssey by a tactless and tasteless American producer (Jack Palance). The film’s director, Fritz Lang (yes that Fritz Lang…portraying himself) has been delivering footage that, in Palance’s mind, doesn’t have nearly enough sex and violence. Palance hopes that Piccoli will rewrite a few scenes of Homer’s classic and make the epic tale a bit more popcorn-friendly.


Traveling with Paul is his new wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot), a woman of such intense sensuality she seems to literally float through the air. Palance eyes her like a hungry wolf, and begins to see an association with the Javals as a way of fulfilling all of his needs at once.



Godard is quite frank in his allusions to the supreme and overriding power of money in his characters’ motivations. Palance is deathly afraid is losing it, and launches into Lang with a vicious tantrum peppered with film cans tossed into the air. Surprisingly, Lang just sits there and takes it with an air of bemusement. The rich successes of films like Metropolis and M were many years ago, and the legendary but aging director needs this job. Piccoli, initially appalled by Palance’s ideas, begins to see this assignment as a way of paying off his flat, and setting his marriage to Bardot on solid financial footing.


Ironically, it’s the artists in this film who seem to get the least joy out of life. Lang sullenly goes about fulfilling his contract with all the enthusiasm of a man waiting for a bus. Piccoli attempts to grin and bear his unsavory task, but finds his wife most unappreciative of his artistic sacrifice. Palance, on the other hand, barrels through life fueled by his desire for money and Bardot. Speaking of Bardot, Godard manages to get her naked as often as reasonably possible, although according to the director it was not nearly enough to satisfy his Italian producers.


But ultimately this is a Godard film. And to drive home the point, the middle section of the film is comprised of a lengthy sequence filmed in the Javals' fashionable Roman apartment, where Piccoli and Bardot spend an afternoon expounding on philosophical abstractions. The look and feel of this extended set piece is classic Godard and seems almost like a film within a film. Godard even goes so far as to have Bardot don a short haired brunette wig, which makes her eerily resemble Anna Karina, Godard’s muse and favorite leading lady of this period.


The blu-ray disc has a number of interesting bonus features, including the director’s reactions to screening the film 45 years later. Plus, there’s a conversation between Godard and Lang filmed in the 1960s where Godard sheepishy admits that he doesn’t know how to film action scenes in the Hollywood style; using stuntmen, wrecked cars and so forth.


Contempt is considered Godard’s version of 8 ½ or Day for Night, i.e. a great director’s internal and slightly indulgent musings on the true nature of his craft. But Godard’s scope is wider, and forcefully makes a point about how western culture has managed to transform virtually everything into a commodity; whether it’s art, ancient history or Brigitte Bardot’s shapely tuchas.

IMDb

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Knute Rockne All American (1940)****


Knute Rockne All American is a fine example of Hollywood’s unique ability to transform the famous into the legendary through the forceful application of kitsch. Pat O’Brien stars as the innovative coach who molded Notre Dame into a gridiron powerhouse and, as a result, made the game of American football a distinct endeavor, and not just a slightly more controlled version of Rugby.

We follow the life of Rockne from his childhood days as the son of earnest Norwegian immigrants growing up on the tough streets of Chicago at the turn of the century, to the years he spent as a postal worker to save money to pay for his college tuition. This bootstrap backstory is dispensed in a pleasingly rapid manner, with just the broadest of brushstrokes. Not surprising since director Lloyd Bacon built a career by streamlining bulky, complex stories into easily digested chunks through a muscular style of highlight reel impressionism; a style that was perfect for the wants and needs of Depression era audiences.


Once matriculated at Our Lady, the whip-smart Rockne soon becomes the darling of the chemistry department, where he is offered a fellowship. But the Rock’s true love is the pigskin, and his ability to teach the finer points of the game to the school’s young recruits has earned him a competing offer to coach football.

The film’s most notable supporting actor, Ronald Reagan, soon makes his appearance as George Gipp, an athlete whose immense talent is only matched by his extreme arrogance. Rockne adapts his system to feature Gipp’s extraordinary abilities, and soon Notre Dame is on its way to national recognition. But the Gipper’s heroics would be short-lived, as a strep throat would claim his young life and, as a result, supply plenty of inspirational fodder for his coach’s halftime speeches.


Reagan’s performance as Gipp is really quite remarkable. When first introduced, Gipp has an icy cockiness that runs completely counter to his physical persona. Indeed, Reagan draws attention to himself by being the only actor here who is essentially underplaying. His soft-spoken but extremely confident characterization is a welcome break from the breathless whirlwind created by Bacon’s storytelling and O’Brien’s chain-saw line readings.

Pat O’Brien was typical of the tough, no-nonsense leading men preferred by Hollywood until the 1950s. Along with his good friends Spencer Tracy and James Cagney, O’Brien was part of a Midwestern-bred triumvirate of talents who acted chiefly with their voices. Lines of dialogue were not bits of poetry to be subtly caressed, but vital information to be tersely and clearly delivered. O’Brien attacks the playing of his character the way Rockne attacked opposing defenses, with a slashing, speedy – but impeccably enunciated - vocal staccato. This school of acting was the antithesis of the Method; characters were not hidden in the deep, murky folds of the text, but were born straight up and fully developed by the bottom of page one.


Oddly, O’Brien’s style fails to fully capitalize on one of the film’s iconic moments, the famous “Gipper” speech that sparked Notre Dame’s miraculous comeback against a superior Army team in 1928. Rather than inspiring, O’Brien tones down his sharp barking and seems strangely disconnected, as if he’s reciting a grocery list or giving directions to a lost motorist. O’Brien’s scene has become a bit of historic cinema but, as is often the case in the movies, its legend is superior to the actual event. Leslie Nielsen’s famous parody of the speech from the movie Airplane is actually much more effective at creating a feeling of rah-rah-rah.



The film glosses over Rockne’s real-life blunders and shameless publicity seeking - he once abandoned his team on game day to attend an awards ceremony in New York – but such foibles are not the stuff of legend. Like the best classic cinema, Knute Rockne All American gives us a glimpse into not only the characters and events it depicts, but also the zeitgeist under which it was made. In 1940, America was starting to emerge from economic upheaval but the nation was still young with much to prove and, like Notre Dame Football, yearned for recognition on a larger stage. And America, like Rockne, was trying to build a winning program from scratch. We needed all the George Gipps we could get.


Knute Rockne All American (1940)****


Knute Rockne All American is a fine example of Hollywood’s unique ability to transform the famous into the legendary through the forceful application of kitsch. Pat O’Brien stars as the innovative coach who molded Notre Dame into a gridiron powerhouse and, as a result, made the game of American football a distinct endeavor, and not just a slightly more controlled version of Rugby.

We follow the life of Rockne from his childhood days as the son of earnest Norwegian immigrants growing up on the tough streets of Chicago at the turn of the century, to the years he spent as a postal worker to save money to pay for his college tuition. This bootstrap backstory is dispensed in a pleasingly rapid manner, with just the broadest of brushstrokes. Not surprising since director Lloyd Bacon built a career by streamlining bulky, complex stories into easily digested chunks through a muscular style of highlight reel impressionism; a style that was perfect for the wants and needs of Depression era audiences.


Once matriculated at Our Lady, the whip-smart Rockne soon becomes the darling of the chemistry department, where he is offered a fellowship. But the Rock’s true love is the pigskin, and his ability to teach the finer points of the game to the school’s young recruits has earned him a competing offer to coach football.

The film’s most notable supporting actor, Ronald Reagan, soon makes his appearance as George Gipp, an athlete whose immense talent is only matched by his extreme arrogance. Rockne adapts his system to feature Gipp’s extraordinary abilities, and soon Notre Dame is on its way to national recognition. But the Gipper’s heroics would be short-lived, as a strep throat would claim his young life and, as a result, supply plenty of inspirational fodder for his coach’s halftime speeches.


Reagan’s performance as Gipp is really quite remarkable. When first introduced, Gipp has an icy cockiness that runs completely counter to his physical persona. Indeed, Reagan draws attention to himself by being the only actor here who is essentially underplaying. His soft-spoken but extremely confident characterization is a welcome break from the breathless whirlwind created by Bacon’s storytelling and O’Brien’s chain-saw line readings.

Pat O’Brien was typical of the tough, no-nonsense leading men preferred by Hollywood until the 1950s. Along with his good friends Spencer Tracy and James Cagney, O’Brien was part of a Midwestern-bred triumvirate of talents who acted chiefly with their voices. Lines of dialogue were not bits of poetry to be subtly caressed, but vital information to be tersely and clearly delivered. O’Brien attacks the playing of his character the way Rockne attacked opposing defenses, with a slashing, speedy – but impeccably enunciated - vocal staccato. This school of acting was the antithesis of the Method; characters were not hidden in the deep, murky folds of the text, but were born straight up and fully developed by the bottom of page one.


Oddly, O’Brien’s style fails to fully capitalize on one of the film’s iconic moments, the famous “Gipper” speech that sparked Notre Dame’s miraculous comeback against a superior Army team in 1928. Rather than inspiring, O’Brien tones down his sharp barking and seems strangely disconnected, as if he’s reciting a grocery list or giving directions to a lost motorist. O’Brien’s scene has become a bit of historic cinema but, as is often the case in the movies, its legend is superior to the actual event. Leslie Nielsen’s famous parody of the speech from the movie Airplane is actually much more effective at creating a feeling of rah-rah-rah.



The film glosses over Rockne’s real-life blunders and shameless publicity seeking - he once abandoned his team on game day to attend an awards ceremony in New York – but such foibles are not the stuff of legend. Like the best classic cinema, Knute Rockne All American gives us a glimpse into not only the characters and events it depicts, but also the zeitgeist under which it was made. In 1940, America was starting to emerge from economic upheaval but the nation was still young with much to prove and, like Notre Dame Football, yearned for recognition on a larger stage. And America, like Rockne, was trying to build a winning program from scratch. We needed all the George Gipps we could get.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving - And Some Festive Invective

As I mentioned in the previous post, I am so happy with the programming on TV5 and Eurochannel, I'm considering completely dropping these arseholes.

They have driven their only competition to bankruptcy (with some help from that competitor's incompetence) and have decided to raise their prices in the middle of the worst economic catastrophe since the depression.

And don't tell me all about your fabulous streaming. I live in a rural area with an aircard as the only viable broadband option, so increased streaming doesn't mean a flying fig to me.  Future reviews from this site will no longer feature links to this company.

On a more festive note, when I count my blessings today, all you wonderful readers will be high on the list. Thank you so much for your interest and support.

Happy Thanksgiving - And Some Festive Invective

As I mentioned in the previous post, I am so happy with the programming on TV5 and Eurochannel, I'm considering completely dropping these arseholes.

They have driven their only competition to bankruptcy (with some help from that competitor's incompetence) and have decided to raise their prices in the middle of the worst economic catastrophe since the depression.

And don't tell me all about your fabulous streaming. I live in a rural area with an aircard as the only viable broadband option, so increased streaming doesn't mean a flying fig to me.  Future reviews from this site will no longer feature links to this company.

On a more festive note, when I count my blessings today, all you wonderful readers will be high on the list. Thank you so much for your interest and support.

Monday, November 22, 2010

News and Notes

  • Posting will be very light this week due to the impending doom upcoming holiday.

  • Some of my favorite directors and actors are getting back to work. The film These Two will reunite Haneke and Huppert (yea!!), while the new Resnais will feature much of the same cast as Wild Grass with the addition of the wonderful Jean Pierre Bacri (yea!!)

  • My DVR is crammed with stuff from TV5 Monde these days...including Serge Moati 's excellent talk show Cinemas, which I actually watched yesterday instead of football. My Man Card may be revoked. TV5 and Eurochannel are available from Dish Network. Highly recommended and totally worth it.I dropped Starz and Showtime to make room in the budget and haven't missed them a bit.

News and Notes

  • Posting will be very light this week due to the impending doom upcoming holiday.

  • Some of my favorite directors and actors are getting back to work. The film These Two will reunite Haneke and Huppert (yea!!), while the new Resnais will feature much of the same cast as Wild Grass with the addition of the wonderful Jean Pierre Bacri (yea!!)

  • My DVR is crammed with stuff from TV5 Monde these days...including Serge Moati 's excellent talk show Cinemas, which I actually watched yesterday instead of football. My Man Card may be revoked. TV5 and Eurochannel are available from Dish Network. Highly recommended and totally worth it.I dropped Starz and Showtime to make room in the budget and haven't missed them a bit.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Serial Saturday Part Two: The Phantom Empire (1935)*****


Like singing cowboys? Like science fiction? Well, you get both in The Phantom Empire, an absolutely insane Mascot serial from 1935. According to legend, this serial was conceived by writer Wallace McDonald while he was under the influence of laughing gas - I suggest it was a stronger controlled substance – at his dentist’s office and McDonald’s script certainly bears all the earmarks of a vivid hallucination.


Gene Autry stars as the owner of a barren, heavily mortgaged dustbowl of a ranch who makes ends meet by conducting a live radio broadcast from his ramshackle front porch every afternoon at 3 o’clock. Surrounded by his coterie of ranch hands and cowpunchers - who also happen to be superb musicians - Autry belts out country/western favorites to an unseen, but enormous, audience. The script makes it quite clear that if Gene should miss one of these broadcasts the ranch would immediately go into receivership. And you thought today’s mortgage companies were tough.


Also residing at the ranch are two pubescent foster kids: perennial serial actor Frankie Darro and Betsy King Ross. In real life, Ross was a rodeo champion trick rider but, inexplicably, is not given much to do in this serial. The kids spend their days dressing up in bedsheets and wash bucket helmets pretending to be Arthurian knights. Other local youngans get in on the act, and soon Frankie and Betsy are leading a large horse mounted contingent around the vast estate, with shouts of “TO THE RESCUE!!!!” in their pursuit of imaginary villains.


But those villains become all too real when a group of scientists and investors arrive at the ranch. This odious crew is led by Professor Beetson (J Frank Glendon), a greedy nogoodnick with an insatiable lust for radium, and his tests indicate that underneath Autry’s ranch is a mother lode of the stuff. So Beetson and company plot a number of predicaments designed to prevent Autry from broadcasting; thus getting their hands on the ranch, and all that lucrative - and as we now know deadly - radium.


However, there is another boot to drop, or rise in this case. Deep beneath the surface of the ranch, unknown to either Autry or Beetson, lays the secret kingdom of Murania, a technologically advanced society, complete with skyscrapers, robots, flying cars and nifty Flash Gordon inspired haute couture. Murania looks sort of like Metropolis, if the builders of Metropolis had run out of money about halfway through, but for a 1935 cheese ball Mascot serial, it’s still pretty impressive.


Murania’s citizens have access to a number of cool gizmos, including a device that detects when someone on the surface is testing for radium. The Muranians have lots of radium and need every bit if they’re to keep their flying Studebakers and lumbering robots up to speed. The underground society is ruled by Queen Tika (Dorothy Christy), who is either the embodiment of pure evil or just really bitchy, could go either way. She orders a group of her henchmen to the surface in a sort of preemptive strike to stop the would-be radium rustlers. Meanwhile, the Queen has some home-grown problems, specifically rumors of an armed insurrection being planned against her by a rogue band of Muranian scientists.


Whew…now you see why this serial took 12 chapters, and I’ve only described the first couple of installments. Things eventually settle down to a lot of horseback chases, foiled plots and an appalling amount of kidnapping. In every episode, Autry is either kidnapped or rescues someone who has been kidnapped. In fact, virtually everyone in this serial gets abducted and rescued at least once, including a fair share of the robots. The radio show gimmick plays nicely into the overall sense of nuttiness, as Autry often has to stop what he’s doing - no matter how important or fraught with peril - and dash back to the ranch to croon for his adoring public.


Frankie Darro’s horseback club is wrongly blamed for many of the early misdeeds, as the Muranian agents wear similar bucket helmets and dart about the ranch on galloping steeds as well. Darro sets out to clear his beloved group’s reputation with the same endearing gee-whiz enthusiasm that made him a fixture in Mascot productions.


Darro would go on to have a widely diverse acting career and become something of a pop culture icon. He played the crooked jockey who tries to outwit Harpo Marx (good luck with that) in A Day at the Races, was a regular on The Red Skelton Show, and appeared in several episodes of the Batman TV series in the 1960s. But his most enduring role was as the actor stuffed inside Robby the Robot in the film Forbidden Planet. Off screen, Darro served in the Navy during WWII and later owned a bar on Santa Monica Boulevard, but his penchant for drinking up the profits eventually ruined his acting career.


There are many versions and editions Phantom Empire out there, including a 70 minute distillation that was often shown on the old Night Flight TV show back in the 80s. The film is in the public domain, so occasionally discs will show up at discount stores for just a couple bucks. These discs are usually straight runs off the telecine from very bad prints, with no tweaking or optimization. Typically, the image is quite blurry and the optical soundtrack so noisy it’s almost unwatchable. The rental version available from Netflix is far from ideal, with Chapter One sporting a constant background noise that sounds like someone loudly chewing granola.


There are two restored versions available only for purchase, but at very reasonable prices. One is from The Serial Squadron, and the video excerpt on their website appears to be a significant improvement over the Netflix version. The other is from VCI, and it received a favorable write-up in the New York Times.


75 years after its release, The Phantom Empire remains a triumph of high concept over low execution. The diverse elements that comprise this bizarre tale mix about as well as oil and water, but the overall effect is a fascinating genre mash-up that unfailingly entertains.

In our next exciting episode, we’ll take a look at another serial staple: those mysterious and heroic Masked Men. You won’t want to miss it!







Serial Squadron Website

VCI Website

Serial Saturday Part Two: The Phantom Empire (1935)*****


Like singing cowboys? Like science fiction? Well, you get both in The Phantom Empire, an absolutely insane Mascot serial from 1935. According to legend, this serial was conceived by writer Wallace McDonald while he was under the influence of laughing gas - I suggest it was a stronger controlled substance – at his dentist’s office and McDonald’s script certainly bears all the earmarks of a vivid hallucination.


Gene Autry stars as the owner of a barren, heavily mortgaged dustbowl of a ranch who makes ends meet by conducting a live radio broadcast from his ramshackle front porch every afternoon at 3 o’clock. Surrounded by his coterie of ranch hands and cowpunchers - who also happen to be superb musicians - Autry belts out country/western favorites to an unseen, but enormous, audience. The script makes it quite clear that if Gene should miss one of these broadcasts the ranch would immediately go into receivership. And you thought today’s mortgage companies were tough.


Also residing at the ranch are two pubescent foster kids: perennial serial actor Frankie Darro and Betsy King Ross. In real life, Ross was a rodeo champion trick rider but, inexplicably, is not given much to do in this serial. The kids spend their days dressing up in bedsheets and wash bucket helmets pretending to be Arthurian knights. Other local youngans get in on the act, and soon Frankie and Betsy are leading a large horse mounted contingent around the vast estate, with shouts of “TO THE RESCUE!!!!” in their pursuit of imaginary villains.


But those villains become all too real when a group of scientists and investors arrive at the ranch. This odious crew is led by Professor Beetson (J Frank Glendon), a greedy nogoodnick with an insatiable lust for radium, and his tests indicate that underneath Autry’s ranch is a mother lode of the stuff. So Beetson and company plot a number of predicaments designed to prevent Autry from broadcasting; thus getting their hands on the ranch, and all that lucrative - and as we now know deadly - radium.


However, there is another boot to drop, or rise in this case. Deep beneath the surface of the ranch, unknown to either Autry or Beetson, lays the secret kingdom of Murania, a technologically advanced society, complete with skyscrapers, robots, flying cars and nifty Flash Gordon inspired haute couture. Murania looks sort of like Metropolis, if the builders of Metropolis had run out of money about halfway through, but for a 1935 cheese ball Mascot serial, it’s still pretty impressive.


Murania’s citizens have access to a number of cool gizmos, including a device that detects when someone on the surface is testing for radium. The Muranians have lots of radium and need every bit if they’re to keep their flying Studebakers and lumbering robots up to speed. The underground society is ruled by Queen Tika (Dorothy Christy), who is either the embodiment of pure evil or just really bitchy, could go either way. She orders a group of her henchmen to the surface in a sort of preemptive strike to stop the would-be radium rustlers. Meanwhile, the Queen has some home-grown problems, specifically rumors of an armed insurrection being planned against her by a rogue band of Muranian scientists.


Whew…now you see why this serial took 12 chapters, and I’ve only described the first couple of installments. Things eventually settle down to a lot of horseback chases, foiled plots and an appalling amount of kidnapping. In every episode, Autry is either kidnapped or rescues someone who has been kidnapped. In fact, virtually everyone in this serial gets abducted and rescued at least once, including a fair share of the robots. The radio show gimmick plays nicely into the overall sense of nuttiness, as Autry often has to stop what he’s doing - no matter how important or fraught with peril - and dash back to the ranch to croon for his adoring public.


Frankie Darro’s horseback club is wrongly blamed for many of the early misdeeds, as the Muranian agents wear similar bucket helmets and dart about the ranch on galloping steeds as well. Darro sets out to clear his beloved group’s reputation with the same endearing gee-whiz enthusiasm that made him a fixture in Mascot productions.


Darro would go on to have a widely diverse acting career and become something of a pop culture icon. He played the crooked jockey who tries to outwit Harpo Marx (good luck with that) in A Day at the Races, was a regular on The Red Skelton Show, and appeared in several episodes of the Batman TV series in the 1960s. But his most enduring role was as the actor stuffed inside Robby the Robot in the film Forbidden Planet. Off screen, Darro served in the Navy during WWII and later owned a bar on Santa Monica Boulevard, but his penchant for drinking up the profits eventually ruined his acting career.


There are many versions and editions Phantom Empire out there, including a 70 minute distillation that was often shown on the old Night Flight TV show back in the 80s. The film is in the public domain, so occasionally discs will show up at discount stores for just a couple bucks. These discs are usually straight runs off the telecine from very bad prints, with no tweaking or optimization. Typically, the image is quite blurry and the optical soundtrack so noisy it’s almost unwatchable. The rental version available from Netflix is far from ideal, with Chapter One sporting a constant background noise that sounds like someone loudly chewing granola.


There are two restored versions available only for purchase, but at very reasonable prices. One is from The Serial Squadron, and the video excerpt on their website appears to be a significant improvement over the Netflix version. The other is from VCI, and it received a favorable write-up in the New York Times.


75 years after its release, The Phantom Empire remains a triumph of high concept over low execution. The diverse elements that comprise this bizarre tale mix about as well as oil and water, but the overall effect is a fascinating genre mash-up that unfailingly entertains.

In our next exciting episode, we’ll take a look at another serial staple: those mysterious and heroic Masked Men. You won’t want to miss it!







Serial Squadron Website

VCI Website

10 Years of The Savages

The Savages struck a vibrant chord with me when it was first released 10 years ago. It’s all about a pair of 40-ish siblings...