188. Radio Ranch aka Men With Steel Faces(1940)
Directors: Otto Brower and B. Reeves Eason
Writers: Hy Freedman, Gerald Geraghty, Wallace MacDonald, John Rathmell, and Armand Schaefer
From: Cult Cinema
Singing cowboy Gene Autry has to protect Radio Ranch from the machinations of evil claim jumpers as well as the Thunder Riders from the underground city of Mu.
Gene Autry stretching his acting talents to the very limit as Gene Autry, is the singing host of the daily Radio Ranch show which is largely a platform for his band and him to perform songs while the Baxter siblings pop in to tell stories of the Thunder Riders, their group of junior adventurekateers. They’re encouraging people to come to the ranch to join their group as a summer camp of some kind.
The show has become popular and is attracting people, including a scientist and his financiers. They believe the ranch is sitting on top of a huge deposit of radium and the lost city of Mu. They conspire to kill Autry in the mountains near the ranch because if he misses the daily 2:00 broadcast he’ll lose his contract and the ranch. This is the constant threat—will Autry make it to air on time? It’s really not big enough to hang an entire movie on.
To complicate matters, narratively, the ranch is situated over the lost city of Mu which doesn’t want any surface dwellers to know of their existence. So they start doing raids to try to kill or capture Autry and. . . make him miss his daily broadcast.
On top of that, there’s a rebellion developing within Mu that is looking to capture Autry to dissect him and figure out how to help the Murians breathe on the surface.
This is the re-edited feature version of The Phantom Empire serial and it fares a little better than some of these serial-to-movie adaptations. The Rocky Jones movies take, I think, the laziest tactic and just cut them episode to episode which makes for crushingly dull film. This manages to really condense the story. Unfortunately, the story’s a bit too busy for the 70 minute runtime.
As with all serial-based-films, it’s a relentless repetition of cliffhanger/salvation. Gene gets saved by the kids, their dad gets shot and killed during a broadcast and Gene is accused of the murder (and the kids are curiously comfortable with their dad’s death). The Murians capture Gene, attempt to execute him, he escapes. The financiers kidnap Gene while the Murians kidnap the kids, but Gene escapes and gets back into Mu. He reveals the plot to the Murian queen, the rebel faction gets locked in a room which pretty much foils their plan, but they set off their superweapon anyway which kills them and melts the entire city. Gene, the kids, and his crew (plus all the horses) escape at the last minute. Most of the villainous financiers are killed, but Gene catches one, gets him to confess to the murder, which is recorded by the boy’s new TV technology because, oh yeah, the boy is a scientific genius as well. All good people saved, all villains dead, Gene sings us into the credits. THE END.
I was joking to my friend just last night that there were a variety of movies in these sets, not just horror, and that I was expecting a sci-fi musical at any moment. This is a sci-fi musical. Kind of. It’s a musical in the sense of our modern musicals where it’s set in a place where people are singing, not that the songs communicate something special about the characters or move things forward. All the songs are just Gene Autry singing for the radio show and have nothing to do with Mu or cowboys or anything.
Overall, it’s okay. The first half has more energy than the second. They really whip through the plot points and you get to see the admittedly good horse-riding stunts and the nice matte work and visuals. The second half, though, gets bogged down in all the plot that was getting thrown into this thing—the financiers disappear for a good forty minutes after their initial attempt on Autry’s life, the Murians’ raids to the surface to try to capture Autry get real repetitive, and everything’s condensed so much that the rebellion plot never makes sense.
Still, it manages some interesting moments and has nice visuals throughout. It’s fine to watch as a curiosity, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a movie. I would recommend it if you’re looking for raw material to cut into other video projects. The Murian stuff has a great aesthetic that should be popping up in all sorts of public access/Bulldada video art pieces. Luckily the film is in the public domain. There’s an MPEG-2 copy on archive.org here that you can use however you’d like.