Strange Science Serials, Part 1: Lost Worlds!

We've previously offered a two-part series on motion pictures serials at Classics 101, (see part one and part two here) and this month, we're turning to some of the science-fiction serials that ranked near the top of the genre's offerings.

With some notable exceptions, including Metropolis (1927) and Things to Come (1936), mainstream cinema didn't embrace science-fiction themes until the 1950s. A battery of mad scientists invented (or stole) a plethora of super-scientific weapons, robots, magnetism-controlling devices, and the like, always with a keen 'Hey, THIS could happen!' sense of realism to keep the office busy as we returned to see how Batman, Superman, the Copperhead, or the 'Dead End' Kids were going to handle whatever improbable invention would be thrown at our heroes in the next episode. Once in a great while, producers set their sights inside earth, to forgotten and lost civilizations, and to the stars, with inter-stellar adventures that provided the weekly thrills, action, and adventure serial lovers craved. In this new series, we'll take a look at the best of these strange science serials.

The Lost City is a 12-episode 'Super Serial' from 1935, produced by Sherman Krellberg and directed by Harry Revier, is primitive and tacky. It's also one of the best chapterplays of its era, full of fun, adventure, laughs, great characters, terrific sets, and really, really scary bogeymen.

Floods, earthquakes, and thunderstorms threaten to destroy the earth, and the world's greatest scientists gather to decide there's nothing anybody can do; we're all going to die. Gee, thanks. There IS one brave young electrical engineer, Bruce Gordon (Kane Richmond), who thinks he has the answer: a scientific marvel of a machine (a globe with two light bulbs next to it) has pinpointed an uncharted area in the heart of Africa as the source of an electro-magnetic force causing the chaos.

Before you can say Albert Schweitzer, Kane and his expedition arrive at a remote African trading post, where they meet an affably toothless old coot named Butterfield (George 'Gabby' Hayes). Butterfield points them to a desolate precipice called Magnetic Mountain; inside the mountain is a would-be dictator named Zolok (William 'Stage' Boyd), boasting the most marvelous art deco laboratory you've ever seen, crammed with all the electric devices from Bride of Frankenstein; dwarf assistant Gorzo (Billy Bletcher, voice of the Big Bad Wolf in Disney cartoons); muscleman Appolyn (Jerry Frank, who wears nothing but hot pants and suspenders with no shirt), and several giant men who are without question the most terrifying things you've ever seen in any serial, or maybe in any movie at all. They stomp around, shriek ungodly gibberish, grimace into the camera, toss our heroes around like rag dolls, and cause what must've been a lot of wet seats in 1935 theatres. Yes, they're also racially insensitive, in that way some 1930s films unfortunately were.

As if this isn't enough to keep us busy for twelve weeks, there's also an Arab slave trader after Zolok's secrets, and a beautiful jungle goddess, Queen Rama, who wants to either disembowel Kane Richmond or have his children, depending on her mood in any given chapter. She wears the cutest little leopard-skin miniskirt, and I wouldn't be surprised to discover she borrowed it from Appolyn.

Serials are such a silly genre; so much action, so little plot, and bright two-fisted heroes that stumble into unbelievable death traps every thirteen minutes for three solid months. Silliness is not a drawback in a chapterplay, and when presented correctly, adds to the fun. The Lost City is handsomely mounted, with a large cast, colorful characters, great sets, silk pajamas, stomping giants, and strange science; it's a gem.

That same year, Mascot handed radio yodeler Gene Autry his first starring role, the 12-episode serial The Phantom Empire.

Gene plays Gene Autry, popular radio entertainer, and plays him very well, too. Autry broadcasts a daily show from the Radio Ranch; his contract stipulates he must never miss a program, or else he'll be cancelled immediately. Unbeknownst to Gene, though, the ranch sits atop the fabulous underground city of Murania, whose Queen Tika zealously guards the scientific secrets and rare elements therein. The villains know about it, and do all they can to force Gene to miss a broadcast so they can conquer Murania without interference. Gene is aided by a group of talented youngsters known as the Junior Thunder Riders; the Muranians are aided by a gaggle of robots wearing tin cowboy hats.

Mascot head Nat Levine liked Gene as a personality, but thought little of him as an actor, and this may well have figured into his decision to have Gene play himself, supported by his radio sidekick, Smiley Burnette, as good a comic stooge as you'll find in a serial. Co-stars included Frankie Darro, only 17 but a ten-year movie veteran whose skill at acting, horsemanship and stunts had stood him in good stead in a number of previous Mascot serials, and preteen champion rider Betsy King Ross, making her second and last appearance in a Mascot chapterplay. Dorothy Christy was an inspired choice as the evil Queen Tika; she had a long history of playing foil to some of the screen's most popular comics, including Laurel & Hardy (Sons of the Desert) and Buster Keaton (Parlor, Bedroom and Bath), and she would provide just the right balance of attractiveness and menace.

Although there had been science-fiction elements in earlier Mascot productions, the five credited writers of The Phantom Empire let their imaginations run rampant for this one, under the aegis of co-directors Otto Brower and B. Reeves Eason, paired again after the nerve-wracking experience of trying to handle drunken and troublesome star Ken Maynard in the previous Mascot offering, Mystery Mountain. The Phantom Empire was released in late February 1935 and proved a sizeable hit for Mascot, which placed Autry under a five-year contract. There would be no more serials for America's Singing Cowboy, though; he was destined for greater things as the star of his own feature Western series. Instead, Levine picked up legendary Hollywood cowboy Tom Mix to star in the next Mascot chapterplay, The Miracle Rider.

Few serials offer as much sheer entertainment as The Phantom Empire, which jets back and forth between a super-scientific underground kingdom -- full of robots, exotic costumes, and death rays -- and a ranch full of singin' cowboys.

Republic Studio answered with Undersea Kingdom (1936), which begins with strange earthquakes on the ocean floor that draw the attention of kindly but doddering old Professor Norton. Norton finds a statue in the sea and immediately decides that the long-lost continent of Atlantis is to blame for the trouble; he puts together an expedition consisting of himself, a naval officer named 'Crash' Corrigan portrayed by 'Crash' Corrigan, and a handsome crew of sailors, misfits, stowaways and a dame. Er, excuse me, a liberated lady-type reporter.

To make 12 episodes short, Atlantis is indeed to blame for the seaquakes, as the nefarious Unga Khan seeks to overthrow Sharad, High Priest of the Sacred City. Frankly, all Atlanteans look alike, so they all wear different, quite silly hats. Oh, and one of them looks just like Lon Chaney, Jr., mostly because it IS Lon, probably hiding down there to avoid the full moon. There's no moon in Atlantis under the sea, but there are horses (not sea horses, either) and clouds and sky and dust, though.

Unga Khan is ready for the outside interlopers: he unleashes numerous perilous devices to entrap/enslave/murder our heroes, most impressively a giant submarine-capturing magnet; an army of Volkites, mechanical men who resemble Port-o-Potties with legs; and a death-ray gun that looks like a vacuum cleaner and probably is. Best of all is a particularly nasty-looking tank, to which Crash finds himself chained and helpless as the machine is about to ram the wall of the Sacred City. In the chapterplay's best moment, Crash stoically shouts, 'Go ahead and ram!' rather than divulge whatever bit of information Khan was after.

The supporting cast is noteworthy, particularly Monte Blue as Khan and C. Montague Shaw as Norton. As mentioned, the silly hats are delightful, and you'll note that the shoes in Atlantis are really stylish and snazzy, too. Another sci-fi serial gem.

Next: More lost worlds, maniacs from outer space, and a fat kid in a diaper!

Clifford Weimer is a writer and film historian in Sacramento, CA. He can usually be found lurking about the dark corners of a movie theatre at