After reading I May Be Some Time, I streamed SCOTT OF THE ANTARCTIC (1948) as an example of the Scott-worship Spufford’s book talks about. The film stars John Mills as a thoughtful, stiff-upper-lip Naval officer who wants to reach the South Pole simply because it’s there, and it should be a Brit who gets there. And the polar explorer Shackleford just wasn’t close enough (“90 miles isn’t it — isn’t the South Pole.”). Scott in real life failed and died because he was a bungler (I’m in the middle of a book on that topic); here, he’s just too noble, too British too sporting. Norwegian Roald Amundsen might be willing to use dog sleds, then kill and eat the dogs for sustenance, but Scott’s just too decent a chap to treat them like that. As a result, everyone dies with the upper lips still stiff, leaving a noble legend of heroic failure (which as Spufford says is probably more inspirational than if Scott made it to the Pole and returned alive). I do think Spufford underestimates the degree to which this sort of thing has universal appeal — dated though it is, I could see at least some millennials enjoying this tribute to challenging extreme environments and dying heroically. Christopher Lee has a part in this somewhere. “There’s a letter for the King of Norway and a note asking Captain Scott to be so kind as to deliver it.”
I first heard of THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (1935) in the book The Great Movie Serials, then got to see it years later as part of PBS’ Matinee at the Bijou (an attempt to duplicate the feel of a Saturday matinee — B movie, cartoons, newsreels and a serial). After reading about star Gene Autry in Peter Stanfield’s Horse Opera and Hollywood, Westerns and the 1930s, I figured I’d give it a second look, as I’d picked up the twelve chapters as part of a boxed set.
The premise is that Autry, playing himself, broadcasts his radio show every day from a vacation resort, Radio Ranch. Unfortunately Radio Ranch is a)right on top of a radium deposit some crooks want to mine and b)on top of Murania, a xenophobic civilization of advanced technology and robots (you can see one in the poster, though they look way worse on screen), ruled by Queen Tika (Dorothy Christie). Both Tika’s Thunder Riders and the crooks set out to eliminate Autry — if he just misses one performance, he’ll lose Radio Ranch (which often seems to be the real cliffhanger rather than whatever fatal fate is looming). Can Autry, with kids Frankie (kid actor Frankie Darro) and Betsy (Betsy King Ross, some sort of trick rider, though they don’t make much use of it), survive and save Radio Ranch?
While Stanfield makes me appreciate Autry’s music a little more, I can’t say the serial gains any. The cast is stiff, the robots are laughable and Murania, at best, is adequate. The thrilling cliffhangers are easily resolved. In one, a Muranian aerial torpedo hits an airplane; when we resume in the next chapter, the damage is minimal.
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