First Sci-Fi Western with Gene Autry

DATELINE: The Real Westworld

 autry

In 1935 came radio’s singing cowboy star Gene Autry, ready to make the transition to the silver screen. He wound up bigger than John Wayne (at least in the money department, and sang ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ to his ever-lasting fame).

His first movie was a serial from Mascot called The Phantom Empire in which he played, no one else but, Gene Autry, the singing cowboy. His costars were irksome Frankie Darro and Dorothy Christie. It also marked his first appearance with comic cowboy Smiley Burnett.

Phantom Empire is staggering in its uniqueness. The Scientific City of Murania is buried five miles under Gene’s dude ranch and is upset by all the activity going on above their kingdom. Ancient Aliens should do an episode on this legendary city that buried itself 100,000 years ago.

Queen Tika is an autocrat at the TV screen. She may be the first person to own a giant screen—and she watches more TV action than a movie critic in his home theatre.

The serial contains cell phones, nuclear torpedoes, death rays, resuscitation machines, more robotic workers than Westworld, and everyone wears capes, including the Thunder-Guard in gas masks who ride the range on horses.

Evil archaeologists want to unearth Murania for money, not fame. They are guests at Gene’s radio ranch and plot to eliminate the singing cowboy tout suite. Worse for Autry, Queen Tika (Dorothy Christie playing it like RuPaul) wants him dead too.

Autry is put into a Lightning Death Chamber and then revived in a hyperbaric convection oven that looks like a microwave out of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Indeed, the robots bear a resemblance to Gort.

This is big budget on a small budget for effects—and it astounds at every turn, including the single express elevator that shoots up and down from the surface.

Murania seems to be the lost continent of Atlantis out West. And, the music goes from Autry’s cornpone tunes to some futuristic serial orchestral suite to convey sheer insanity.

In twelve looney episodes.

 

 

 

 

 

Early Mohican Epic: The Last Shall Be First

DATELINE:  Bad Indians

Bruce Cabot   Bruce Cabot

Fenimore Cooper’s Romantic epic of the West takes place in upstate New York, of course, in 1757. It’s where and when the wild west begins in The Last of the Mohicans.

The 1936 version of the classic is extremely well-done, but has what you might expect from a studio version in the black & white age. The American Indians (before becoming Native Americans) are played by actors with fair skin and blue eyes. This is particularly noticeable for the most noble of all American Savages, Chingachgook.

The last of the bad Indians, Magua, is played terrifically by underrated Bruce Cabot, fresh off fighting as a stalwart hero against King Kong. This time he is barely recognizable with his Mohawk haircut and bare midriff. He is sullen, dangerous, and quite impressive.

The King Kong hangover continues for him. The musical score for the film is a rip-off of the overwrought music for the giant ape. In several sequences, Cabot seems to be re-enacting his other role on Skull Island in native garb.

His foil is Randolph Scott as the first true rifleman, Hawkeye. And, no one could be better in the role, as the actor shows early on his subtle humor in the part.

One of the truly odd changes is the reversal of Alice and Cora, the two daughters of the regiment. In the original story, Cora is dark-haired and tempestuous. She is called Alice here, and her blonde sister becomes Magua’s obsession. In Cooper’s book he appreciates her dark looks, not her blonde locks.

The story is further muddled by putting the key scenes with the last Mohican somewhere earlier in the plot—and ending with some kind of court-martial of Hawkeye. It doesn’t matter too much, as this turns out to be a pleasing version overall, hitting on the key moments of the story and casting truly fine actors.

Once Upon a Time: The West Reconsidered

DATELINE:  NOT Young Abe Lincoln!

not-young-abe-lincoln

When last we watched Sergio Leone’s grand epic, Richard Nixon was president.

It’s time for an updated opinion. Oh, yes, this Western is still longer than the Nixon Administration and more opera bouffe than operatic; however, we now admit this is a masterpiece of filmmaking.

Once Upon a Time in the West was Leone’s attempt to escape the spaghetti and meatballs and go directly to the steak and potatoes of American Westerns. He succeeded with a Dead Man’s Hand of storytelling.

From the magnificent faces of stars like Woody Strode and Jack Elam, to the star power of character actors Keenan Wynn and Lionel Stander, Leone avoided the dubbed spaghetti mess of the ripoff westerns made in Europe in his name.

His film gives stars Henry Fonda (as a sociopathic killer as bad guy) and Charles Bronson (as sociopathic killer as good guy) some startling moments on screen. What a joy to find these actors together in a movie that gives them free reins.

We now forgive Claudia Cardinale as she seems rather good as a New Orleans madam come West for the money. We also liked Jason Robards in the Eli Wallach role.

Leone could have made this with Clint and Lee, as a fourth in his Eastwood series, but the casting here is inspired—matching the staggering scenes of desert, grit, and horse opera. Editing and music mesh perfectly.

Those stunning blue eyes of Henry Fonda become weapons—and his transformation into his younger self in a climax flashback (30 years earlier) is a sight to behold.

Everything is exaggerated and hilarious, but not quite a disrespectful spoofing of his own spaghetti westerns. Homage is a delicate exercise, and master filmmaker Leone succeeds here.