June 23, 2009

With Industrial Light & Magic’s Hasbro commercial set to dominate movie screens over the next few weeks, I thought I’d recommend some humble robotic counterprogramming. Michael Bay’s curated set of boffo explosions and finely tailored cutoff jeans offers the not unwelcome pleasures of a 2 1/2 hour lobotomy, but the following, more handcrafted metallic killers have a charm that the Transformers brand will never be able to match. So, below the fold, a few lesser-known robots worth a few minutes of your couch time.

First on this (brief) survey possibly contains the earliest surviving footage of the robotic menace on screen: the Harry Houdini serial The Master Mystery(1920). Released last year as part of the box set, Harry Houdini: The Movie Star, it’s a 4 hour extravaganza of hair’s breadth escapes from the noose, hydrochloric acid, a torture wheel, the dreaded MADAGASCAR MADNESS and innumerable other death-doling contraptions. The most disturbing, is, of course, THE AUTOMATON, a kind eyed behemoth that wobbles like a weeble but has murder on its mind (mainly through its eye lasers that are scratched into the film emulsion). I must confess, however, that I work for Kino International, which released the DVD, and had a (very) small hand in the production of the Houdini set (most of the kudos should be directed Bret Wood’s way). So take my enthusiasm with a grain of salt, although it’s entirely sincere.

The plot of this thrill machine is beside the point, but I’ll make a brief attempt anyway. Houdini is a Justice Department investigator working undercover in the office of a patents company. One of the two partners who runs the joint buys up ideas and shoves them in his basement, never to see the light of day. He then cuts deals with the businesses these inventions would otherwise destroy. It’s a clever way to get crazy Rube Goldberg devices into the plot, but evil patent deals don’t really make the blood boil, do they? THE AUTOMATON is also lurking in the cellar, though, ready to wreak havoc on anyone getting close to unraveling the devious plot. He’s an awkward looking fellow, with his bug-eyes and stainless-steel love-handles, but he gets the job done, i.e. scaring the pants off of people.


“GENE AUTRY MUST BE CAPTURED!” -Queen Tika of The Scientific City of Murania

The next item is the 1935 Mascot serial, The Phantom Empire. Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: A singing cowboy’s (Gene Autry – in his first leading role) “Radio Ranch” is located on land with a large supply of radium, which a trio of evil scientists is eager to pry away. But thousands of feet below the earth lies the secret city of Murania, whose Queen is eager to rid her life of the “surface people” who cause them so much grief. Essentially: everyone is out to kill Gene Autry. All he has on his side are two remarkably resourceful kids (child star Frankie Darro and “World Champion Trick Rider” Betsy King Ross).

The amiable looking fellow to the left is all business (note the fedora). They do the dirty work in Murania, cranking open secret entrances, chaining up prisoners, and serving the quixotic needs of their Queen (a bitchy Dorothy Christy). They’re nice, hardworking chaps at heart, although they happen to be working for a insane despot. Such is the life of an automaton.

An impossible clash of genres, this western-sci-fi-musical jumps from Autry’s ingratiating barnyard tunes to Tika’s and the scientist’s plotting of Radio Ranch’s destruction. Back and forth between knockabout humor and meldromatic sci-fi, you’re liable to get (pleasurable) whiplash. Half of the cliffhangers have to do with Autry returning to the Ranch in time to do his show, when there’s an entire city arming for his demise under his feet. Marketing his hugely popular radio program trumps even the world’s destruction. Because if he misses one broadcast, the Ranch will get shut down! These contractual cliffhangers are spiced up with literal ones, as Gene, cars, and kids all tumble down a ravine at one inopportune moment after another.

Autry’s laid back performance holds the whole ridiculous contraption together, and it’s impossible to keep your eyes off it, from the ingenious technology (GPS, surveillance footage) to the continually insane plot twists. Luckily, the whole thing is available to view on YouTube, although in less than ideal quality (it degenerates into digital mush if you try to watch it full screen). Since the title has fallen into the public domain, there’s a slew of DVD releases available, none of them likely to be of stellar quality. In any case, I’d much rather see a restoration of Phantom Empire than a briefcase-sized box set of the new Michael Bay headslapper. I’d sign that petition.


Subjects for further research:

Undersea Kingdom (1936): Lt. Crash Corrigan crashes the city of Atlantis and an army of trash-can robots, the Volkites, reign unholy laser-aided terror. A Republic Serial.

The Phantom Creeps (1939): In this Universal serial Bela Lugosi tries to take over the world with his golem-looking robot giant.

And Metropolis, of course. But you knew that already.