Welcome back to another installment of Insomniac Cult Movie Theater, the semi regular segment here at Ghosts of the Stratosphere where I, your humble host, Andy Larson, take you on trip down cinematic memory lane by revisiting sci-fi and fantasy related movies from the 1930s through the 1970s.
A few weeks ago, I posted a review of the original 1948 Superman Serial from Columbia Pictures. I got such a wonderful response from the GotS faithful on that particular article, that it galvanized me to use this segment to talk about other older movie serials featuring famous licensed comic book characters that people might care about. Plus, it’s given me an excuse to watch or in some case rewatch some of these serials for the first time in 20 years, as many of these I first saw on VHS tape way back in my teenage years when watching old movie serials was sort of my “thing”.
One of my favorites as I’ve mentioned several times before was the original Adventures of Captain Marvel, a 12 part Republic serial made in 1940 featuring the character we all know nowadays as Shazam! Not only because of the well plotted story, but because of the work of underappreciated stunt man turned serial leading man, Tom Tyler, who with square jaw and muscular frame was a perfect action star for these very intense adventure serials which more often than not carried their fair share of fist fights.
Although Tom went on to appear in several more serials featuring non licensed serials, it was his work in portraying these more famous comic related characters like Shazam that always interested me. As such when I found out that he also played the part of “The Ghost Who Walks” from Lee Falk’s world famous comic strip The Phantom, I just had to give that particular serial a watch.
First appearing the newspapers in 1936, The Phantom is often considered one of the first real “masked superheroes” in popular culture helping transition this now staple of the comic book genre from it’s pulp roots in characters like the Shadow and the Spider to eventually some of the most famous “capes” in the world in Superman and Batman. More than that though, the Phantom has had incredible staying power, still appearing in newspapers world wide today some 84 years after his first appearance.
In fact, at the peak of his popularity, the character could boast of being read by 100 million people daily, outpacing many of the costumed crime-fighters that we look on with such reverence today.
So with that, it’s time to take a closer look at the first on screen adaptation of this famous jungle protector with the 1943 Columbia serial of the same name!
The Phantom Serial (1943)
The Phantom Serial is a 15 chapter movie serial released by Columbia Pictures in 1943 and as I mentioned above marks the first live action adaptation of this character on screen. It mainly deals with a expedition to the lost jungle city of Zolaz being undertaken by Professor Davidson and the conniving Dr. Bremmer who wants to stop it at all costs in order to proceed with his plans to replace it with a secret airbase for some unnamed “foreign” government. To do this, Bremmer kills the current Phantom who planned on helping Davidson.
Given the legend of the Phantom is based on the notion that he is “immortal”, the identity must be adopted by the outgoing Phantom’s son, Geoffrey Prescott, who dons the costume and pledges to protect the jungle and its inhabitants against evil forces like Bremmer who wish to disturb the peace. Thus the new Phantom continues to help Davidson’s peaceful scientific expedition while at the same time thwarting Bremmer’s nefarious schemes.
As mentioned previously, the serial stars Tom Tyler in the titular role, which is in some ways bittersweet. On one hand, he cuts such a striking similarity to the Phantom from the comics while in the costume that it seems like Chris Evan’s Captain America, Tom was practically born to play this role. On a sad note though, this was one of his final acting roles as he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis following it’s filming which severely disabled him. Despite having a few minor appearances in western films and TV shows, Tom died nearly destitute at the age of 50 of heart failure some 11 years after this serial aired in 1954.
Additionally, the serial stars Jeanne Bates as the Phantom’s long time comic strip girlfriend, Diana Palmer, although they aren’t as romantically involved in this movie as they are in strips. Jeanne is best known to me as Mrs. X from the David Lynch cult classic film “Eraserhead”. She also played a part in Lynch’s other more recent brain twisting film Mulholland Drive in 2001, which was her last film credit before her death in 2007.
From a pure serial fans’ perspective, the Phantom also stars Frank Shannon as Professor Davidson who I know very well for his portrayal of the super smart Flash Gordon ally, Dr. Zarkov, in all three of the classic Flash Gordon serials created by Universal Pictures. It’s super weird though because he goes completely uncredited in this performance which is a real shame.
Finally rounding out the cast, we get Ace the Wonder Dog (no not the Batman ally) who plays the part of The Phantom’s trust pet wolf, Devil. This German Shepard was originally billed to be a potential rival for the famous movie dog, Rin Tin Tin, and went on to appear 14 other films. He is considered by many to be a “very good boy”.
Interesting enough, Columbia Pictures did have plans to make a sequel to this serial in 1955 with John Hart in the leading role, given Tom Tyler had passed away the year before. However, by that time, the rights to create films starring the Phantom had passed and King Features did not want to renew them.
Undeterred, producer Sam Katzman (who produced the aforementioned Superman serial), repackaged the low budget Return of the Phantom film into The Adventures of Captain Africa, despite it containing massive amounts of footage taken directly from this original Phantom serial, including footage of Tyler in costume.
2am Thoughts and Reflections:
First off, let’s get a couple things out of the way. From a film perspective, I wholeheartedly admit there are a bunch of issues with this serial. The most striking among them include the fact that the “jungle” in which the Phantom operates is horribly inaccurate.
Despite supposedly being in “Africa”, the serial takes liberties with what kind of animals actually exist there, such as tigers which have never been indigenous to that area. Plus more striking is the fact that none of the native people portrayed in the serial bare any resemblance to those that actually live in the areas the serial is trying to represent. In fact, as you are watching it, the tribesmen look more like Native Americans or possibly those that might inhabit the jungles of the Amazon rather than the African coastlines.
Taking that one step further, let me point out that the serial is horribly outdated in terms of the entire concept of a white male peacekeeper watching over the indigenous tribes of a particular area, despite the fact he claims to be acting it their best interests and genuinely does so for the most part. In fact, its downright insulting by modern standards, so I totally understand that from that perspective, the entire concept hasn’t really aged well.
But if you look at this serial for what it is, an adaptation of a popular comic strip character read by millions at the time, this is one of the more competent, well done serials that comes out of the Columbia Pictures grindhouse.
In fact, as a serial fan, I can even say this is better than The Spider’s Web, a very well regarded Columbia serial from 1938 about the masked avenger from the pages of the pulps. It’s much more professional looking and cohesive than any of the serials featuring Batman or Superman that Columbia also produced, and that’s with the fact that it was filmed primarily in the Hollywood Hills instead of the deep darkest hearts of the jungle.
Sure, there’s wooden acting and some inane subplots that go nowhere, but on the whole, the Phantom does succeed in providing a believable interpretation of the comic hero, thanks in large part to Tom Tyler, and delivering on the general sense of what makes the character interesting.
Exotic locals, death defying escapes, and most of all the notion of the Phantom as a mystical legend, wrapped in secrecy as the title is passed down from generation to generation in order to maintain peace and stability in the region.
In fact, the Phantom is pretty much the most famous “legacy” character in that the entire point is the passing down of the traditions and responsibilities from one worthy person to the next. It’s what should happen in other superhero books naturally instead of one particular person holding the title of Batman for 80+ years unrealistically.
Given that we actually see that passing of torch from one Phantom to the next in this actual serial is pretty groundbreaking for the time, and again reinforces the notion that this series is attempting to stay true to tenants of the comic strip in that regard.
Final Grade: B
Again, I want to put a caveat on my grade in terms of the notion that I’m grading this as a fan of movie serials in general and that in giving it a “B”, I’m comparing it to it’s contemporaries in this same genre. Obviously, I think it’s absurd to compare this to famous movies of the same time like Casablanca or something. Also, I still disagree strongly with the racist notion of the white male protector and his role with indigenous people which this movie portrays.
But as a movie serial based off a licensed superhero, it’s honestly not a bad one at all when compared to its contemporaries. The episodes seem to fly by. There’s a good deal of action and diversity in terms of set pieces so you never feel like the serial is repeating itself, a common problem in these. There is some character development which is always welcome in a genre that often times has very little. And overall, the plot seems to make sense and is building logically to a conclusion especially with the use of a Macguffin in a map to the Lost City of Zolaz being a major plot device used to tie the story together.
In fact, the only episode that I felt was not up to snuff was the final chapter which sees Bremmer try to trick the native people with his own version of the Phantom, only to have that version get killed randomly and the real Phantom then kill Bremmer off screen. That episode feels like the serial was trying to tell a completely different story that it didn’t have nearly enough time to flesh out or conclude successfully. In some ways, it feels very tacked on and common to other serials which sometimes flit from one plot contrivance to the next.
Still though, the rest of the episodes are fairly decent and if you are looking for a decent example of the type of superhero stories the serial genre was pumping out long before the more recent craze of “Superhero movies” that has gripped Hollywood in recent years, I would recommend giving The Phantom a try.
To that end, here’s the first chapter of the series available via YouTube so you can decide for yourself: