The Phantom is the ghostly guardian of the jungle, a mysterious and supposedly immortal ruler who maintains peace between the jungle tribes and opposes all those who would bring crime and violence to his domain. Kindly jungle physician Dr. Bremmer (Kenneth MacDonald), actually a spy for a foreign power bent on building an airbase in the ruined jungle city of Zoloz, decides that the removal of the Phantom is vital to his schemes to control the region and has the jungle ruler killed with a poison dart in the first chapter. However, Bremmer does not realize that the Phantom is indeed immortal, although not in the way the natives think; the role of jungle guardian has been passed down from father to son for hundreds of years. Geoffrey Prescott (Tom Tyler), just returned from college as part of Professor Davidson’s (Frank Shannon) expedition to Zoloz, soon assumes his murdered father’s position and sets out to defeat Bremmer’s plans for dominating the jungle, while protecting the Davidson expedition from the scheming doctor.
The Phantom, along with Tailspin Tommy and the Flash Gordon trilogy, is one of the most accurate of all comic-strip-to-serial adaptations. Writers Leslie Swabacker, Morgan Cox, Victor McLeod, and Sherman Lowe are extremely faithful to the spirit of Lee Falk’s excellent Phantom strip, incorporating into the script many of the strip’s hallmarks, among them the Phantom’s cave headquarters, his mysterious “skull mark” ring, his alias of “Mr. Walker,” and his titles of “Ghost Who Walks” and “Man Who Never Dies.” All the key visual elements of the strip are also included: the Phantom’s costume matches the look of its comics counterpart exactly, and the hero’s disguise for investigations in civilized territory–trenchcoat and sunglasses–is also faithfully reproduced from the source. The strip’s Bandar pygmy tribe is absent, and the Phantom’s pet wolf Devil is a German Shepherd, but given the scarcity of pygmies and wolves in Hollywood, both changes are understandable.
The serial also echoes the strip’s world–in which pygmies, Chinese pirates, Indian maharajahs, African tribesmen, and wild animals from multiple continents coexisted in the archetypal exotic realm of “Bengali”–in its colorful medley of locales. The serial Phantom’s native tribes consist of Caucasian actors in African or South American garb, while their jungles are inhabited by African lions, gorillas, and alligators as well as Indian tigers, and bordered by a castle full of Tartar warriors and the decidedly Mexican-looking town of Sai Pana with its sombrero-wearing citizens. As strange as this geographical, zoological, and ethnographical stew might sound, it works well on the serial screen, and gives The Phantom more exotic atmosphere than any other “jungle” serial save Tim Tyler’s Luck.
Above: A few glimpses of The Phantom’s array of settings: That’s the Phantom’s Tonga village headquarters at top left (the puff of smoke is the Phantom himself making a dramatic exit); at top right is the Davidson expedition preparing to leave Sai Pana (with Columbia’s backlot Spanish hacienda behind them, doubling as Singapore Smith’s hotel); bottom left is the road to the Tartar castle, with a guard platform in the foreground and the castle itself (the same structure that served as the Caliph’s palace in The Desert Hawk) in the background; finally, at bottom left, the Phantom and Devil explore the tunnels of Zoloz.
As in The Desert Hawk—The Phantom’s only rival for the title of Best 1940s Columbia Serial–the writers make good use of the variety of locales, moving the Phantom out of the jungle whenever that setting begins to get monotonous and taking him into various native villages, Sai Pana, the Tartar castle, and (in the concluding chapters) the impressive tunnels and caverns of the lost city of Zoloz. The search for the primitive “keys” that serve as guides to Zoloz also helps to keep the narrative from bogging down, by giving it a sense of direction. This treasure-hunt (and the interesting places it leads our hero to) fills out the serial’s fifteen chapters nicely, with the help of a few subplots like the scheming of local crook Singapore Smith, the double-dealing of the slimy native chief Chota, and–most interestingly–the new Phantom’s initial tutoring in his hereditary role.
The fight scenes in Phantom are less frequent and less choreographed than similar sequences in contemporary Republic serials, but as handled by director B. Reeves Eason–a veteran of both Mascot serials and feature-film epics–they work very well. The scene in Chapter Two in which the Phantom silently and effectively knocks out the attackers of the Davidson safari one by one, leaving a skull mark on each, is not only entertaining for the viewer but also works within the narrative to strengthen our hero’s legendary status; had the Phantom engaged these henchmen in lengthy Republic-style brawls, they’d have less reason to fear him as a possibly supernatural enemy.
Incidentally, the serial’s much-criticized ending works in similar fashion, allowing our hero to give one final demonstration of his “powers” in front of natives and villains alike, bringing the serial full circle in the process by thwarting Dr. Bremmer on the same throne where the preceding Phantom was mortally wounded by Bremmer’s agents. The finale would be a true disappointment had it capped the adventures of a more mundane hero, but here it serves as a nicely mythic conclusion befitting the Phantom, and as a neat sign that the hero has completely grown into his father’s role.
To return to the action scenes: the fight between the Phantom and two thugs on a suspension bridge in Chapter Five is exciting and well-shot (partly from above, which gives a greater sense of the dangerous height). The Phantom’s tussle with a savage gorilla (Ray Corrigan, naturally) in the Tartar arena in Chapter Twelve is another action highlight, marked, like the bridge sequence, by interesting camera work (the way the Phantom defeats his adversary, however, strains belief more than a little). Other standout scenes include the shootout at the old well in Chapter Seven, a gun battle in the Zoloz catacombs in Chapter Fourteen, and a fistfight between the Phantom and a treacherous expedition member in that same chapter.
Phantom also features some good cliffhanger endings, several of them staged with more buildup than usual in Columbia serials–among them the Phantom’s near-gassing in a fur fumigation chamber, his apparent skewering by a spiked portcullis, and the slow approach of a hungry alligator as the Phantom struggles in a quicksand bog. The alligator scene, like a later lion attack on the Phantom, works particularly well since we can see that the hostile critters are actually in the same frame as the star (or his stunt double) and are not just being depicted by stock footage.
The Phantom’s aforementioned fidelity to its comic-strip source is particularly accented by the actor cast in the title role: star Tom Tyler has the height, muscular and athletic build, and even the distinctive nose of the comic strip character. To make matters even better, his cheerful and easygoing manner perfectly captures the good-natured aspects of the comic-strip Phantom, while his raspy voice is well-suited to the Phantom’s more serious intimidations of thugs or hostile natives. Above all, he has all the easy confidence and sincerity needed to put across a fantastical character who could easily have come off as silly in the hands of a more self-conscious actor.
Though not as gorgeous or as central to the action as the Diana Palmer of the comic strips, heroine Jeanne Bates in quite charming nevertheless, giving her character the proper degree of adventurous spunk and showing enough admiration and concern for the Phantom to suggest an attachment between the two characters without going into the soap-opera territory the strip sometimes touched on.
Frank Shannon, as Diana’s uncle, doesn’t have as meaty a role as he did in the Flash Gordon trilogy, but manages to give his stock scientist character convincing archeological enthusiasm, energy, and a dogged determination that makes him far more interesting and distinctive than most serial professors. Guy Kingsford brings energy to the somewhat thankless role of Byron Anderson–the Davidson expedition’s blatantly obvious turncoat-in-the-making–snarling out his character’s various negative remarks with plenty of gusto.
Kenneth MacDonald is superb as the resourceful and ruthless Dr. Bremmer, giving a performance that would probably have stolen the serial if not for Tyler’s strong presence as the Phantom. MacDonald delivers sarcastic dialogue with amusing dryness, is utterly convincing when convincing the heroes he’s on their side, and tackles both planning and active villainy with a cold authority that makes him seem very formidable.
The serial’s henchman pack members are a distinctive bunch, headed by aggressive, harsh-voiced former stuntman Sol Gorss, whose height and athleticism make him a good antagonist for Tyler in the fight scenes. Other key thugs include George Chesebro (as enjoyably loud-mouthed as ever), the hulking and rather brutishly stubborn Wade Crosby, and the shifty Paul Marion, who manages to make his cowardly, back-stabbing character both menacing and pathetic. I. Stanford Jolley, Kermit Maynard, Edmund Cobb, and Pierce Lyden are also on hand in noticeable henchman parts, while Al Hill, Dan White, Robert Barron, and Eddie Parker can be seen in smaller roles (Parker, of course, also contributes to the serial’s stuntwork). Anthony Caruso, later a prolific character actor in many 1950s features and TV shows, figures prominently for several chapters as a fellow-spy of Dr. Bremmer’s named Count Silento.
The rotund and fast-talking Joe Devlin gives a lively performance as the untrustworthy Singapore Smith, while John Maxwell is suitably slick as his jungle-guide partner; Al Ferguson pops up in the first chapter as one of Devlin’s henchmen. Dick Curtis delivers a robust and colorful performance as the Tartars’ wily ruler, while Anthony Warde and Reed Howes can be seen among his followers. Usual “weasel” Ernie Adams, in one of his few sympathetic roles, is very likable as the Phantom’s trusty trapper friend and confidant Rusty Fenton, while John Bagni, typically a henchman, does a similarly good job playing against type as the Phantom’s faithful native sidekick Moku–despite his noticeable New York accent. An actress named Early Cantrell delivers a rather embarrassingly amateurish performance as the “Fire Princess,” but since her character is actually a “cheap dancer” passed off as a goddess as part of one of Dr. Bremmer’s schemes, her flat dialogue delivery fits in well enough with the part.
Pat O’Malley pops up as a none-too-bright crony of Singapore Smith’s, and Lal Chand Mehra plays the dignified but somewhat sententious Sula, the chief counselor of both the old and new Phantoms. The actor playing the elder Phantom has never been definitively identified by buffs; I tend to favor the opinion of movie and serial historian Ed Hulse, who has tagged character actor Frederick Burton as the player in question. Stanley Price is at his wild-eyed best as the rebellious Chief Chota, gleefully plotting against the Phantom and reacting with semi-deranged fear when his treachery is discovered.
Ace the Wonder Dog, whose Devil is a throwback to the canine co-heroes of so many 1930s Mascot serials, doesn’t have as large a part in the action as Mascot’s various members of the Rin Tin Tin family, but still plays a prominent role in the proceedings, coming off as much more capable and intelligent than the human sidekicks in other cliffhangers–just as his lupine counterpart did in the comic strip.
The Phantom’s writers and production crew deserve credit not only for keeping their serial’s story moving, but also for being smart enough to rely heavily on their source material, which was one of the most imaginative strips on the funny pages from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s. The serial’s script and colorful settings, coupled with B. Reeves Eason’s direction and the perfect casting of Tom Tyler in the lead, help the serial to come together as a satisfying whole: few other Columbia chapterplays from the forties work as well as this chronicle of the Man Who Never Dies does.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to Ed Hulse, for the above-mentioned identification of Frederick Burton, and to Ken Letsom, who identified Early Cantrell as the Fire Princess.