Movie Review: The Phantom (1943)
I never dug the Phantom. None of my comic book-buying buddies did. Probably because he wasn’t a comic book guy but a comic strip guy—born in those pages in 1936, two years before Action Comics #1 introduced Superman to the world. After I began collecting in 1973, I recall being vaguely intrigued by the Phantom’s daily strip, since, at the time, he was as close to a superhero as you could find in the funnies. But no, he was boring. I kept waiting for him to do something super. I kept waiting for him to return from the jungle until I realized, “Oh, he’s supposed to be there.” He was what we now call a transitional superhero: mask and skintight suit, yes, but everything else spoke to boys adventure stories of the 1910s: the jungle, “magic,” signet rings, subservient natives, a German Shepherd sidekick. He was your grandfather’s superhero and creaked like it.
The 1943 Columbia serial, “The Phantom,” is that turned up to 11.
It’s a movie serial so it’s going to be cut-rate and clumsy; and it’s set in the jungle (Africa, South America, we’re never sure), so it comes loaded with the usual racial landmines. The filmmakers manage to trip them all:
- Natives kowtowing before a white man (our hero), who is proclaimed a god
- Flabby white dudes, wearing leopard-skin diapers, playing the natives
- Flabby white dudes saying things like “Boola boola cahoola” and “Ubba gonga tonga” as examples of the native language
This last is like what “Gilligan’s Island” would be two decades later. I also got a whiff of “Star Wars.” At the end of Chapter 10, “Chamber of Death,” the Phantom falls through a trap door and into a pit, where a metal panel opens revealing ... a rancor! Kidding, it’s a tiger. But it’s still very much like Luke in Jabba’s lair in “Return of the Jedi.” Yet another reminder that these things hugely influenced filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who hugely influenced everything else. “The Phantom” and other serials are like the ur-texts of what’s playing at your local multiplex.
Boola boola cahoola.
That old cistern
What’s the story here? Glad you asked!
Prof. Davidson (Frank Shannon) and his team, including his spunky niece Diana Palmer (Jeanne Bates), arrive in the town of Sai Pana, on the edge of the jungle, hoping to find the fabled “Lost City of Zoloz” and its various riches.
Meanwhile, a gang of thugs, led by Dr. Max Bremmer (Kenneth MacDonald), needs the area to construct a landing strip in the jungle—for war, one imagines, but the why is never stated—so they try to throw the Professor’s team off the scent. Then they try to keep everyone out of the jungle by riling up the natives. Best way to do that? Kill the Phantom.
The Phantom, you see, is the reason there’s any peace in the jungle at all. He demands it. And he’s revered and kotowed to as a god because he can’t be killed. He’s “The Man Who Never Dies” and “The Ghost Who Walks.” But it’s a trick; he’s just been played by different men through the years—20, as the serial opens.
The first Phantom we see is played by actor Sam Flint, born in 1882, who looks every bit of his 61 years. (I was reminded of Alfred dressing up as Batman in the ’66 TV series.) Thankfully, as he makes an appearance before the natives, sitting in a rising stone throne behind a smokescreen, he’s shot by a poisoned dart blown from one of Bremmer’s men. He knows he’s a goner so sends word to his son, Geoffrey Prescott (Tom Tyler), to take over. Geoffrey, who just happens to be part of Prof. Davidson’s team, arrives just in time to get Phantom 101 lessons and meet the natives on their side: Suba and Moku.
There’s also a treasure in jewels and gold, “a tomb of your ancestors,” an oath, and a signet ring. Like any boys club. Then, when Phantom XX dies, our newer younger version rises in the stone throne behind a smokescreen to make his proclamations.
My thoughts at this point:
- Why wasn’t he trained in sooner? Seems a bit last minute.
- Why a skintight purple suit and black mask? That’s not really ghostly. Nor good camouflage. Not to mention breathable. He is in the jungle, after all.
- Why do Suba and Moku go along with the ruse?
- How come, when the new Phantom emerges, no one says, “Hey, doesn’t he look 30 years younger to you?”
Bigger point: Our hero is someone who uses literal smokescreens to trick the natives. “There’s nothing that so sways the native mind as a few simple tricks and illusions,” Phantom XX tells him. That’s our hero. Did they know back then how bad this sounded? One wonders. In episode 9, the Phantom tells Diana about the ancient legend of the Fire Princess: How she arrived, helped them rule, then disappeared with a promise to return.
Diana: But surely you don’t believe that legend.
Phantom: Heh. Of course not. But the natives do. That’s why whoever calls herself the Fire Princess now can take advantage of them.
Uh, dude? You’re basically describing you. It’s one of the better examples of projection I’ve seen from a so-called hero. One wonders if it wasn’t a wink from the screenwriters.
Speaking of: I expected them to use the “man who never dies,” conceit more than they do. The problem with superheroes and serials is that each chapter has to end with a cliffhanger, and it’s absurd that: 1) the superhero gets into so much trouble, and 2) keeps surviving. “The man who never dies” conceit, at the least, gives a plausible explanation to the other characters for that survival. Except they never use it. Instead we get:
Rocco: Great news, Chief! We knocked over the Phantom!
Bremmer: The Phantom? But Long and Chris told me they took care of him at Rusty’s shack.
Rocco: Well, we’re not responsible for what they say.
Flunky: Hey Doc! We sure got the Phantom in a pocket. He’s trapped in that dead-end tunnel.
Bremmer: I thought he’d drowned in that old cistern.
Flunky: He must’ve gotten out of that somehow, but he’s a sure goner now.
I think at one point Bremmer does wonder if maybe there’s something to “The Man Who Never Dies” legend, but it should’ve been integral throughout the serial. Missed opportunity.
(Sidenote: Daka, the Japanese villain in “Batman,” another Columbia serial from 1943, assumes with Batman what’s actually true with the Phantom. Since Batman keeps surviving, he decides there must be many Batmen, “all members of the same organization,” and if one goes down another takes his place. Probably no coincidence that the serials share two screenwriters: Victor McLeod and Leslie Swabacker.)
For those who care, these are the cliffhangers/escapes:
- The Phantom is stuck in a swamp with an alligator approaching ... but Devil, his German Shepherd, chases the alligator away then pulls Phantom out.
- A lion attacks him ... but is killed by a native’s spear.
- A grenade blows up a hut ... but Phantom had escaped beforehand.
- He’s being gassed to death ... but Devil warns his friend, Rusty, who pulls him to safety
- A rope bridge breaks ... but he survives the fall.
- A booby trapped is rigged ... but Devil saves him.
- The bad guys collapse a well ... but Phantom crawls through a tunnel.
- He falls into a canyon and there’s an explosion ... but survives.
- He seems to succumb to fire-dance flames ... but is pulled to safety by Moku and Devil.
- He falls into a pit and a tiger is released ... so he lights a flare and escapes through the tunnel the tiger emerged from.
- A metal gate portal is brought down ... but he rolls to safety.
- In a pit, he’s forced to fight an ape ... and kills it.
- In a cistern, water is dumped on him ... but he survives.
- An explosion in a cavern ... doesn’t kill him.
How does he survive? Either somebody helps, he did something beforehand we weren’t shown, or he just shakes it off. The best escape is really from the tiger. At least that involved some ingenuity.
Devil (played by Ace the Wonder Dog) is an interesting addition—he certainly beats the boy sidekick—but it creates an added absurdity. He wasn’t Phantom XX’s dog but Geoffrey Prescott’s. I.e., there’s Geoffrey with Devil; then Geoffrey disappears and Devil is suddenly the Phantom’s dog. In Chapter 8, “In Quest of the Keys,” Diana, who’s been wondering over the disappearance of Geoffrey, calls the Phantom on this. She asks: Why do you have Geoffrey’s dog? “I found him wandering in the forest,” he responds.
‘Bring sparkling burgundy!’
Tyler, who also played the first live-action superhero ever (Captain Marvel in 1941), is a good fit for the role. He’s strong-looking, athletic, and dull. As dull as I remember the Phantom being.
This is one of the serials in which we know the villain from the get-go and our hero doesn’t; so we wait for him to catch up. We wait 15 chapters—300 minutes. The villain is good in the sense that he’s infuriating—a liar and a scoundrel—and we can’t wait for the moment of comeuppance. So guess what they do?
They handle it off-screen.
For like the 10th time, Bremmer assumes the Phantom is dead, so he concocts a not-bad scheme to control the natives: He has one of his henchman dress as the Phantom. They do the whole nine yards: smokescreen, stone throne, but now phony Phantom just stands there; it’s Bremmer who does the talking. He’s in the midst of this when one of the natives, the long problematic Chief Chota (Stanley Price), takes this moment to reenact what the bad guys did in the first episode: He shoots a dart at the (phony) Phantom, who goes down. Chota is killed, and then there’s more smoke. When it clears, the real Phantom is standing there with .... Bremmer dead.
How does he die? Who knows? What of the fake Phantom? Got me. But that’s it. Not much of a payoff after five hours of drivel.
Oh, and the treasure from the lost city of Zoloz? The Phantom has it. He’s always had it.
There are many absurdities—snow-capped mountains in chapter 8, for example—but my favorite is the sideplot to the Genghis Khan-like castle of Tartar (Dick Curtis). It’s like the screenwriters ran out of ideas and so went the Khan route. At one point, impressed by the Phantom’s survival skills, Tartar calls for a celebration. “Bring sparkling burgundy!” he cries.
More lines like that might’ve made “The Phantom” worth watching.