The Phantom: Movie Serial (1943)

Country: United States
Director: B. Reeves Eason
Starring: Tom Tyler, Jeanne Bates, Kenneth MacDonald, Joe Devlin, Frank Shannon, and Ace the Wonder Dog as Devil.
Music: Lee Zahler
Screenplay: Leslie Swabacker, Morgan Cox, Victor McLeod, Sherman L. Lowe
Based on characters created by Lee Falk and Ray Moore

Even in my lifetime, the movie experience has changed a lot. As I have often talked about, most of my early film watching experiences were at the local drive in. Everything was a double feature, and if it was a children’s program there was even a Warner Brothers cartoon or two. At cinemas, it was similar, but it wasn’t always a double feature. If the feature attraction was long, instead there would often be a series of shorts before the main feature. The thing back then was, that going to the movies was a three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half hour event. It was almost a day trip. Now-a-days you get a few quick adverts, a few quick trailers of coming attractions, and then it’s straight into the main feature. Then you’re out of there. Cinema chains don’t want customers loitering around. They want a new crowd in, and the next showing to commence. That way they make more money.

Due to my age, I have no first hand experience of the cinema experience in the 1940s and ’50s, however it would appear that it too was a big event, with shorts, cartoons and newsreels providing the pre-show entertainment. Also there were the regular movie serials. I must admit I have not watched too many old cliff-hanger serials. In fact, the only one I can recall is Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, with Buster Crabbe. When I watched it for the first time, I was very under-whelmed. I just didn’t get it. I didn’t appreciate the shoddy effects and the lame cliff hangers that were telegraphed way ahead of time. Oh look, Ming has a bottomless pit. I wonder if Flash is going to fall into it? Well yeah, of course Flash is going to fall into it. That’s why they put it in the episode in the first place – as an obstacle for Flash to overcome – and of course, to provide a cliff-hanger ending, that would hopefully have the viewing public returning to the cinema next week to see the resolution.

Of course, television took over for the old fashioned serials – and if you happen to be of the same generation as me, then the Adam West Batman series is the perfect example of the old style cliff-hanger adapted for television. Who can forget the announcer at the end of every second episode urging viewers to tune in ‘…same bat time, same bat channel’ to see how the caped crusader escaped from the predicament he found himself enmeshed in.

So in this day and age, watching a serial like The Phantom can be a bit of a chore. But, taking into account the way it was originally intended to be shown – at weekly intervals – this serial isn’t too bad at all, and locks down most necessary Phantom lore.

As the serial starts, jungle drums tell the leaders of all the tribes to meet with The Phantom at his home in the Tonga village. In the centre of the village is a large skull adorned, stone throne. The chieftains gather, and then in a puff of smoke, The Phantom appears. But this Phantom seems kind of old and arthritic. However, this doesn’t stop him from standing and proclaim that ‘evil’ has taken a foothold in the area. But before he can finish his lecture on ‘evil’, a native fires a blow dart which buries itself in The Phantom’s neck. The Phantom simply pulls the dart out, and then tells the chieftains to stay put and await his return. He then disappears in another puff of smoke.

The Sign of the Skull

The Phantom summons his son, Geoffrey Prescott

The Phantom, as you may have guessed, is dying, and sends for his son Geoffrey Prescott (Tom Tyler) to join him in the Tonga village. It is believed that Geoffrey is in America, studying at university. In fact he is far more closer than that. He is in the nearest village, Sai Pana, where he is preparing to be a part of an expedition into the interior with Professor Davidson and (possibly more important) his niece, Diana Palmer (Jeanne Bates).

Prescott receives word that he is required and leaves the expedition and heads off to join his father. His father is all but dead, and with his dying words passes on the mantle of The Phantom. Prescott dons the suit and begins to take up where his father left off.

The SIgn of the Skull

The New Phantom

But there is a lot going on in the jungle. Firstly, when Prescott left Professor Davidson’s expedition, he left a message with the hotel owner, Singapore Smith (Joe Devlin) to be passed along. It wasn’t, and now Prescott is a wanted man, for theft. That no doubt, doesn’t make sense to you. Let me back track and see if I can explain it. You see Professor Davidson is searching for the lost city of Zoloz, and to find it, he has acquired several pieces of a seven-piece map, that appear to be carved from ivory. Upon his arrival in Sai Pana, Davidson met with Singapore Smith, who has another two piece of the map. Smith gives Davidson his pieces, but even with their combined pieces, there is still one crucial piece missing. Smith allows Davidson to keep his pieces, to aid in the quest.

However, Singapore Smith isn’t really a good guy. Giving Davidson his pieces was just a ruse to avert suspicion from him, and that evening he arranges for his goon to break into Davidson’s hotel room and steal all the pieces. This is the point in the story where Prescott receives the call to come to his father’s side. The next morning, as far as Davidson is concerned, his map has been stolen, and Prescott has disappeared. Therefore Prescott must have stolen the map.

The Sign of the Skull

Hail, The Phantom - The Ghost Who Walks

But there is more. In Sai Pana village, there is a local doctor named Max Bremmer (Kenneth MacDonald) and he too, is up to no good. In fact he was behind the death of the last Phantom. It was one of his goons, who in black face, and posing as a native, fired the dart that ultimately killed The Phantom. Bremmer’s scheme goes beyond mere theft. He has an ambitious plan to construct a secret airbase at the lost city of Zoloz. I know, I know, that doesn’t really make sense. You see, the lost city of Zoloz is not so lost. Bremmer knows where it is, and goes to extreme lengths to ensure that its location remains a secret.

Cartographic logic is also in short supply. When watching the serial, I was never sure on which continent The Phantom’s adventures were taking place. There’s hint of Africa, naturally, but it could equally be in South America. Then there’s the Tiger – could it be India? Then there’s the villain, Tartar, who could come straight from the Arabian Nights. But don’t worry about little details like that. This is a cliff hanger adventure serial, and little details like logic should never get in the way of a rollicking good time.

And that’s the key to this series. Logic is not important. Adventure is. The serial is fast paced, full of treachery and dare I say it, skullduggery. There are cliff hangers at the end of each episode, featuring such reliable genre tropes such as, quicksand, crocodiles, lions, tigers, a giant killer gorilla, rock falls, a trial by fire, and hand grenades – and of course much, much more. Every fight The Phantom gets into, he seems to be outnumbered, usually by a majority of four-to-one. Generally he gives as good as he gets, but eventually he gets knocked down and this leads to the next cliff hanger.

The Sign of the Skull

The Phantom trapped in quicksand

The Sign of the Skull

A Crocodile closes in for the kill!

Of course, for fans of The Phantom, the big question is; just how Phantom-ey is this serial. The answer is ‘very’. Most of the elements from the newspaper and comic book stories have been successfully transposed to this serial. It’s all there – the skull cave, the skull ring (and the mark it leaves on the faces of those that The Phantom hits), there’s Devil, and of course as I have have outlined, the father to son lineage of The Phantom. Diana Palmer is in the story as a love interest, and The Phantom even adopts the iconic Kit Walker persona, dressed in a trench-coat with dark glasses (I know, Kit Walker is his real name, not an adopted persona – let’s just go with it). All this story needs is ‘speech bubbles’ and it would be spot on.

As I implied at the top, The Phantom movie serial was never created to be watched in one sitting. So watching to whole series and its constant repetition, in one fell swoop is a task that few viewers will have the patience for. However, if you are prepared to break the series into a few chunks (maybe 5 sittings of three episodes each – totaling the whole fifteen episodes), then I think most people could and would enjoy this series. Even the budgetary restriction on the series aren’t as glaringly obvious as something like Flash Gordon – which had to convey spaceships, new worlds and robots. All The Phantom needs is a jungle and he’s away.

The Phantom is old-fashioned, old-time entertainment. If you consider yourself a Phantom fan, then this serial is well worth seeking out.

Although it should not effect enjoyment of this series, it must be noted that in Chapter 11, The Emerald Key, the original audio track appears to have been lost or damaged, and actors have redubbed the soundtrack. It is a minor inconvenience.

October is the month of the Skeleton Suit! Or Skeletons, Skulls and Bones, and in a month long celebration, The Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit is checking out the Skeletons in their closets.

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