The Phantom (1943)

The_Phantom_(1943)‘Can the seventh key be lost forever? Will Tartar take out his wrath on Diana? Don’t miss ‘Fangs of the Beast’ the next smashing episode of…’

A masked figure known only as ‘The Phantom’ has kept the peace between warring African tribes for generations, the role passing from father to son. But the harmony of the jungle is put in danger by a group of enemy agents and a university professor, whose safari is looking for the legendary lost city of Zolos…

Two-fisted movie serial action coming out of the Columbia studios and the depths of the Hollywood Hills…sorry, the African Jungle. Captain Marvel is about to go on safari with Dr Zarkov but finds that some jolly rotten enemy agents have sliced up his dad, who happens to be the legendary Phantom. Forced into his father’s onesie and mask, he battles quicksand, crocodiles, tigers (in Africa!), and local scumbag Singapore Slim and his rent-a-goons. He’s also up against the minions of deeply uninteresting enemy spy Kenneth MacDonald, who wants to build an airbase in the jungle for no doubt deeply unsound strategic and ideological reasons. It’s quite a full dance card for star Tom Tyler, but with superhero experience already under his belt from his days as the marvellous Captain in India, it’s no problemo!

This is typical rollicking serial action with the requisite number of last ditch escapes, gunfights, fisticuffs and a flavour of the exotic. The pace never lets up, and the story manages to avoid the repetition of events and McGuffins which dragged down most of its contemporaries. However, there are a couple of flaws which compromise the excitement and level of enjoyment. The main one is MacDonald’s villain, who is probably the most colourless in movie serial history, and a complete non-entity from beginning to end. Added to that is the damp squib of a climax, with the final couple of chapters failing to deliver any significant thrills or spectacle. On the bright side, we do get Frank Shannon from the original ‘Flash Gordon’ (1936) as the Professor, and Tyler pops into town on several occasions to do some undercover work. His choice of disguise? Sunglasses, a hat and a trench coat. Why these clothes are even available in the African Jungle is a mystery, let alone the fact that no-one bats an eyelid in his direction!

The original comic book character debuted in 1936 and was created by Lee Falk for King Features. Tyler was a good fit for the role as he bore a fairly close physical resemblance to the original illustrations, although sidekick Devil (Ace the Wonder Dog) did not, being a German Shepherd instead of a wolf. But no matter, he’s a pretty cool canine anyway, saving our hero’s bacon on more than one occasion. Ace was originally the RKO Studio’s answer to Rin Tin Tin, but came to Columbia from Republic Studios instead, who were synonymous with B-movie Westerns and Serials. Five years after his appearance here, he was still at Columbia, appearing in the title role of ‘The Adventures of Rusty‘ (1948), the first in a series of 8 films. Sadly for him, the role was immediately recast, and he didn’t appear in any of the sequels, finishing his career with Monogram and bottom of the barrel studio, PRC. It was even worse for Tyler, however, who never appeared in a significant role again, being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis shortly after production. He died penniless at the age of 50 in 1954.

The Phantom (1943)

🎵Don’t just stand there, let’s get to it, Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it🎶

Columbia began filming ‘Return of the Phantom’ as a sequel in 1955 with legendary ‘cash conscious’ producer Sam Katzman in charge. Unfortunately, it came to light after filming began that the studio’s rights to the character had expired, and, not surprisingly, negotiations between King Features and Katzman did not go well. But Katzman was not to be beaten! He simply cut down on the stock footage he was using from ‘The Phantom’ (1943) replacing it with old content from other serials, and had leading man John Hart put some riding britches on over the original costume and a flying helmet on his head. The result was ‘The Adventures of Captain Africa’ (1955) and movie history was made. But not in a good way.

Despite its faults, the original serial is still probably the most successful take on the ‘Phantom’ character. Subsequent attempts to turn him into box-office gold have all failed, the most notable being the big-budget movie of 1996 starring Billy Zane. But, given the current Holywood obsession with superheroes, there’s probably another try already in the works…

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