The Ghost Who Walks

I used to look forward to the Sunday morning newspaper every week. Years ago, my local Sunday newspaper had a four page color comics section that featured one of my favorite strips: The Phantom. The Phantom was a realistically drawn adventure set in the mysterious “darkest Africa”. I loved that The Phantom was a scary and inscrutable yet noble hero. I loved that he had animal companions like Devil the mountain wolf, Hero his horse, and Fraka his trained falcon. I loved the whole curious and sort of mystical history of The Phantom legacy. I even liked the silly purple outfit The Phantom wore.

Lee Falk (April 28, 1911 – March 13, 1999) was an American writer and comic strip creator. He had had great success with his first comic strip in 1934, Mandrake the Magician. Lee Falk first published The Phantom as a black and white daily strip on February 17, 1936. A Sunday color strip started in 1939. Falk was the single author of The Phantom for more than sixty years. He continued to work on the strip right up until his death of heart failure. Lee Falk “literally tore off his oxygen mask” while in the hospital so he could dictate his last stories to his wife, Elizabeth, who helped him finish his final daily and Sunday strips.

The Phantom was influenced by Lee Falk’s love of myths and legends, like King Arthur, and adventure stories, like Tarzan of the Apes. Falk claimed that British folk hero Robin Hood, who is popularly depicted wearing tights, was the inspiration for The Phantom’s skintight purple outfit. In fact, The Phantom was “the first fictional hero to wear the skintight costume that has now become a hallmark of comic book superheroes” everywhere. The Phantom was also the first superhero ever shown wearing a mask with no visible pupils (The Phantom beat out The Batman’s iris-less mask by three years). The purple color of The Phantom’s outfit was apparently a printing error in the Sunday color strip. Lee Falk had originally intended the color to be grey. He had even intended to name his character The Grey Ghost before deciding on The Phantom and some of the early black and white dailies has dialogue referring to the grey color of his costume. But Falk was never able to correct the mistake and eventually went along with it, retconning that The Phantom used jungle berries to dye cloth to match the color of an idol worshipped by the jungle tribes.

The Phantom got the Hollywood treatment when it was turned into a fifteen episode black and white movie serial on December 24, 1943. The serial starred Tom Tyler (August 9, 1903 – May 3, 1954), the American actor who had also starred as Captain Marvel in the 1941 serial, The Adventures of Captain Marvel. Co-starring was forgettable actress Jeanne Bates (most famed as the signature scream on the radio mystery show Whodunit) as helpless and hapless damsel in distress Diana Palmer (in the comic strip, Diana eventually married The Phantom) and Ace the Wonder Dog as The Phantom’s canine sidekick Devil. (Ace was RKO Picture’s attempt to cash in on the success of Warner Brothers’ hugely popular Rin Tin Tin). Also featured was a whole bunch of white guys as the local natives in The Phantom’s part of “darkest Africa”.

Capt. Africa                                 The Phantom

The Phantom serial was successful enough that Columbia Pictures started to make a sequel in 1955. Poor Tom Tyler had been diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis right after finishing The Phantom which physically limited the acting roles he was able to take on. He became nearly destitute and died of heart failure in 1954. Columbia hired actor John Hart as the new Phantom in the sequel. The sequel was well into production when Columbia discovered their rights to The Phantom had expired. King Features wanted a lot of money to renew the rights and Columbia balked. So The Phantom sequel was hastily re-written and re-edited with hurried retakes into The Adventures of Captain Africa. The new hero, a masked government agent fighting foreign powers trying to usurp an African country, still looks and acts an awful lot like The Phantom. Captain Africa even wears part of the original Phantom costume and stock footage from The Phantom was used in the new serial. The producer was legendary Hollywood cheapskate Sam Katzman, reputed to have “never met a corner he couldn’t cut”. The disjointed story, hasty rewrites in the midst of production, obvious cheapness, and repeated over-use of recaps and stock footage, all of which resulted in only a few minutes of new footage in each episode, helped lead to the death of the action serials.

The Phantom has fifteen chapters. Chapter 1, “The Sign of the Skull”, is nearly 30 minutes long. Chapter 2, “The Man Who Never Dies”, is nearly 20 minutes. All the other chapters range from fifteen to seventeen minutes. About three to four minutes of each chapter is devoted to the title and recaps. The shortness of the chapters makes the story seem to rush right along. Tom Tyler is a good match for the look of the comic strip Phantom but he is a rather wooden actor. It was not as noticeable in The Adventures of Captain Marvel because Tom was sharing the star spot with cute and likeable Frank Coghlan, Jr. as Captain Marvel’s alter ego Billy Batson. But in The Phantom, Tom is carrying the whole show and he is just not very charismatic. The heroine and sort-of love interest, Jeanne Bates as Diana Palmer, is totally blank and boring. She has almost nothing to do throughout the serial. She faints once, gets kidnapped, and once pretends to be crying over a supposedly dead Phantom and that is the totality of her role. Ace the Wonder Dog as The Phantom’s canine sidekick gets more screen time but is all too often left behind after a few pats from The Phantom. His most heroic moments come when he disobeys orders and follows his master and, of course, ends up rescuing The Phantom.

The villains of The Phantom are a confusing and forgettable gaggle of foreign saboteurs, spies, con men, and thieves. Other than Kenneth MacDonald as the smooth and composed head baddie, Dr. Bremmer, the villains all seem to run together and there seems to be an unwieldy number of them. The most laughable part of the serial is the native tribesmen. This is supposed to take place in “darkest Africa” yet all the natives are white skinned and their clothing has a vague Mayan look (or “My-on” as one character says) with a lot of feathers and face paint added on. The Phantom does have two native helpers, Suba and Moku. They are the only non-white natives shown and are ridiculously servile, calling The Phantom “master” even though they obviously know more about even walking through the jungle than he does and Moku saves The Phantom’s life several times. The Phantom even runs into a gang that has set itself up to dress like a bunch of supposed “Tartars”. But the “Tartars”, especially the guards, are all laughably Americans, they speak like they just walked off the streets of New York and make no attempt at all to act their parts. Even the leader of the “Tartars” sounds more like a bored New York socialite than a feared warrior.

There are a lot of fight scenes as The Phantom tries to foil the villains. One of the things I enjoy about these adventure serials is the fight scenes. They are nowhere as polished and artistic as most modern superhero fights. In the serials, the combatants do an awful lot of flailing around and falling over each other. But I find them to be fun and weirdly more genuine and, of course, it’s hilarious when the hero trips over a villain and nearly does a face plant on the floor. The Phantom also gets to wrestle with a lion (yes, an actual lion) and a gorilla (no, a guy in a gorilla suit) but I was not impressed with how frightened The Phantom appeared of the animals. He even looks terrified by an approaching alligator in the very first chapter. I expect The Phantom to at least pretend to be fearless.

All together, The Phantom is a fast paced serial that is enjoyable as long as viewers keep their expectations light. The Adventures of Captain Marvel was much better. The biggest problem with The Phantom just seems to be too many untalented, forgettable, even downright laughable villains; they just do not provide any real suspense or threat to our hero. They are convinced they have killed The Phantom every few minutes but they never really check to be sure and, naturally, he escapes and they look like fools. Head villain Dr. Bremmer even sort of jokes about how he is almost convinced that The Phantom really is The Man Who Never Dies.

The audio of the serial is very clear but is slightly out of time with the video. It is most noticeable when there are sounds of arrows and guns being fired before the arrows and guns are actually fired. It is not hugely distracting but it is noticeable. The video is in pretty good shape if a little bit faded and blurry. The Phantom is FREE in the Public Domain at the Internet Archive. IA has two versions. The Phantom Version #1 has each of the fifteen chapters separate and the video seems to be a little sharper. The Phantom Version #2 has all the chapters in one run of four hours, nine minutes. The opening title sequence of each chapter is cut out and this version seems just a bit more faded and blurry. Hopefully The Phantom will help movie fans whittle away the time as we wait for the newest superheroe movie to burst onto the big screen when The Avengers: Age of Ultron opens on May 1.

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