Back in the old days, back before television, serialized stories were shown before the main feature at the movies. One such serial was The Phantom, and Judge Norman Short takes a look at this two-disc set that captures the entire series.
The ghost who walks.
Hearken back to the days of the Saturday matinee serials, where superheroes thrilled the kids only to be left at a cliffhanger until the next week. Though Republic and Universal were considered the leaders of the serials, Columbia did their fair share as well, and few were so well thought of as The Phantom, from the decades-long running comic strip. Long before Billy Zane donned the costume in a big-budget Hollywood production, weightlifting champion Tom Tyler wore the suit in a serial that ran for 15 episodes. Each of those episodes is waiting for you on a two-disc DVD set from VCI.
Facts of the Case
The Phantom rules over the jungle, maintaining the peace over all the native tribes. He is said to be immortal, but in truth he is part of a family business: when one Phantom gets too old or dies, his son takes up the reins and dons the suit. This happens to Prescott, the son of the last Phantom, who rushes to his father's deathbed. His father was killed by a poison dart, shot by those who wanted to use the natives for their own purposes, in order to build a secret airbase at the lost city of Zoloz. Prescott was to have been one of an archaeological expedition searching for that city, led by Professor Davidson and accompanied by his lovely daughter Diana. The professor has carved pieces of ivory that when put together like a jigsaw puzzle gives the location of the city, but a vital piece is missing. The new and inexperienced Phantom has as his mission to help the professor find the missing key, and defeat those who would disrupt the peace of the jungle.
These serials were from before my time, which means they are from before most of our reader's times as well. But I can just imagine the thrill of kids in the theater watching the adventures of Flash Gordon, of Captain Marvel, and of The Phantom, along with The Three Stooges just before the full feature begins. Each week they are left to wonder how their hero will get out of the latest crisis. There is a certain charm to the serial episodes; an unsophisticated naïveté that brought out the kid in me, at least a little. For today's jaded audiences, bringing out your inner child is a must if you are to enjoy the serials.
As a historical document The Phantom is quite good; you can see the foreshadowing of much of our superhero fare to come. Remember, the character of The Phantom was written three years before Batman. The Phantom wears a mask, has a secret identity, and lives in a Skull Cave. There are obvious references that are taken on into the Caped Crusader and many that will follow. Like Batman, The Phantom is not a true superhero; he is a mortal man without powers, who must make his way from his legend, the intimidation his suit offers, his fists, and a few sleight of hand magic tricks.
The frequent action scenes, mostly fistfights, were pretty well done. You can expect at least one or more of them in every episode, as The Phantom doesn't seem to like to kill anyone, even those trying to kill him. Perhaps the best actor in the whole cast was Devil, the wonder dog who accompanies The Phantom. He does a very credible job of disabling foes long enough for The Phantom to dispatch them. Unfortunately he often seems to be the smartest member of the cast as well.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Therein lies the problem: for The Phantom to get himself into an almost insurmountable jam in every 12-16 minute episode, he has to do an awful lot of stupid things. He bumbles into obvious traps with frightening regularity, takes on five men with guns with only his fists (even though he's wearing two guns himself!), and surrenders to his captors too easily so long as it is at the end of an episode. Of course, at the beginning of the next episode he gets out of the jam, usually because his captors are just as stupid as he is and assumes he is dead from the latest cunning trap. It is a bit sad that all too often The Phantom doesn't even get himself out of these jams; he depends too much on Devil the Wonder Dog or his native friends to set him free. Somehow he manages to make progress each episode despite the fact that he always suffers a setback.
The supporting cast is little help. The main villain in this serial is played by Kenneth MacDonald, more famous for playing the villain in numerous shorts from The Three Stooges. He is little smarter here. His henchmen don't know how to kill an unconscious enemy right at their feet. And it takes a very forgiving soul to give a smile and a wink to the hackneyed dialogue delivered as if from a bad high school play. Remember, this is melodrama, not drama or even action. "Can the Phantom escape the clutches of the angry lion?" "Will Diana be rescued?" "Tune in next week."
The two-disc set is actually pretty good, especially considering the age of the content. VCI did a great job of cleaning up some very poor quality source prints to make a decent transfer. Though there are frequent nicks and scratches, they are not so bad as to really distract the viewer. Blacks are deep, contrast levels good, and the image is relatively sharp. Shadow detail is a bit lacking, but for 58-year-old materials I'm impressed nonetheless. Audio isn't quite so wonderful. The mono tracks are somewhat harsh and strident, though the dialogue is always clearly understood. In Episode 11 the source materials for the soundtracks were nearly completely destroyed, and a cast of actors dubbed their voices to recreate the story. Extra content consists entirely of a commentary track over Episode 1, which introduces the character and lasts nearly twice as long as the others. Comic strip creator Max Allan Collins narrates over the episode with a lot of information on the serials in general, the comic strip that The Phantom is based on, and on Tom Tyler, the star of this serial and several others. I found it very interesting and informative.
My primary interest in this DVD set is as a piece of history. You could find it funny and campy today rather than exciting and full of suspense as it was meant to be in its day. But if you want to put yourself into the shoes of our fathers and grandfathers who crowded the local theater each Saturday afternoon, you could do far worse than this set.
The Phantom is sentenced to actually shooting someone when they shoot at him, and to look before he leaps into the next trap. VCI, the makers of this DVD set, are completely acquitted for bringing back this piece of our cinematic history nearly from the grave.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• Commentary Track
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