The Phantom (1943)
March 17, 2013 § Leave a comment
Film serials are old enough that some people may not even know what they are, but if they frequently have one thing in common, it’s a fairly low budget. This presents a problem for serials, as they often don’t have a final episode that feels like much of a climax. Never mind the exploding base, it’s just that somebody finally captures the villain, which could have been done six Saturday afternoons ago, halfway through the series. In other words, it’s critical a film serial — if it’s going to be memorable at all — have lead actors able to carry it through twelve or fifteen episodes. It means a great deal if the actors are remarkably watchable.
Fortunately, The Phantom has Tom Tyler. I’d suggest he’s somewhat underrated as an actor, but he isn’t actually a terrific actor. It’s more that he’s underrated as a presence. He gives The Phantom an extremely watchable quality, taking a part that could be absurd and making it work. Tyler is better known for another serial, The Adventures of Captain Marvel, but he’s excellent here too. Given his short, fairly tragic life (he’d die fairly young of heart failure about ten years after making this, his last starring role) I’m surprised his personal story has never actually been made into a drama.
The series also benefits from Kenneth MacDonald as the villain, who can according to Wiki, sound “gentle and ominous” at the same time, much like Boris Karloff. This is a fair statement. He’s the only other actor lending anything memorable to the serial, which is ultimately one of the better superhero ones I’ve seen (one sequence on a rope bridge appears to have inspired the end of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). The fact that MacDonald is defeated off-camera after fifteen episodes nearly derails the ending, except that I’ve come to expect endings that decline to pull out all the stops, or simply can’t afford to do it. MacDonald apparently had a career lasting forty years, but is now largely forgotten, which is nearly as depressing as the Tom Tyler story.
The VCI Entertainment release has a commentary on episode one by Max Allan Collins, who points out Batman owes a certain amount to The Phantom, as a hero with no powers who uses assorted devices — including using fear as a weapon — and swore an oath to his family. The Phantom, however, is one man in a line of descendants, sworn to fight evil based on distant ancestors killed by pirates, and he lives in a fictional African country. And while this may have gone without notice decades ago, today we’re more conscious of stereotypes, and a white man ruling assorted tribes with stories and tricks of smoke is a fairly awkward premise. I’m not suggesting Batman was trying to be politically correct, but it happens to trade this for a straightforward urban setting, and the more direct idea that his parents were killed, not distant ancestors.
The result of all this is that The Phantom will likely always be a relatively obscure hero, or will exist in updated, altered form, and this Tom Tyler serial can hopefully be accepted by most as a product of its time, stereotypes and all. I wonder what Tom Tyler would’ve done with Batman, a serial produced the same year that provides an extremely poor, low budget (even for a serial) start for the caped crusader. Lewis Wilson was a perfectly acceptable Bruce Wayne, but made for a fairly awful Batman. It’s interesting to note that while Batman may be the hero granted a permanent pass to our pop-culture consciousness, there was a time other heroes looked much more impressive.