Republic was certainly best known for serials, but other studios often got into the act. One of these was Columbia Pictures. In truth, Columbia's serials weren't anything to write home about--but there was one exception: the 1943 THE PHANTOM, which cracks along at a memorable pace with an entertaining storyline, some excellent fight choreography, visually interesting set pieces, and a truly fine performance from Tom Tyler in the title role.
Tom Tyler (1903-1954) was a handsome, well-built man who played in well over 150 films between 1924 and 1953--but whose final years was marred by rheumatoid arthritis that reduced him to small supporting roles. But he was very much at his peak in 1941 when he appeared in the legendary Republic serial THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL--and no less so for the 1943 THE PHANTOM. Seen today, many serial "super heroes" of the 1930s and 1940s look more than a little chubby in their skin-tight costumes, but not Tyler: he had the body to carry it off, and if his acting chops weren't up to the standards of Hollywood's A-List actors they were perfect for this sort of comic book fun.
The story finds the peace of jungle tribes threatened by the evil Dr. Bremmer (Kenneth MacDonald), who seeks to create an airbase for use by an unfriendly country at the long-lost jungle city of Zoloz. But in order to locate the hidden city, Bremmer must obtain "the keys"--pieces of a puzzle-like map--from newly arrived Professor Davidson (Frank Shannon) and his party. Can the Phantom, with the aid of his clever dog Devil, foil Bremmer, protect Davidson, and bring peace to the jungle once more?
You better believe it, but before he does there are crocodiles, lions, tigers, a "fire princess," and booby-traps galore to overcome, most of them cleverly imagined and all of them expertly performed. Director B. Reeves Eason keeps everything moving at a sharp pace, and if the dialogue and cinematography are seldom inspired they are never less than entertaining, and there's not a dull moment in all fifteen chapters.
Like many serials, THE PHANTOM does adopt certain racial sensibilities that will cause modern viewers to roll their eyes from time to time. It is actually a bit difficult to tell where this film is supposed to be set: at times the script seems to imply Africa, at other times it seems to imply South America, and the "natives" are pretty much clumsy white men in dark make-up who look silly in diaper-like costumes. Even so, the thing goes like a house afire, and if you're interested in the serial genre this is one you can't afford to miss.
The VCI DVD edition features a nice commentary by Max Allan Collins on "Chapter One," a handful of biographies, and samples of comic book art and lobby cards; the real plus, however, is the quality of the film itself, which is quite fine--and this in spite of an instance where the soundtrack was lost and had to be re-created by modern actors. The picture quality is very good and the sound is more than adequate. Recommended to serial fans everywhere!
GFT, Amazon Reviewer