Release Date: December 24th, 1943 (first chapter)
Directed by: B. Reeves Eason
Written by: Morgan Cox, Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, Sherman L. Lowe
Based on: The Phantom created by Lee Falk, Ray Moore
Cast: Tom Tyler, Jeanne Bates, Kenneth MacDonald, Ace the Wonder Dog
Columbia Pictures, 299 Minutes total (15 episodes)
People from my generation may remember the character of the Phantom because of the self-titled film that came out in 1996 with Billy Zane, Treat Williams, Kristy Swanson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and James Remar. While that one didn’t pan out well for the old school comic strip hero, his first foray into live-action, this 1943 serial, is a different story.
In fact, despite that 1996 film being mostly awful and, for a long time, my only live-action experience of the Phantom, I have always thought the character was pretty damn cool.
While I did like the original Batman serial, many critics did not. Being that this followed that one and it was also from Columbia Pictures, many of those critics thought that this was a saving grace for the studio, as it surpassed The Batman in every way possible. Granted, looking back now, I enjoyed The Batman for its tone and visual style. The Phantom is a continuation of that and it is also a step above.
Tom Tyler was a great casting decision when it came to the role of the Phantom and he really made the character his. Jeanne Bates was also a good addition to the cast. Ace the Wonder Dog is cool but it would have been even cooler to have a wolf, like the comics, as opposed to a German Shepherd. But they probably didn’t want a wolf mauling baddies on the set.
The plot introduces us to a professor who plans an expedition to find the mystical Lost City of Zoloz. A villain also wants to find Zoloz and use it for an airbase. The villain kills the original Phantom, only for his son to inherit the identity. The rest of the story focuses on locating all of the seven ivory pieces that tell where to find the Lost City. Also, the Phantom wrestles a friggin’ gorilla!
Critics loved Tyler as the Phantom even if some considered his performance to be wooden. It has since become as beloved as his performance as Captain Marvel a few years earlier.
In 1955, Columbia filmed a sequel with John Hart as the Phantom, as Tom Tyler died in 1954. Due to legal issues with the rights to the character, The Return of the Phantom had to be re-branded as The Adventures of Captain Africa before its release.
Ultimately, the Phantom is the epitome of cool, especially for his time. It’s kind of sad that we’ve never gotten a decent followup or reboot in the decades since its release.