The Phantom (Serial) (1943)
Audio Commentary-Jim Sherlock(Film Historian) & Jim Shepherd (Chapters 1-3)
Biographies-Cast & Crew
Filmographies-Cast & Crew
|Year Of Production||1943|
|Running Time||259:48 (Case: 240)|
|RSDL / Flipper||Dual Layered||Cast & Crew|
|Region Coding||1,2,3,4,5,6||Directed By||B. Reeves Eason|
Big Sky Video
Ace the Wonder Dog
|Pan & Scan/Full Frame||None||
English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
|Widescreen Aspect Ratio||None|
|Video Format||576i (PAL)|
|Original Aspect Ratio||1.37:1||Miscellaneous|
|Annoying Product Placement||No|
|Action In or After Credits||No|
The old Phantom is slain by a poison dart, but not before he passes the mantle onto his son, Jeff Prescott (Tom Tyler). Not only must he keep the peace amongst the warring tribes, he must deal with some pretty nasty white men, as well as some innocent explorers. The explorers are led by Professor Davidson, who is looking for the final key in the puzzle that will unlock the secret location of the lost city of Zoloz. He's accompanied by his niece, Diana Palmer. The puzzle in fact is an ivory relief map that has been split into seven pieces. He has six, but the whereabouts of the seventh is not known. It contains the location of Zoloz, naturally. Opposed to them are some crooks who want to lay their hands on the treasure, plus some other evildoers led by Dr Bremmer, who wants to build a secret airstrip at Zoloz (why, I'm not certain).
I have managed to see about 35 complete serials over the years, which is probably more than most people but still just a small percentage of those that were made. I'm aware of people who have seen hundreds of serials, and there are numerous sites devoted to discussing and selling them on the Internet. This one has the usual features of the American form: cliffhanger endings, low budgets and somewhere between 10 and 15 episodes with a total running time of about 5 hours. And this one is better than most.
Back in the days when comic strips and comic books were considered to be juvenile entertainment, screen adaptations took the form not of high budget cash cows like today, but the form mostly associated with young people's cinema: the Saturday matinee serial. Thus the first appearance on screen of such comic book heroes as Superman, Batman and Robin, Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were in chapter plays, as they were known.
Serials usually had a lesser-known male star and a host of little-known character players, were made in a hurry on sets reused from feature films and with little time for rehearsal they often seem poorly executed. It was also common practice for the first five minutes of each chapter to be taken from the end of the previous chapter, which meant that there was only about ten minutes of new footage each week. While the early episodes of The Phantom only overlap by about two minutes, by the end it gets up to the five-minute benchmark.
The Phantom made his first appearance in a newspaper in 1936, and has been continuously in print ever since. His creator was Lee Falk, who also brought us Mandrake the Magician. The Phantom seems a natural for the movies, though there have been surprisingly few attempts to translate the cartoon success to the big screen.
The Phantom was made at Columbia, one of the minor Hollywood studios (they did not own a theatre chain). For once, they seem to have put some effort into a chapter play, though one should not get carried away with praise. The script has some terrible dialogue ("He reminds me of someone we all know, but I can't quite place him"), the sets look a bit ramshackle at times and some of the acting is poor. But the script also has a reasonably simple if unoriginal story to tell, the lead actor looks like a superhero, there is a feeling of it being shot outdoors and some of the stunt work is very good. Perhaps it is a bit long at 15 chapters, though it is amusing that the henchmen are always telling their boss that the Phantom is dead, and yet he keeps turning up again as though he really was The Ghost Who Walks.
The Phantom is played by Tom Tyler, a tall, powerfully built former weightlifter who became a cowboy star during the silent era. Many viewers may be familiar with his shape, if not his features, from his role swathed in bandages in The Mummy's Tomb. He also starred in what is regarded as one of the best serials ever made, The Adventures of Captain Marvel. Tyler fills out a tight-fitting costume better than most, and he looks suitably athletic. His acting ability is limited, and his delivery of some of the admittedly silly lines is downright amateurish, but he can throw a mean punch. Sadly, he would soon suffer a crippling bout of rheumatoid arthritis that would not only end his film career, but would cause his early death from a heart attack in 1954. By the time of his demise he was destitute and living with his sister.
The supporting cast features a few familiar serial faces, like Kenneth MacDonald as Dr Bremmer and I. Stanford Jolley as one of his henchmen. Also in the cast is Anthony Caruso as Count Silento, and Jeanne Bates, who plays Diana, is still making films in her eighties, most recently Mulholland Drive. Professor Davidson is played by Frank Shannon, who was Dr Hans Zarkov in the Flash Gordon serials.
The best acting in the film comes from the actor playing Devil, the Phantom's dog (it was a wolf in the comic strip). Ace the Wonder Dog more often than not saves his master from danger, whether it is an alligator or a booby-trapped shotgun. And he does so with considerable élan, not surprisingly as Ace had already had a long film experience of over 30 years before the camera. Well, that's in human terms, it was actually just 5 dog-years.
I always thought The Phantom was set in some African country. Now this one has lions and tigers and alligators, but all of the natives look like South American Indians, apart from what seems to be a Mongol tribe. The entrance to the Phantom's cave is a skull as in the comic strip, though not as eerie-looking. The Phantom's costume looks just like in the comics, though in this case you can see his eyes.
The first chapter of this serial runs for nearly half an hour, but the rest come in at about the 15 minute mark. Unfortunately, the soundtrack of Chapter 11 was damaged beyond repair. Working from the original scripts, the episode has been redubbed by actors. It has been done quite well, with the voice actors lip-syncing well and using voices much like the original actors had. The acoustics do not seem quite right, but it is better than having the material mute.
Columbia filmed a sequel in 1955, but then discovered that their rights to the material had lapsed, so they reshot the close-ups and renamed the hero Captain Africa. In 1996 there was a poor film version with Billy Zane, which did not seem to know if it was a straight adaptation or a campy send-up, and ended up just being dull.
Not so this serial. It may seem silly, it may even be silly, but it is entertaining and even exciting at times. Well worth seeing, though I think you will have to import a decent transfer to get the best of it.
The serial is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, close to the original 1.37:1.
I have to say that the transfer is a little disappointing. It lacks clarity and sharpness, with that blurred look that suggests that it was converted to PAL from an NTSC source. While it is not terrible, it is not very good either. There are also problems with the contrast of the black and white transfer. Faces tend to be too bright and lack detail, while there are no true blacks on display either. Some sequences are slate-grey and white, and areas that should be solid black are various shades of grey. Low level noise is present throughout. As a consequence of this and the contrast problems, shadow detail is quite poor. Occasionally there is some excessive noise reduction causing inappropriate movement of parts of the image.
I did not notice any other specific problems with the transfer. I could see a lot of film artefacts, mainly smallish flecks and scratches, though there are regular splice marks visible as well. These are not as annoying as they would usually be, as they are just as indistinct and unclear as the rest of the transfer. The only reel change markings come at the end of each episode.
That being said, this material is still watchable, but viewers will have to make allowances for the transfer.
No subtitles are provided. This is a dual-layer disc, but each chapter must be wholly on one layer or the other, as there is no layer change during any of the episodes.
The default audio track on all episodes is Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, with the first three episodes having an alternate audio commentary track.
Dialogue is audible and relatively easy to understand throughout the programme. However, there are several issues with the audio. Firstly, it is transferred at a higher volume level than normal, and I needed to turn the volume control down quite a way to be comfortable with the level. Secondly, the audio is very strident, often sounding distorted. Again, lowering the volume reduces the impact of this problem. Occasionally the audio sounds hissy but there is very little in the way of cracks or pops.
Audio sync is excellent, though in chapter 11 the redubbing is not quite perfect.
The music is credited to Lee Zahler. I suspect that he either composed just the credits music or compiled the music score from the studio library, as not only does it sound generic, but much of it sounds familiar. Being typical serial music, it fits in well.
|Surround Channel Use|
This is certainly audio, but to call it a commentary would be misleading. It involves two Australians named Jim. These two Jims are Jim Shepherd, the local publisher of the comics and Jim Sherlock, a film historian, and they spend most of the time discussing the origins of the comic books and their distribution in Australia. They also spend too much time criticising the 1996 film, and only scant mention is made of the serial. When they do, it seems apparent that they are reading from written material. The commentary is not uninteresting at times, but it is barely relevant to what we see on screen. It also ends about 4 minutes into episode 3. Just before the end of episodes 1 and 2, the commentary stops abruptly and resumes in the next episode at the point at which it stopped, suggesting that the two were not even watching the serial while recording the commentary.
Aside from reproducing the poster as shown on the cover, this is actually a comics gallery, with the covers of numerous editions of Phantom comics. These are all Australia/New Zealand editions as well.
Short text biographies and filmographies of the stars and director.
If you don't like the cover, you can reverse it to have a photo of Tyler in Phantom gear with the requisite purple and black stripes in the background.
This serial has also been released in Region 1 by VCI Home Video, who have released several serials. This version, from the one review I have found, appears to be superior to the Region 4. The video quality sounds as though it is direct from a film source, with no mention of the poor clarity of the Region 4. This release has an audio commentary on episode 1 only by Max Allan Collins, who has some experience in the world of comics. For one, he wrote the scripts for Dick Tracy for 16 years. His commentary concentrates on the comic strip, the serial and the star, so it sounds as though it is to be preferred.
One of the better serials.
The video quality is not very good.
The audio quality is variable.
The extras are not particularly enlightening.
|DVD||Pioneer DV-S733A, using Component output|
|Display||Sony 86CM Trinitron Wega KVHR36M31. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable.|
|Audio Decoder||Built in to DVD player, Dolby Digital, dts and DVD-Audio. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.|
|Speakers||Main: Tannoy Revolution R3; Centre: Tannoy Sensys DCC; Rear: Richter Harlequin; Subwoofer: JBL SUB175|