The Phantom was created by Lee Falk for newspapers in 1936, predating Superman's debut in Action Comics by two years. Wearing a skin tight outfit and mask, The Phantom paved the way for most of the costumed heroes to follow in the Man of Steel's wake. A popular strip, it seems odd that it would take seven years to bring it to the screen, Falk's other character from 1936, Mandrake the Magician, only took three. After all, the exploits of a man fighting crime in the jungle seems ready made for the serial screen. But The Phantom instead came to the screen in 1943, following a serial based on another character he had helped influence, Batman.
The serial opens in the ficitonal jungle town of Sai Pana, where Professor Davidson (Frank Shannon), his daughter Diana (Jeanne Bates), her fiance Byron Andrews (Guy Kingsford), and Davidson's assistant Geoffrey Prescott (Tom Tyler) arrive on an expedition to find the lost city of Zoloz. While checking into the hotel they hear jungle drums and are told by local physician Dr. Bremmer (Kenneth MacDonald) that it is The Phantom calling all of the local tribes together. Bremmer then explains that The Phantom is supposed to be the "Ghost Who Walks", he rules over the tribes and keeps peace in the jungle, but Bremmer believes he is just a man who has played on the natives's superstitions.
Bremmer is actually a fifth columnist who plans to build a secret airbase in the jungle and needs to have The Phantom out of the way. He has sent one of his men, disguised as a native, to the gathering where he shoots The Phantom with a poison dart. The Phantom seems to shrug off the poison and tells the tribes that they must wait at his village for him to return, then disappears in a puff of smoke. Actually he slips through a secret door under the cover of the smoke.
Knowing that he is dying, The Phantom takes a drug that will slow down the poison but not cure him. He then instructs his servant Moku (John Bagni) to go to Rusty Fenton (Ernie Adams), a fur traper just outside of Sai Pana and trusted friend, and have him cable America to tell The Phantom's son, Geoffrey Prescott to come home.
Meanwhile back in Sai Pana, Prof. Davidson meets with hotel owner Singapore Smith (Joe Devlin). Davidson has three keys that are part of a map that shows the location of Zoloz. Smith also has three keys. Putting them together they find that a seventh key, and the most important one, is missing. Though they don't know the exact location of Zoloz, Davidson is determined to go on into the jungle with the information they do have. Smith says he will get porters for Davidson and gives his own keys to the professor, saying they are worthless to him.
Bremmer has had a man listening outside the room, being curious about what Davidson is doing in the jungle. Learning about Davidson's plans, Bremmer decides, now that the Phantom is dead, to have natives kill the expedition and get the keys because Zoloz just happens to be where his secret base is going to be constructed.
Smith isn't the trustworthy man he appears to be. He has some men of his own sneak into Davidson's room and steal the six keys. While this is happening Geoffrey recieves the cable from Rusty, it had been forwarded to the hotel from the States. Rushing to see Rusty, he learns that his father is dying. Returning to the hotel, Geoffrey checks out of the hotel and writes a note to Prof. Davidson explaining that a personal matter has come up that forces him to leave the expedition. Geoffrey leaves the note with Smith to give to Davidson, then he heads off to his father's village with his faithful dog Devil (Ace, the Wonder Dog). Smith immediately destroys the note so that Geoffrey will be blamed for the theft of the keys.
Arriving at his father's bedside, Geoffrey is giving the skull ring, whose imprint is the mark of The Phantom and all who wear it are known to be enemies of the jungle. His father tells of the family's legacy to always fight for peace in the jungle. Then he shows Geoffrey the vast treasure he can use in his crusade and the tomb of his ancsestors, where Geoffrey pledges his life to fight all who would try to bring evil into the jungle.
The Phantom dies and is laid to rest in the tomb. Geoffrey assumes the mantle of The Phantom, thereby continuing the legend that The Phantom is the "Man Who Never Dies" and summons the tribes to assemble. The Phantom appears in a puff of smoke and tells the natives not to listen to any strangers who would seek to destroy the peace of the jungle.
After returning to his quarters, in the Skull Cave, The Phantom is told that one tribal leader, Chota (Stanely Price), was not at the gathering. Moku is sent out to leave a trail so that The (new) Phantom can easily find the village. Chota, who is working for Bremmer's men, sees the trail and changes it so that it leads to Devil Swamp.
The Phantom follows the trail and sinks into a bog of quicksand. He tries to pull himself out but is prevented by an approaching crocodile. Luckily Devil was following him and chases off the reptile, then helps to pull his master out of the mire.
Meanwhile Chota has sent out a message, via jungle drums, that The Phantom has angered the spirits of Devil Swamp and been destroyed. This allows Chota's warriors to attack Davidson's party. The warriors pin down the expedition and plan to wait until nightfall, where they will sneak up on the group and kill them in the dark.
Moku notifies The Phantom of the message about his death. He returns to the Skull Cave and sends his own message that he is still alive. He then appears before the tribes again and demands that all hostilities be stopped. News of his appearance is sent out by drums and the warriors withdraw from Davidson's party in fear.
When the message reaches Chota he forces Bremmer's men to leave the village. They go, grudgingly, to take care of Davidson themselves. After the men leave, The Phantom comes into the village and demands to know why Chota has broken the peace of the jungle. Chota says he hasn't. The Phantom uses some slight of hand to make it seem like he caused Chota's hut to spontaneously burst into flame. Scared, Chota says he was forced to by strangers with guns. He lets slip that they are going to attack the Davidson expedition.
The Phantom rushes off to the rescue. He comes upon the expedition pinned down by gun fire. Using stealth, The Phantom sneaks up on different members of the gang, knocks them cold, and disarms them. Some get away and he tries to trail them but is attacked by a lion.
The lion is killed by the faithful Moku, who was keeping an eye on The Phantom. After thanking Moku, they go to the Davidon party where they find that all of the porters are dead. The Phantom has Moku gather some tribes men and take the expedition to Blackie's.
Trailing the gang, The Phantom discovers that they returned to Chota's village. Chota denies this and is frightened into telling the truth when The Phantom makes it appear that he turned Chota's staff into a snake. Chota says that the men tried to force him into giving them shelter but he sent them away. He says they went to Blackie's.
The Phantom goes to Blackie's where he finds the members of the expedition tied up. Freeing them and his tribesmen, The Phantom enters Blackie's cabin to capture the men, a fight breaks out, and he is knocked unconscious. The men rush out, leaving a live grenade to kill The Phantom. The Phantom wakes up in time to leap out a window, grab a nearby vine, and swing to safety.
The men excape into the jungle and return to Sai Pana, where they inform Bremmer that Davidson didn't have the keys. Bremmer conjectures that Smith must have stolen them and plans to see him later.
The Phantom takes the expedition back to Skull Cave where he learns that Geoffrey Prescott is believed to have stolen the keys and gone off into the jungle on his own. Questioning Davidson, he finds out that his note was never given to the Professor. Telling Moku to look after the party, The Phantom goes to Sai Pana. Wearing a trenchcoat and wraparound sunglasses, The Phantom plans to call on Smith in the guise of "Mr. Walker" and find out what happened to the keys.
This serial easily ranks with "The Spider's Web" (1938) and "The Secret Code" (1942) as one of the best serials that Columbia ever put out. It's a "mostly" faithful adaptation of the source material, with a perfect casting in Tom Tyler, and one of the best director of serials at the helm, B. Reeves "Breezy" Eason.
The serial has a good opening chapter, setting up two villains after the same thing for different reasons, and a quick but forceful way of getting all of title character's history and motivations put forward to the audience. The next two chapters get a little repetitive with the Phantom always going to Chota's village to get information, but things pick up in Chapter Four as our hero has to stop a shipment of arms to some of the hostile natives. After taking care of that, he then assumes command of Davidson's expedition, where he must contend with the "immortal" Fire Princess and the despot Tarter (Dick Curtis), while also fighting hand to hand with tigers and gorillas.
The fight scenes, while not as elaborate or well shot as at Republic, are exciting and believeable, Tyler even shakes his hand as if in pain after throwing a massive haymaker. The stunt work is also pretty good with some Tarzan-style vine swinging and wrestling with lions and tigers.
Tom Tyler slips into the character of The Phantom as easily as he did Captain Marvel. It helps that the costume is dead on accurate from the comic strip (probably the only time a serial got a costume just right). But Tyler doesn't let his performance rely on the suit to do all of the work. He gives an emotional depth to his character by the way he plays the scene where his father dies in his arms. He underplays it just enough to show his character's sorrow without getting maudlin.
The rest of the heroes are pretty much stock characters. John Bagni is the friendly, helpful native. He is sometimes amusing when he complains about having to be left out of the action. Jeanne Bates is just someone to be put in peril and rescued. Guy Kingsford is the standard selfish coward who we all know will eventually betray the others, the only question is when. Frank Shannon comes off best, though saddled with a one dimensional character, he does imbue it with some personality.
The villains are a varied and interesting bunch. Skipping the henchmen, as they are a colorless bunch on the whole, the first notable villain is Stanley Price's double dealing Chota. He plays one of the most untrustworthy characters in a serial, always willing to turn against either the Phantom or Bremmer's men depending on which will save himself at the moment. Price plays the part to perfection. I also enjoyed Joe Devlin's rather easy going villain, Singapore Smith. He is so easy going that you believe his ability to get Davidson and the rest of the expedition to trust him so completely in the beginning.
Though Dick Curtis doesn't appear until much later in the serial, he plays one of the more complex villains. Like John "Tiny" Lipson's Vultan from "Flash Gordon" (1936), Curtis first appears as a viscious and cruel dictator, but after realizing The Phantom is on his side, he is shown to really be a wise and just ruler who is only doing what he does to protect his people. Curtis is fine during the early scenes, where he seems to take great delight in making things miserable for the heroes, but he isn't quite capable of pulling off the nice guy image later on.
Which brings us to the main villain, Kenneth Macdonald's Dr. Bremmer. MacDonald was the premier serial villain at Columbia by this time, having worked his way up from supporting roles in the late thirties, taking over for Columbia's earlier favorite villain actor, James Craven. His Dr. Bremmer is as smooth as silk when ingratiating himself with the heroes, and as nasty as a pit bull when dealing with his own men. MacDonald pulls them both off flawlessly, but due to a personal biasness on my part from having watched him torment and threaten The Three Stooges during my formative years, I can never quite buy that anyone is fooled by his nice guy act.
All of these elements are brought together by veteran director Eason who gives the proceedings, if you'll pardon the pun, a breezy pacing. Characters are always on the go, but without that frantic slapstick feeling James Horne embued his serials with. The proceedings are played straight, with all humor coming from the characters, not the situations (once you overlook the absurdity of a man dressed in purple tights running around the jungle). Everything in this serial works, although the ending does disappoint some fans. I can understand this, as the ending does not have a slam bang finish and can seem to be a bit anti-climactic. Personally I enjoy the ending for it's sense of visual style in wrapping things up, and it is a nice change from the usual slug fests used to defeat the villain.