These days, comic book superheroes in tights are a dime a dozen. But the guy who started the trend was a comic strip hero, who first wore his underwear in public back in 1936.
This is him - The Phantom - who finally got around to making his motion picture debut in 1943. And surprisingly, they got the costume right. My only quibble is that in some scenes, his tights looked more black than gray.
This 15-chapter serial starred cowboy hero Tom Tyler, who’d demonstrated his superhero chops in the 1941 serial Captain Marvel. I have to give Tyler a slightly lower score than his costume, but overall he made an acceptable Ghost Who Walks.
First off, when Tyler runs through the jungle, he looks like Tiny Tim tiptoeing through the tulips. But his worst offence comes at the end of Chapter 1, when the Phantom falls into quicksand and is menaced by a hungry crocodile. Anyone who’s read the comic strip knows how the real Phantom responds to the prospect of certain death: He makes a wisecrack. Not so, our Tom. Instead, he cringes, grimaces, wiggles and is afflicted with an extreme case of jazz hands.
So how does he escape at the beginning of Chapter 2? He keeps on cringing, grimacing, wiggling and jazz-handing until Devil saves his butt. In fact, Devil saves his butt in about one of every three chapters. The only problem with Devil is - he’s supposed to be a wolf. Here, though, he’s just a dog, proudly portrayed by Ace the Wonder Dog. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Except, of course, that he’s supposed to be a wolf.
Then there are the natives. This is darkest Africa, right? And since we’ve all seen plenty of Tarzan movies, we know what African natives are supposed to look like. Here, they look like a cross between Wild West Indians and South Pacific Islanders.
STILL, once you get past the jazz hands, Ace the Wonder Dog and the homogenized natives, it’s a pretty decent serial. Most of the cliffhangers are okay, the dialogue is a couple of steps above dumb, and there are more fistfights than you could shake a fist at. And heck, this is the Phantom (sort of), so despite its flaws, this serial is required viewing.
More Overlooked Filmy stuff at SWEET FREEDOM.