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Film / The Phantom (1943)

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The Phantom is a 12-chapter Film Serial released by Columbia Pictures in 1943. Based on the comic strip of the same name, it starred Tom Tyler (who had previously starred in The Adventures of Captain Marvel), with Ace the Wonder Dog as his faithful animal companion Devil.

Our hero is called on to take up the mantle of the Phantom after his father is killed by a spy ring who are planning to build a secret airbase in the jungle the Phantom protects. He has to settle into the role while foiling the spy ring and also protecting an archeological expedition, which his love interest Diana is a member of, both from hostile natives and from greedy white criminals seeking the treasure of the lost city the expedition is searching for.

This film serial provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Villainy: Byron, Diana's love interest in the expedition, gets handed a Jerkass Ball near the end of the serial and becomes an antagonist for the sake of monetary gain. The Byron of the comics, even as a rival to the Phantom for Diana, was never less than honorable.
  • Almost Dead Guy: One of the spy ring's agents, after being shot to prevent the Phantom learning anything, takes several minutes to die, long enough to explain how they came to be working for the spy ring, and then dies just as it seems they're about to reveal the identity of the spy ring's leader.
  • As You Know: A particularly blatant example in the scene where the Tartar's guards explain to each other that the sound they're hearing is an intruder alarm and that their master will shortly send men out to capture the trespassers on his domain — just as he does every time somebody happens past.
  • Clark Kenting: While protecting the Davidson expedition, the Phantom spends a lot of time around people who knew Geoffrey Prescott, who with one exception show no sign of recognising him. Diana remarks after her first meeting with the Phantom that he "reminds me of someone we all know, but I just can't place him"; after she's met him a few more times, they have a conversation in which she clearly suspects who he is and offers him several openings to admit it, but he dodges the question and the subject is not raised again.
  • Cliffhanger: What kind of film serial would it be without them? Descending spikes, explosions, poison gas, rock falls, rope bridges, hungry wild animals, quicksand — the last two simultaneously...
  • Cliffhanger Copout: The serial makes heavy use of the kind where the cliffhanger is edited to make the situation appear more dire than it actually is, with the recap revealing that help was already on the way, or there was an escape tunnel just out of shot, or whatever. However, it always plays fair in that it only ever conceals information, never outright changes the events between chapters.
  • Costume Copycat: In the final chapter, the villain attempts to gain control of the jungle tribes by getting one of his henchmen to impersonate the Phantom. The false Phantom winds up dying in front of all the tribal chiefs, giving the real Phantom an opportunity to embroider his legend as the Man Who Cannot Die.
  • Decoy Getaway: One of the villains goes to dispose of Rusty, the Phantom's contact in the town on the edge of the jungle. He sneaks up to Rusty's window, sees Rusty seated at a table, and puts three bullets in his head. But wait! The Phantom got to Rusty first, and made a decoy out of Rusty's hat and coat and a stuffed gorilla.
  • Dismantled MacGuffin: The map to the lost city. When the city was abandoned and the population split into seven groups, each group took part of the map so that the city would remain lost until the groups reunited. As one of the characters remarks, that didn't work out so well; over the centuries, various bits of the map fell into the hands of outsiders, and in the first chapter Professor Davidson has all of them except one.
  • Find Out Next Time: Will the Phantom survive [current cliffhanger]? How will he handle [new plot development to be introduced in the next chapter]? Find out in the next episode of The Phantom, in this theatre next week!
  • God Guise: One of the villain's tricks for gaining control of the natives is to hire a showgirl to impersonate the legendary Fire Princess who is said to have once led one of the tribes to greatness.
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy: The Phantom is on the loose in a fortified compound, but has no way of getting past the impregnable front gate — until the guard leading the search for the Phantom orders the gate opened so he can go and see if the Phantom has already got out.
  • Heroic Dog: Devil, played by Ace the Wonder Dog.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: The villain's plan in the final chapter is derailed by the fruition of a scheme he set up and then abandoned in one of the earliest chapters. A tribal chief whom the villain had been encouraging to rise up against the Phantom's rule over the jungle decides to murder the Phantom at the next meeting of the chiefs — the same meeting at which the villain attempts to pass off an impostor Phantom, who gets killed instead of the real one.
  • I Don't Pay You to Think: After a henchman gets ahead of himself in disposing of someone who hasn't outlived his usefulness quite yet.
  • Jerkass Ball: Byron, Diana's love interest in the expedition, gets handed one near the end of the serial, revealing that he's only in it for a cut of the lost treasure, and selling out to the bad guys after Professor Davidson points out that if the expedition finds any treasure it will probably go into a museum.
  • Make It Look Like a Struggle: Done by the leader of the spy ring and one of his henchmen at one point when he's still pretending to be one of the good guys.
  • Misplaced Wildlife: Where is this jungle again? It doesn't matter — wherever it's meant to be, there's at least one animal that would be out of place.
  • Named by the Adaptation: The serial was made before the comic strip had established that the Phantom's real name was Kit Walker, so the filmmakers made up their own name for him: Geoffrey Prescott.
  • No Honor Among Thieves: In the final episode, one of the henchmen abandons another, who has been injured, to die in the jungle — and the injured man shoots him as he walks away.
  • Pin-Pulling Teeth: One of the villains, during the battle at the climax of chapter 3.
  • Plunger Detonator: Used by the villains in an attempt to drop a mountainside on the heroes.
  • Previously on…: At the beginning of each chapter after the first.
  • Rope Bridge: It's a jungle picture, so of course there's a rope bridge over a deep gorge, and of course the next cliffhanger is the ropes being cut and the bridge collapsing while the Phantom's out on it.
  • Smoke Out: One of the ways the Phantom maintains the natives' belief that he is an immortal supernatural being is by using a smoke in and a smoke out whenever he summons them for an audience.
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: The serial is set in The Jungle, with no explicit statement of where this jungle is. The latter half of the serial introduces a warlord known as the Tartar, which would suggest an Asian setting except that despite their clothing and interior decoration he and his retinue are clearly white men. The fauna and flora are the usual Hollywood mishmash, but the natives, clothing, and architecture are suggestive of South America.note 
  • Worthless Treasure Twist: After a lot of double-crossing and several deaths, the expedition finally finds the treasure vault in the Lost City of Zoloz — and it's empty, except for a note indicating that one of the Phantom's ancestors found the Lost City already and moved the treasure to his own cave for safe-keeping. The Phantom offers to let the archeologists examine it once the villains have been dealt with.