Tom Tyler’s Phantom Still Packs a Punch
By Don Stradley
“Movie serials were the best action films of any kind ever made.”
So said authors Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut in the forward to their seminal 1972 book, The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury. The authors wrote with such deadpan confidence that the quote couldn’t be taken seriously, but they had a point. The plots of serials were often confusing blends of whatever was trending at the time - ersatz sci-fi, jungle adventures, Nazi spies - but the fight scenes exploded out of the screen.
Columbia’s The Phantom (1943), now available from The Film Detective as part of “Serial Sundays,” bears this out. Just minutes into the first chapter, star Tom Tyler knocks the hell out of some thugs. Tyler’s every punch is a lethal haymaker accompanied by a cartoonishly loud crack. Since low-end studios were responsible for most serials, producers had access to the same gritty stuntmen who made their livings in B westerns. This gave serial fight scenes a wildly improvised feel, with veteran stuntmen slipping and sliding across rickety sets. It was all in the name of thrilling the kiddies who filled theaters each Saturday to see this stuff.
The bedlam of the action scenes made them all the more appealing. It was common to see a prop chair not break when smashed across an actor’s back; since budgets were too low for retakes, the botched scene stayed. Conversely, there were scenes where furniture seemed to break unexpectedly, or actors stumbled; those scenes stayed, too. It also appeared that every actor in a serial, whether playing a lowly lab assistant or an effete butler, had to fight. Acting in serials was a tough gig. And few actors seemed so perfect for this line of work as tall, strapping Tom Tyler.
Billed in press releases for The Phantom as “one of America’s favorite he-man actors,” Tyler had appeared in many westerns, but to kids he had earned special kudos as the star of Republic’s Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), generally regarded as the best comic book serial ever. The Phantom was a suitable follow-up for him, provided Tyler didn’t hurt anybody.
Though he looked heroic enough, Tyler was occasionally clumsy. “His lanky arms were always knocking over props,” wrote Glut and Harmon, adding that Tyler was also known to accidentally connect with his fake punches. Considering Tyler was 6’ 1” and an ex-boxer, this made the fight scenes even more hazardous.
The Phantom, created by Lee Falk, was the masked protector of a jungle nation, a mysterious place with elements of Africa, India, and the Amazon Rainforest. He had a loyal wolf for a pet (capably portrayed by Ace the Wonder Dog), and a modest bag of tricks and illusions to keep him enigmatic. He also wore a metal skull-ring, so his punches left an indelible imprint on a criminal’s face. Of course, if Tyler hit you while wearing a metal ring, he’d probably tear your brains out.
Fresh off producing a cheap but action-packed Batman serial – Batman’s cape actually fell off in one scene - Columbia had high hopes for The Phantom. In some quarters the character was held in greater esteem than Superman or Batman. This was based on the Phantom being a King Features cartoon strip in the newspapers; in 1943, newspaper strips were considered superior to comic books. The Phantom also had the distinction of being the first popular masked hero in comics. With such a blue chip prospect in their possession, the studio enlisted the directing skills of B. Reeves Eason, an action maestro with credits dating back to 1915. The Phantom’s jungle setting was also a boon, sure to create better atmosphere than Batman’s dreary Gotham.
Unfortunately, when shown the first chapter in a Washington DC screening room in 1944, Falk was disgusted by the serial’s bargain-basement appearance; he walked out after five minutes. The Phantom was a typical chapter-play of the period: short on budget, long on thrills.
As the Phantom, Tyler wrestles a lion, fends off an alligator, nearly dies in quicksand, survives explosions, and takes quite a few knocks on the head. In one hair-raising scene he battles some creeps on a wobbly bridge, while in chapter 13 he subdues a gorilla (played by Ray “Crash” Corrigan, king of the Hollywood film gorillas). Of course, there’s a plot about a hidden treasure and the Lost City of Zoloz, but the series was done mostly to show “The Ghost Who Walks” in one perilous scene after another.
Tyler was 40 at the time of The Phantom and near the end of his career as a movie tough guy. A severe case of rheumatoid arthritis limited the roles he could take; his crippled hands could no longer hold a gun or make a fist, a disastrous turn of events for an action star. Though he continued acting and appeared in such reputable films as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and What Price Glory (1951), his roles were so small that at times he didn’t even receive screen credit. More ailments followed. He died in 1954 at age 50.
When Billy Zane donned the Phantom’s costume in 1996 for a handsome Paramount feature, the character flopped. By then American filmgoers expected certain things from their heroes, namely, secret identities and cool gadgets, of which the Phantom had none. He was just a fellow in a weird costume doing good deeds. In a way, the Phantom is the heroic concept in its purest form. All he had was a big punch and a noble nature, traits perfectly displayed many years ago by Tom Tyler, traits that even showed through Columbia’s stingy budget.
The Phantom went virtually unseen for many years after its initial run. It wasn’t until 2000, thanks to VCI Home Video, that Tom Tyler’s Phantom was widely available for public consumption. The serial had aged well. Even Lee Falk, in his 80s at the time, admitted that Tyler was “a good actor,” and “the stories weren’t bad.”
At the time he co-wrote The Great Movie Serials, Don Glut hadn’t seen The Phantom. Glut was impressed when he finally saw it. “I wasn't expecting something as good as it was,” Glut told The Film Detective. “Tom Tyler was excellent in the role.”
Glut still felt Columbia serials were secondary to the serials from Republic and Universal, but praised The Phantom as, “one of the better Columbias.”
Does he still feel serials were the best action films ever made?
“No, I don't believe that any longer,” Glut said. “Better to say ‘in their day.’”
Yet the old action scenes have a unique energy. When the Phantom, or Captain Marvel, or Commando Cody, gets into a fight, they unleash a kind of chaos, with no choreography, no special effects. The movie pauses to let them erupt. It was even better when a piece of the set collapsed, or Tyler connected on some poor stuntman’s chin. Kids must’ve ambled out of theaters with questions about the cheap programmer they'd just seen. Sure, the quicksand was fake, but some of those punches looked real!
For some of us, that’s a fair definition of “movie magic.”
The Phantom is featured on The Film Detective's Serial Sunday.