As sinister as lead villains were in serials, their subordinates were often just as evil, if not more so. The second in command was usually known in the script as “the Spearhead Heavy”. When the master villain came up with each new nefarious scheme, it was often more convenient (and practical) to assign his #2 man to the latest mission of menace. Often, the second in command also had an assistant. Republic Pictures had their own pool of contract players to fill this very important niche. The following actors should be familiar to cliffhanger fans: George J. Lewis; Kenne Duncan; Anthony Warde; Bud Geary; Hal Taliaferro; John Merton; Lane Bradford; Clayton Moore and Tristram Coffin.
The “on-screen private lives” of these men apparently were no bed of roses. Viewing serial after serial, I never heard any of them ever mention a wife or even a girl friend. The chief villain didn’t fare much better, although there were exceptions. In “Federal Operator 99” (‘45), master criminal Jim Belmont (played by George J. Lewis) has a moll named Rita Parker (played by Lorna Gray who shortly had her name changed to Adrian Booth and starred as the heroine of her own serial, “Daughter of Don Q”). Also, I always felt there might have been some hanky panky between the Purple Monster and his assistant, Marcia, whom he brought from Mars to Earth in “The Purple Monster Strikes” (‘45). The villain in the title was portrayed by perennial serial favorite Roy Barcroft. Marcia was played by Mary Moore, who was once married to Clayton Moore. Meanwhile, the henchmen seemed to pass the time by drinking, playing cards and just recovering from some of the savage beatings they received from the hero in previous episodes.
Let’s study the track record of some of these active actors:
George J. Lewis: “Perils of Nyoka” (‘42), “G-Men Vs. the Black Dragon” (‘43), “Daredevils of the West” (‘43), “Captain America” (‘44), “Tiger Woman” (‘44), “Haunted Harbor” (‘44), “Adventures of Frank and Jesse James” (‘48).
Although I have only compiled a partial list, I feel these are the names most familiar to Republic serial fans. As you look over these actors’ credits, I’m reasonably sure you realize some of them had the personality and physical appearance to play heroes as well as villains. Clayton Moore is the obvious example. Not once, but twice did we see his dark side. He was rotten to the core in both “Crimson Ghost” and “Radar Men From the Moon”. He was also seen in the closing minutes of Ch. 1 of “Flying Disc Man From Mars”, but I don’t count this as these scenes were footage taken from the cliffhanger of Ch. 5 of “Crimson Ghost”.
George J. Lewis was the hero of “Zorro’s Black Whip”. He told me once the only reason he got the role was that most of the hero-types were in the service. Although this was George’s last starring role, he played the leading man’s friend in such serials as “Phantom Rider”, “Ghost of Zorro” and “Radar Patrol Vs. Spy King”.
Hal Taliaferro started his serial career as a good guy in three great Republic serials: “Painted Stallion”, “Lone Ranger” and “Adventures of Red Ryder”, then he fell in with bad company.
Another subject comes to mind: The film names of some of the henchmen. Take the two Clayton Moore serials when he portrayed a heavy. In “Crimson Ghost” he was Ashe. In “Radar Men From the Moon” he was Graber. My apologies to any reader that has these names, but they simply don’t sound like nice guys to me. There are a lot more examples: Kenne Duncan as Sidney Brand in “Manhunt of Mystery Island”. Bud Geary as Hodge Garrett in “Purple Monster Strikes”. Anthony Warde as Burt Spear in “King of the Forest Rangers”. George J. Lewis as Rafe Henley in “Adventures of Frank and Jesse James”. Roy Barcroft as Kilgore in “Ghost of Zorro” and as Hacker in “Desperadoes of the West”. Anthony Warde as Killer Mace (that’s telling it like it is) in “Masked Marvel”. John Davidson as Lucifer in “Dick Tracy Vs. Crime, Inc.” I think you get the idea.
The final insult is, with very few exceptions, the henchmen are killed off prior to their boss’ own demise or incarceration. Examples of henchmen who outlived their leaders, at least for a few minutes, are: “Secret Service In Darkest Africa”, Rod Cameron kills the lead Nazi in a sword fight and pursues his top henchman, Wolfe, (that name thing again) to the airport. Wolfe is killed when Rod rams his car into the plane in which Wolfe is attempting to escape. In “Daughter of Don Q”, head villain LeRoy Mason is killed in a confrontation with Kirk Alyn. Kirk catches up with (surprise) Roy Barcroft, who is on a high bridge attempting to throw off a packing case containing the Daughter of Don Q, Adrian Booth. Kirk arrives before this can be done and, in a fierce fight, sends Barcroft hurtling off into space. And well deserved.We have other clues the henchman’s lot in life is not an easy one. Not only are they continuously being beaten up by the hero and his friends, but they don’t seem to have any extra money for a change of clothing. They always wear the same thing! Come to think of it, I’ll bet they have a lousy dental plan.
I believe it was in the third grade when I decided to go “trick or treating” as the Phantom. I’m not exactly certain why this was since I traditionally emulated characters I was fanatical about such as Superman, the Wolfman or Zorro. In this case, I really knew very little about the history and mythology of Lee Falk’s famous creation since there was no Phantom TV show, the serial was never shown in my theatres and I didn’t regularly follow the comic strip except for an occasional glance at the colored Sunday panels. All I really knew was I thought his purple getup with the mask and two holstered pistol set looked pretty cool.
Later, when I became interested in cliffhanger history, I saw stills of Tom Tyler in costume and was amazed at how much he resembled his fictional counterpart. I yearned to see the Columbia product and was able to finally catch up with the long illusive chapterplay. How would it hold up? Thematically, the plot of “The Phantom” owes a great deal to “Adventures of Captain Marvel” (‘41) which, of course, also starred Tyler.
Professor Davidson (Frank Shannon—Dr. Zarkov in the Flash Gordon serials) and his daughter Diana (Jeanne Bates) are seeking the lost African city of Zoloz, the legendary location of great hidden treasure. Also attempting to get to the loot first are local crook Singapore Smith (Joe Devlin) and international racketeer Dr. Bremmer (Kenneth MacDonald). Fortunately for the Davidsons, the mysterious Phantom is in their corner and single-handedly braves fire, explosions and all manner of deathtraps to aid them.
But wait now, “single-handedly” is perhaps an inaccurate descriptive phrase. For the record, although the Phantom is strong of limb, exerts an almost supernatural influence over the local natives, has a command of magic and occasionally manages to cleverly extricate himself from some near fatal cliffhangers, it is more often than not his canine comrade Devil (brilliantly played by Ace, the Wonder Dog) who should receive the most credit for showing up in the nick of time. Were it not for Devil, the Phantom would have been sunk in quicksand, devoured by an alligator and riddled by shotgun pellets. Yet each time the Phantom cheats death thanks to his tail-wagging pal, his response is to remind his native servant to tie up the heroic dog so he won’t tag along in the future. Fortunately for The Phantom’s hide, Devil always manages to break free and bodyguard his unappreciative master.
The 15 chapters, directed by B. Reeves Eason, are a cut above other Columbia serials as far as pacing and action are concerned with several of the cliffhangers rather unique. On the downside, however, the stock animal footage, cheesy jungle sets and limited locations give the proceedings a highly restrictive and claustrophobic feel.
The music is credited to Lee Zahler, but on several occasions I distinctly heard cues from some of Cy Feuer’s Republic scores, particularly “Mysterious Doctor Satan”. Moreover, since the same gang of technicians at Columbia were responsible for the sound effects in the studio’s Three Stooges’ shorts, I couldn’t help think of “The Boys” when the Phantom was punching it out with some baddie, and the fact that Kenneth MacDonald, often a Stooge villain, was also the Phantom’s nemesis didn’t help matters, but that’s my problem. Another complaint is that much too much time, sometimes up to three minutes, is spent showing what went on in the previous episode.
In the casting department, Tom Tyler delivers a fine, controlled, heroic performance as the masked hero (whose outfit in the print I watched kept changing from what appeared to be jet black to a softer gray); although I prefer his steely-eyed, no-nonsense work in “Captain Marvel”. Jeanne Bates is a real cutie as the much put upon heroine with an almost modern independent streak and the aforementioned MacDonald is his usual slimy gentlemanly self. There are, however, several excruciatingly bad performances, particularly from the gal who masquerades as a jungle princess. And again, Ace as Devil is quite impressive, although director Eason really should have removed him from all scenes involving fisticuffs as the frenetic animal frantically interjects itself in each slugfest almost tripping up the combatants.
The Phantom is certainly not one of the great serials—economic short cuts, an uneven script and some poor performances work too much against it—but it’s definitely a game attempt at transferring the character to the big screen. Short-comings aside, I’d still rather sit through it a dozen times—and possibly even a real alligator attack—than “The Phantom” with Billy Zane in ‘96.