The word phantom can mean several things. It can be another name for a ghost. It can represent anything that is imaginary. It can also denote something that is difficult to attain. Cinematically, the term has been used in movie titles about both superheroes and submarines, and that’s not even including variations on the name such as The Phantom of the Opera, Phantom of the Paradise, or Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. In 1931, before all of these (okay, well not before the original silent The Phantom of the Opera), another film used the name The Phantom, and it’s easy to see why it has been lost in the shuffle.
The Phantom is the story of a criminal, aptly called the Phantom, who stages a daring escape from prison. Once he’s out, the Phantom goes after the man who he believes put him in jail: District Attorney John Hampton (Wilfred Lucas from Modern Times). The Phantom also targets the D.A.’s daughter, Ruth (The Man Without a Face’s Allene Ray), in his plot for vengeance. Luckily, Ruth’s boyfriend, a reporter named Dick Mallory (western character actor Guinn Williams from The Alamo and Santa Fe Trail), is around to protect her, as is Dick’s boss, newspaperman Sam Crandall (Foolproof’s Niles Welch), who also has feelings for Ruth. Of course, the Phantom shows up at the house where everyone is gathered and leads Dick and Ruth on a chase, whispering about a man named Dr. Walden (William Gould from Buck Rogers) who is performing crazy experiments on humans. Dick and Ruth then have to solve two mysteries; who is the mysterious Phantom, and what is going on with the dubious Dr. Walden…and, how are the two connected?
During the great depression, the movie industry continued to operate, giving audiences an escape from their troubles. However, times were hard for Hollywood as well, and films had to be made cheaply, giving birth to the so-called “poverty row” studios. The Phantom is a fine example of a poverty row production. The sets are limited to just a couple of locations and the cast is made up of lower-tier stars. The film, written by Alan James (Dick Tracy, Silent Sentinel) and directed by Alvin J. Neitz (a pseudonym for James, used so it would look like a different person directed), is simple and direct, and the production was easily able to stay within its means.
Although considered an early horror film, The Phantom is more of a melodrama than anything else, and the cast’s performances reflect this. The principal players overact their parts for dramatic effect, and they deliver corny on-the-nose dialogue like “oh, that terrible man…” and “I don’t like this place…!” There are plenty of characters to provide comic relief, both intentional and unintentional, as well; Lucy the maid (Alan James’ sister Violet Knights from The Cheyenne Kid) is a helpless wreck, Shorty the chauffer (Terror Aboard’s Bobby Dunn) is a shuddering coward, and Oscar the Lunatic (William Jackie from The Two Gun Man) is, well, a lunatic. The policemen, led by Sergeant Pat Collins (Moby Dick’s Tom O’Brien), are stereotypical bumbling cops, getting nothing done while uttering silly lines like “hey…what’s your name?” to every other character who crosses their paths. Throw in the archetypical mad scientist Dr. Walden and the slowly stalking titular Phantom – billed in the credits as The Thing and played by Sheldon Lewis from The Monster Walks – and The Phantom is full of golden age Hollywood stereotypes.
The cinematography in The Phantom is a clinic in effective, low-budget filmmaking. The movie was photographed by Lauren “Jack” Draper (The Dead Speak, A Macabre Legacy), and his work on the film is as impressive as it is economical. Much of the action is captured in master shots, just one single wide angle take of everything that occurs on set in the scene. Then, cutaways and close-ups are added where needed (sometimes awkwardly edited in, but that’s not Draper’s fault). The sets are a combination of big, British extravagance and slanted, angular German impressionism, giving the film a familiar yet spooky feel. There are a handful of lighting tricks that Draper does that keeps the film looking like a horror picture, including one shot in particular of the Phantom’s eyes that could have been pulled right out of Dracula. He also does some cool in-camera stuff to add effect, such as undercranking the camera during a fight scene between Dick and Dr. Walden in order to speed it up and give it a more violent appearance. Draper’ photography is primitive yet creative, and it works well within the time and budget that the production allowed. The Phantom is a textbook example of efficient filmmaking.
The most memorable scene in The Phantom occurs right at the beginning of the film. As far-fetched as it may be, the Phantom’s escape from prison is a masterful sequence. First, the Phantom scales the prison wall with the agility of a spider. Then, he hops from the top of the wall onto a convenient moving freight train. As if that’s not enough, he then grabs onto a rope ladder that happens to be dangling from a passing plane, thus completing his escape. Inept prison guards with stormtrooper-bad aim shoot at him the whole time. It’s a breathtaking scene, and one that is made more impressive by the fact that there was no CG in the thirties; there may have been some primitive camera trickery, but those stunts were done live. Unfortunately for The Phantom, the rest of the film doesn’t pack nearly as much of a visceral punch as the opening. But hey, at least audiences got that much of a rush out of the film.
Phantom is a handy and useful word, one that has come to indicate just about anything that is unknown or mysterious. It has been plugged into numerous film titles over the years to describe Phantom Soldiers, Phantom Raiders, and The Phantom Planet but, sometimes, simplicity is best. Alan James’ The Phantom is short, sweet, and to the point.