Saturday, November 9, 2013


So easy is it to watch certain (read: cheap) old movies with an oh-so sophisticated smirk that it makes one wonder what the original audiences thought of them, especially in comparison to major studio productions of the time. Take 1931, which saw the release of, among others, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Dracula, Monkey Business, Frankenstein, Guilty Hands, The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, City Lights, The Last Flight and from Germany, M, The Threepenny Opera and Kameradschaft. Having watched all 12 of these, I can assure you that if those were the only movies you saw that year, you would have been satisfied. 

Then there's The Phantom, one of those 
non-classics where absolutely nothing makes sense. Presented by some dubious outfit called Action Dramas, The Phantom might have tested even the staunchest movie fan's tolerance for entertainment. A crime/mystery/thriller hybrid, it isn't bad per se. I mean, for my money, it's better than Avatar. But when you consider its director, Alan James, had already shot over three dozen movies by this point in his career, you kind of wonder why The Phantom looks like his first effort -- or earlier than his first, if such a thing is possible. Edits so abrupt that some shots are almost subliminal; shaky camerawork; actors speaking with ellipses... between... every... word; stagey blocking; scenes shot silent only to have dialogue and sound effects added afterwards. Was this thing made in 1927 and kept on the shelf four years? And let's not forget classic dialogue like this:

MAN: (pointing to his house) He's in there!
COP: You don't mean he's in the house?! 

The plot -- no, make that the things that happen for an hour -- concerns a condemned prisoner nicknamed The Phantom who escapes from prison and threatens the life of
Dick Mallory realizes that using his
fiancee as bait  to catch a madman might not be
the best move.

District Attorney John Hampton. A strange masked man appears at Hampton's house and attempts to kidnap his daughter Ruth. Ruth's fiance Dick Mallory, a reporter, shows up just in time to save her. Dick and Ruth chase the masked man to Dr. Weldon's insane asylum, where Ruth is brought to an operating room so Weldon can perform an experimental brain surgery on her -- which would be welcomed by anyone in the audience by now. The cops eventually arrive to put an end to this folderol.

You could create a new Grand Canyon with all The Phatom's plot-holes.
The butler eavesdrops on a
conversation because it's in the script.
The title character, who's supposed to be on death row, somehow climbs a high, flat prison wall to escape without anyone noticing, then jumps on top of a passing train before being picked up by a biplane. Dick Mallory, who's never visited Hampton's house, finds his way through its maze of secret passages, an interesting touch I've never seen on any of those home-remodeling shows my wife is always watching. And while the house itself is guarded by cops, people break in easier than if they walked through the front door. It takes the climactic arrival of Dick's editor, Sam Crandall (who's secretly in love with Ruth) to identify Weldon as the Phantom, thus continuing the smart reporter/dumb cop meme we've discussed before. Oh, and there's Hampton's butler whose only job is to act suspicious. How did the writer ever get this piece of claptrap to the director? Because it was the same guy!

How is it that rich people hire such stupid help?

And it wouldn't be a B-mystery without comic relief, although with a movie like The Phantom, it's difficult to discern just what it's relieving us from. Tedium?  Disbelief? Hampton's butler and maid, Shorty and Lucy, exist to run around in a panic, scream and, in general, aggravate the audience every chance they get. I recognized Shorty, or rather one-eyed actor Bobby Dunn, as the kleptomaniac from Laurel & Hardy's Tit for Tat, so he was worth a few minutes of my time. The actress playing Lucy (whose name, Violet Knights, sounds like a pushover football team) is a different matter altogether. "Screechy" doesn't do justice to her voice. Is there a word for "driving one to suicide"? Even by B-standards, Knights' performance is intolerable. How did such a "talent" get hired for The Phantom? Perhaps it helped that her brother was Alan James -- you remember, the writer/director of The Phantom. Thanks, bro!

Sadly, I'm starting to resemble him.

But for sheer weirdness, nobody beats William Jackie as Oscar the mental patient. Ridiculously tall and gangly with birdlike features, Jackie anticipates John Cleese's silly-walk routine by a good 40 years. His delivery, at once effeminate, garbled and hilariously stilted, would be condemned by any number of minority groups today. I couldn't figure out what accent he was attempting -- or if it was an accent at all -- until a quick "Yah, sure" signaled that Oscar was supposed to be Swedish. (In this respect, the producers were probably trying to evoke Fox Pictures' resident Swedish dialectician El Brendel, the unfunniest comic actor of his time.) Jackie's performance is utterly bizarre and unique to low-budget indies like this.  And as for why he uses a Swedish accent -- well, it's right there in the 1931 edition of the Shortcuts to Cheap Movie Laffs: "Nothing's funnier than some psycho Swede talking about the story of 'Yack and Yill.'" 

"This is how I wowed 'em on the rialto back in 1889."
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Sheldon Lewis as the mysterious masked figure identified in the credits as The Thing. With a scarf pulled above his nose, his eyeballs imitating Ping-Pong balls being hit back and forth by spastics, and long fingers quivering like octopus tentacles, Lewis -- born in 1868 -- appears not to have learned any acting style developed later than the Spanish-American War. The star of the original 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde -- a one-reel short that insultingly presented the story as only a nightmare -- Lewis was by this time a dime-store Lon Chaney, specializing in strange characters with bad teeth. Other than grunting a few hammy heh-heh-heh's, he plays The Thing minus dialogue. Lucky him.

President Big Boy
In this gallery of oddballs, bad actors and 19th-century relics, Guinn Williams, as Dick Mallory, stands out not so much for his acting skills but simple normality. Billed here as "Big Boy" Williams, he's the only actor in The Phantom who gives something resembling a good performance, even if he has nothing but stupid lines to recite. Fortunately, he went on to become a fine character actor, mainly in Westerns, at Warner Brothers, where he was one of Errol Flynn's drinking buddies. A disconcerting thing about the Texas-born Williams, however, is that throughout The Phantom, he eerily resembles George W. Bush both physically and vocally. I almost expected him to announce the discovery of weapons of mass destruction in the insane asylum.

Surprising for an ancient Poverty Row release, current prints of The Phantom are pretty crisp, probably because they haven't seen the inside of a projector since Hoover was president. Too, the audio track is free of the usual hiss and crackles. Soft squeaks of chairs are audible, as are ambient, off-camera sounds from the set itself -- perhaps the footsteps of the collection agency representative come to repossess the props. Best scene: the escape from prison via train and biplane, shot on location without phony special effects. Even the wobbly camerawork atop the train makes it that much more exciting. Take that, CGI!

So what did critics think of The Phantom in 1931? It's impossible to say. B-movies like this rarely, if ever, got reviewed. One look at that action-packed movie poster atop this page was likely enough to rope in interested audiences, though. And when you consider that it was probably supported by a comedy short, newsreel, cartoon and possibly a live vaudeville act, a silly movie like The Phantom would be remembered as a grand evening's entertainment. That is, until you thought about it afterwards. Like the scene when, a minute after Walden is arrested, editor Sam Crandall arranges for his article on what just transpired to run with Mallory's byline -- an article he must have written before knowing all the details. And how could Ruth claim that The Thing mentioned Dr. Weldon to her when he didn't say a word throughout the movie? And what happens to all the patients at the insane asylum now that Weldon is arrested? And why didn't the cops recognize him as the Phantom to begin with? And how did he climb up a flat, 50-foot prison wall to make his escape? 

And -- this is important -- who did Alan James sleep with to become a director?


No comments: