Friday, June 3, 2016

The Phantom on TV

Welcome back friends of the Phantom! Did you know there was a failed TV pilot for the Phantom? No, I'm not talking about the SyFy Channel "event". (I'll save that for another time.) I'm talking about a 60's attempt that would have predated the popular "Batman" show from 1966. That's right, the Ghost Who Walks almost had his own television 1961! 

I picked up a curious DVD at a convention a couple years back. It was labeled "Unaired TV Pilots" and featured "Archie" (1964), "The Shadow" (1954) and "The Phantom". You may have guessed from the washed out title card above, the video quality isn't great, the audio is occasionally muffled, or crackles and pops...but it's interesting nonetheless. 

Starring former stuntman Roger Creed as The Phantom, the story opens with a hunting party led by Jed (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Mrs. Harris (Paulette Goddard) on horseback, and with a couple leashed leopards, in pursuit of two men in the jungle. Mrs. Harris gives the order to set one of the leopards loose on the men. One man is taken out by the leopard, and the other is shot by Jed as Mrs. Harris warns "No one escapes from the Harris Plantation!"

The man who was shot, isn't dead, but things look grim as a crocodile inches closer looking for free meal. Luckily, then Phantom just happens to be riding by on Hero, the horse, and with Devil, his wolf, in tow. Leaping into action the Phantom and Devil manage to save the man, and take him to "Territorial Headquarters" (filling in for the Jungle Patrol, maybe?) and Commissioner Mallory (Reginald Denny). There, as Mr. Walker, the Phantom learns that the man he rescued was actually an undercover agent named Vince Howard who was investigating mistreatment and death of convicts working at the Harris Plantation. With that, the Phantom decides to take up an investigation of his own.

Later a supply truck arrives at the plantation, with several new workers...or "boneheads" as Jed likes to call them. They're introduced to Mrs. Harris, and told her word is law. Their job? Building a road through the jungle. They're also told "no one escapes" before being sprayed down with "leopard bait" and then sent off to gather their gear for the job. Big Mike (Richard Kiel...Jaws from the Bond films) visits the plantation's resident doctor for some "medicine", he plans to make a break for it and is confident that he'll succeed. Another man follows and tells the doc that the medicine isn't working! Walker, clad in head bandages and an eye patch, watches and insists the man should be sent to a hospital which would be fine...if it wasn't for the fact that the Doctor is in cahoots with Harris and Jed! The doc even tips them off about Walker, while at the same time Walker is busy trying to find convicts willing to rat out Harris.

That night, Devil sneaks into the plantation with a message for the Phantom from Mallory. It warns that Big Mike is a killer, but that the Patrol should arrive the next day. The following morning, at breakfast Big Mike is unhappy with what's being served and tosses a guy into the mess tent. He takes out 3 or 4 guys before Jed tries to stop him and fails. One of Mrs. Harris' men draw their rifle, but she insists they don't shoot Big Mike. Instead they take him down with a giant net and tie him to a tree, leaving him to bake in the sun as punishment. Mrs. Harris comes to Mike with a proposition. Leading him to believe that Walker ratted him out (not the doctor), she'll let him go if he kills Walker. While Walker is trying to convince other cons to testify against Harris, Mike makes his move. The men wrestle, trading blows and leaping over horses ( read that right). Mike almost splits Walker's head open with an ax, but the Phantom manages to over power the larger man and takes him down with a series of punches! Mrs. Harris begins firing her pistol at the Phantom...until Devil leaps into action and takes her to the ground. 

The Phantom sends one convict ahead to meet with the patrol, then has Devil drop the convict's shirt on different part of the trail to throw off the search party led by Jed and his leopards. Apparently Walker hid his tights and horse somewhere in the jungle near the plantation, because when next we see him he's in costume leaping from Hero's back and into the trees. Jed separates from the rest of the party to search on his own, while the men let one of the leopards loose to chase down the Phantom. The Ghost Who Walks easily evades the cat, and doubles back to take out the men. Then, as Jed finds the convicts shirt he's attacked by the leopard...attracted by the bait sprayed on the con's clothes no doubt. Mrs. Harris is taken away by the patrol as one of the officers offers reduced sentences to the men who testify against her. And with that, the Phantom hops on Hero's back and rides off into the jungle!

Once you get past the low quality of the video, this was actually pretty fun. I'm not sure why the pilot was picked up as a series, but I'd certainly have liked to see more of these adventures! I've linked to two YouTube videos below, for the curious, it may also help to explain why I didn't try to pepper the post with screenshots. The pilot is broken into two 12 minute segments...enjoy!

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