Two nights ago Charles and I watched a 1931 film we’d downloaded from archive.org: The Phantom, made by independent studios Supreme Pictures, Artclass Pictures and Action Dramas — which had a spectacular opening but after that turned out to be one of the most useless and boring movies ever made, dull even though it only ran an hour and seeming a good deal longer than that! The exciting opening takes place just outside a prison, where the mysterious criminal “The Phantom” is about to be executed — only he’s worked out an ingenious way to escape: after climbing atop the walls of the prison, he leaps onto a passing train, whereupon a confederate comes by flying an airplane towing a rope ladder, which “The Phantom” grabs and flies away to safety. Alas, the rest of it is a dull, dull, dull would-be melodrama which cuts back and forth between the home of district attorney John Hampton (Wilfred Lucas) and an insane asylum that supposedly is connected to the Hampton home via a secret passage — though the two big living-room interiors look so much the same it’s hard to tell which is which except by which characters inhabit each one. (This was such a low-budget production it probably was the same set!) Hampton has received a threatening note from “The Phantom” saying he’s going to meet him that evening. The note contains an ominous warning not to be involved in setting up a police trap, so needless to say that’s the first thing the D.A. does — despite the jeopardy this puts into not only Hampton himself but also his daughter Ruth (Allene Ray, who had a B-list career in the silent era but didn’t last long after the talkie transition — and one can readily hear why: she has one of those scratchy, annoying little voices Jean Hagen was parodying in Singin’ in the Rain), whose boyfriend Dick Mallory (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, shorn of the “Big Boy” moniker in the credits but still coming off as what he was: a comic-relief actor inexplicably promoted to a serious romantic lead) also gets involved in the action — as does a mysterious cloaked and hatted figure called “The Thing” (Sheldon Lewis), who we of course assume is The Phantom, skulking around the asylum set menacing the heroine but otherwise not doing much of anything except providing a red herring. There’s also a comic-relief romance between Hampton’s maid Lucy (Violet Knights, desperately trying to channel ZaSu Pitts’ genuinely amusing performances in similar roles) and his chauffeur “Shorty” (Bobby Dunn), as well as a tall, skinny weirdo at the sanitarium who looked so much like the silent comedian Al St. John I thought it was he, but it wasn’t: imdb.com credits one William Jackie with the role.
I’ll say one thing for The Phantom: it’s photographed (by Lauron Draper) with a good sense of atmosphere and some interesting chiaroscuro effects, but it’s staged by director Alvin J. Neitz (Violet Knights’ brother!) with virtually no close-ups (a hallmark of the true cheapies of classic-era Hollywood; independent producers frequently eschewed close-ups because they took so long to light and shoot) and the cameras seemingly miles away from the action, forcing the actors to register their emotions as best they can over the yawning distances between them and the camera. The writer is credited as Allan James, but he and director Neitz were the same person — and while James a.k.a. Neitz had his directorial credit on some genuinely interesting movies, notably the Ken Maynard Westerns Tombstone Canyon and the awesome Smoking Guns, here he looks like he was directing by remote control and writing in his sleep. At the end James/Neitz/whatever his name was has “The Thing” turn out to be a red herring — a poor fate for Sheldon Lewis, who’d played both the Clutching Hand and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the silent era — and “The Phantom” turn out to be [spoiler alert!] Dr. Weldon (William Gould), the person in charge of the asylum, even though it’s impossible to believe the portly Gould could have pulled off the athletic prison escape we saw in the opening sequence. What’s more, in a ridiculously ill-appointed back room that’s supposed to represent a medical laboratory, he’s supposed to be getting ready to perform a sinister brain-transplantation experiment on poor Ruth even though nothing in the movie so far has indicated it’s going to have anything to do with a mad scientist. (One imdb.com reviewer who liked the film considerably better than I did said the only thing missing was a gorilla, and doubtless one would have turned up if the film had gone on for another reel or so.) The Phantom might have been, if not a great movie (greatness was probably too much to hope for on an indie budget — though interestingly this film appears in the American Film Institute Catalog just before The Phantom Broadcast, which really is a great movie even though it was made by an indie, the first iteration of Monogram, in 1933), at least a reasonably entertaining one if it had just been made with a bit more filmmaking élan and a willingness to stretch the budget to include close-ups — though over 50 years later Jim Jarmusch would release his first feature, Stranger Than Paradise (1984), done entirely in master shots without close-ups — and he’d be hailed as a great innovator, thanks largely to a distributor who used his budgetary limit as a selling point and got people (including me) to turn out and see the film just for that reason!