Before there was Star Wars, there was … THE PHANTOM PLANET!
“May the Aura be with you.”
By ROB KELLY
1961’s The Phantom Planet starts off in the far-flung future of 1980. The United States Air Force has bases on the moon, and is about to launch an expedition to Mars. Two astronauts and their ship mysteriously disappear when it gets close to some sort of large, crater-like object, which leads to wild speculations about “space monsters” and “phantom planets” (ding!) among their fellow airmen back on the moon. Two pilots, led by Captain Frank Chapman (Dean Fredricks) and Lt .Makonnen (Richard Weber), are sent on an investigative mission in their Pegasus craft to find out what happened.
A meteor shower hits their ship, and both men are injured. In his last act before he is sent hurtling into space, Makonnen manages to get the unconscious Chapman back into the ship, saving his life. Chapman’s ship wanders off course, landing on a nearby asteroid that seems to be emitting a magnetic pull. After he lands and disembarks, Chapman collapses. He wakes up in time to see a small group of people approaching. And when I say small, I mean that both ways—these “people” are only six inches tall!
Chapman then finds himself shrinking to their size, peering out from his helmet’s visor at these strange people. He defends himself from one of them, leading to Chapman being put on trial before Sessom (silent film star Francis X. Bushman), the wise leader of the planet, called Rheton. Sessom explains that Rheton’s tractor beam was the reason for Chapman’s safe landing, a technology that wasn’t perfected when Chapman’s compatriots ran afoul of the planet, leading to their accidental deaths. Chapman is found guilty, but that’s not as bad as it sounds—it means Chapman is free to be a citizen of Rheton, and come and go as he pleases—as long as he never tries to leave the planet.
Chapman, being a true blue, red-blooded all-American, of course doesn’t take too kindly to this news. He befriends the comely but smug Rheton woman Liara (Colleen Gray), who informs him that while he slept his ship was sent back into space, which means Chapman is staying—for good. Sessom tells Chapman that he may take a bride now that he is a citizen of Rheton, but all Chapman can think of is getting home.
As if that’s not enough, a Rheton man named Herron (Anthony Dexter) is in love with Liara, and looks at Chapman as a rival, going so far as to challenge him to a duel. Chapman does have eyes for another woman, the mute Zetha (Dolores Faith). Chapman and Herron fight each other on electrified “gravity plates” which cause disintegration when touched. Chapman gets the upper hand on Herron, but refuses to kill him when he has the chance. This leads to the two becoming friends.
Good thing, because at the same time Rheton comes under attack by a race of people called the Solarites, who want to steal Rheton’s gravity technology. Chapman makes like Flash Gordon and helps his adopted planet defeat the Solarites, engaging in hand-to-hand combat with one of them who tries to kill Sessom. Zetha, seeing all this, gets scared out of her muteness and declares her love for Chapman. Chapman seems to respond, only for a search party to find its way to Rheton in a rescue mission.
Not wanting to risk Rheton being discovered, Chapman reluctantly heads back to Earth, leaving his adopted planet and Zetha behind. Despite this melancholy ending, the film concludes with an upbeat message, saying that this adventure was “only the beginning.” We can only assume that the film’s writers had a Return to The Phantom Planet spec script sitting in a drawer somewhere.
The Phantom Planet works as a sort of Grand Central Station for sci-fi/genre concepts and actors, some of which came before, many that came after. Dean Fredricks played Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon in a 1958 TV series, Colleen Gray was the title character in 1960’s The Leech Woman, and the bug-eyed monster that attacks Sessom is Richard Kiel, who would go on to film (and dental) history as Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. The duel between Chapman and Herron is right out of a dozen Flash Gordon adventures, and when Sessom survives being attacked by the Solarite, it is because he “had the Aura with him.” The Aura, you see, is a mysterious, er, force that all Rhetons worship. You might even say it binds the Rhetons together.
The Phantom Planet is a pretty low-budget affair, looking like it reuses sets and costumes from a dozen other sci-fi movies of the time. But it’s not without its charms—the scene where Makonnen drifts off into space to die is pretty chilling, and while Chapman is your prototypical square-jawed Man of Action, he’s got a few more shades to his character than the standard-issue Sledge Riprocks that often populated these kinds of movies during the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras.
Obviously buzz about The Phantom Planet was significant enough for Dell to put together a comic-book adaptation. Published a few months before the film’s release as part of its Four Color series, The Phantom Planet comic is a strange affair, quite different than the movie.
Here, Chapman and Herron’s battle involves giant levitating boulders, the Solarites (the film’s greatest visual asset) are not seen at all, and the whole thing ends with Rheton being destroyed, Chapman wondering if it was all a dream.
By now we’re familiar with how comic-book adaptations of movies can differ greatly from the finished film due to the former having to work from potentially early screenplay drafts. But Dell’s version suggests The Phantom Planet ended up being a very different film than what was originally conceived. Judging by the comic, a better one.
Actress Dolores Faith is given special, prominent billing on both the film’s poster and comic, suggesting the studio thought they had the Next Big Thing on its hands. It didn’t quite work out that way—Ms. Faith had a few other credits after The Phantom Planet, but essentially disappeared from movies after 1966. Speaking of, The Phantom Planet was given the MST3K treatment in that show’s 10th season. Another film riffed on during MST3K’s run was 1964’s The Human Duplicators, which featured The Phantom Planet’s Richard Kiel and Dolores Faith!
Rob Kelly is a writer/artist/comics and film historian. He is the co-host of The Fire and Water Podcast (and the host of its sister show, The Film and Water Podcast), the co-creator and writer of the award-winning webcomic Ace Kilroy, and the creator of the book Hey Kids, Comics!: True-Life Tales From the Spinner Rack. He, too, is protected by the Aura. You can read more of his REEL RETRO CINEMA columns here.