Fates Worse Than Death: The Green Hornet (1940)

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Britt Reid (played by Gordon Jones) is the owner and editor of esteemed newspaper the Sentinel, having inherited the position from his father; every day, surrounded by his staff, he attempts to shine a light on the criminal activities that vex the citizens of his city. Although he officially believes the newspaper should only cover the news and that solving crimes should be left up to the police, he has a secret: at night he becomes the masked hero the Green Hornet, taking down racketeers in a more direct manner. His valet and driver Kato (the prolific Keye Luke) also backs up his heroics with his martial arts skill and mechanical aptitude (it was Kato who constructed the Hornet’s gas gun and customized the duo’s souped-up automobile, the “black beauty”).

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Like Batman, the Green Hornet must affect nonchalance in his civilian identity, and as editor of the Sentinel he even goes along with the fiction that the Green Hornet is just another criminal, only targeting the city’s racketeers because he wants to take their place. The staffers on the paper reflect a range of opinions about the crusader, little realizing that he is in their very midst. Secretary Leonore Case (Anne Nagel) openly admires the Hornet and believes that he is a force for good; Michael Axford (Wade Boteler), a former policeman and now Reid’s bodyguard, accepts the view that the Hornet is a criminal, and he’s gunning for the reward for the Hornet’s capture; reporter Jasper Jenks (Phillip Trent) just wants to get a good story out of the affair.

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Almost every chapter of the serial follows the same formula: word comes to the Sentinel (either by one of the reporters chasing down a story or by someone calling Reid, asking him to cover it) about a racket. The rackets are the kinds of injustices that organized crime might inflict on ordinary people: bridges and tunnels built with substandard materials; a rash of car thefts at a particular parking lot; various protection and insurance rackets that are jacking up prices for dry cleaning or shipping; et cetera. There are no death rays or automatons, nor are the crimes particularly outsized (the biggest is an attempt to elect a mobbed-up mayor through repeat voting and literal ballot box-stuffing), but each one is being helmed by a member of the same criminal Syndicate, taking orders by radio from an unknown Leader.

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Reid goes to check it out in person with Jenks or Axford, but only gets far enough to verify that something crooked is going on. So he returns as the Green Hornet, Kato by his side, to step in; sometimes he is able to prevent the damage the Syndicate is doing, but in all cases he gets the drop on the gangster in charge of the particular scheme and brings them in, dead (always accidentally, of course) or alive. Posing as a fellow criminal aiming to cut himself into the Syndicate’s deal, he tricks them into revealing facts about their operation as he works his way closer to the boss. Frequently, Axford shows up with similar ideas about confronting the Syndicate, complicating things for the Hornet. After the cliffhanger, the Hornet gets away, setting the stage for the next racket to be taken down.

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Obviously, the repetition in the chapters would be less of an issue when viewed on a weekly basis. The Green Hornet had originated on the radio in 1936, and the film serial hews closely to the radio version, even using similar plotlines; the episodic rhythm would have had a comforting familiarity to viewers, much like the majority of series television shows until the last couple of decades. (Indeed, The Green Hornet became a popular TV series in 1966 after Batman became a hit, even crossing over with the Caped Crusader.) Watched back to back, however, it becomes predictable, even for a serial.

From a production standpoint, The Green Hornet is pretty slick, benefiting from Universal’s library of stock footage (some of the bigger set pieces include a burning office building also seen in The Perils of Pauline, a train derailment, and an elaborate carnival). The theme music, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” (the same as in the radio show), is supplemented by other tracks familiar from Universal films, and the titles, newspaper headlines, and other design elements are even better than usual (just look at that title card at the top!). While it is hardly the most sophisticated example of serial storytelling, it does what it sets out to do with style and flair.

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What I Watched: The Green Hornet (Universal, 1940)

Where I Watched It: Funny story: last week I said I would be covering The Green Hornet, knowing I had it on DVD. I guess I hadn’t looked at the case very closely, because the DVD I had bought was The Green Hornet Strikes Again, the sequel from later the same year (!). So I had to go back to YouTube, yet again.

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “Panic in the Zoo” (Chapter Twelve; it’s just what it sounds like)

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Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Eleven (“Disaster Rides the Rails”), the Syndicate plans to ruin John Roberts by wrecking a train carrying shipments for his trucking business, as payback for refusing to smuggle munitions under his bill of lading. The Green Hornet, catching wind of this plot, hops the train and struggles with one of the gang members while the others uncouple the train cars from the engine. The uncoupled cars begin to roll backwards, down a steep mountain–but there’s another train coming up from behind! A collision seems inevitable, unless the railroad attendant can get the tracks switched in time. The cliffhanger cuts rapidly between three perils: the Hornet’s fight on the back of the caboose, the oncoming train, and the attendant’s attempt to manually pry the stuck switch open, diverting the runaway cars.

Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: As in many of these serials, some of the least satisfying resolutions involve the Green Hornet (or other characters) simply picking themselves up and brushing themselves off after being in car crashes or trapped in burning buildings. However, the cliffhanger at the end of Chapter Three (“Flying Coffins”) and its resolution in Chapter Four (“Pillar of Flame”) are more typical of what are usually called “cheats:” after forcing the head of a crooked flying school to take off in a plane he knows to be sabotaged, the Green Hornet and the crook struggle while the plane goes down, crashing with a fiery explosion. At the beginning of Chapter Four, however, a shot of the Green Hornet bailing out with a parachute is inserted before the plane crashes (carrying the flying school boss: it’s notable that in all these cliffhangers, the hero never knowingly leaves a Syndicate member to suffer the fate he had in store for the Hornet: he’s a good guy, after all).

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Sample Dialogue: “Open that car door while I get this fruit destroyer ready.” –Syndicate member Sligby, in another sabotage attempt on John Roberts’ shipping company, Chapter Seven (“Bridge of Disaster”). No, we never get to see what a “fruit destroyer” looks like.

What Others Have Said: “Who was to play Britt Reid/Green Hornet [on the radio]? Al Hodge auditioned and got the part! For Britt Reid he used a cultured mid-western voice similar to his own, while for the Hornet he used a deeper, rougher, tougher growl. His Hornet voice was so distinctive that for the first Green Hornet movie serial, in which Britt Reid was played by Gordon Jones, Hodge went to Hollywood and dubbed all the Hornet’s lines.” –“Al Hodge, Before and After Captain Video

What’s Next: I’ll cover The Green Hornet Strikes Again eventually. But next week, we’ll go back to the Old West with The Painted Stallion!

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