Fates Worse Than Death: The Green Hornet Strikes Again

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Sentinel publisher Britt Reid, taking a much-needed vacation in Hawaii, has left his newspaper in the hands of an editor named Harper. While Reid is gone, his secretary Leonore Case and reporters Axford and Lowery begin to suspect that Harper is connected with the criminal Syndicate running rampant in the city: Harper has killed stories about big crimes and even refuses to expose the racketeers when given information straight from the District Attorney. Harper is a member of the Syndicate, secretly run by a man named Crogan, and while Axford and Case send telegrams urging Reid to return from Hawaii, the Syndicate’s men on the island try to prevent him from doing so. First they try to discourage him indirectly, and when it’s clear that he’s heading back to the mainland they kidnap him and his valet Kato, tying them up in a fishing shack with the intention of feeding them to the sharks in the morning.

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The Syndicate’s island force is headed by a man named Bordine, who already has a grudge against Reid for uncovering the truth about a past crime Bordine had pinned on an innocent man. When Reid and Kato escape the fishing shack (with a little help from Reid’s alter ego the Green Hornet) and make it to the departing ship, Bordine follows them in hopes of finishing them off. An unrelated fire that begins in the boiler room derails his scheme, however, and endangers everyone on board. And this is just in the first chapter of The Green Hornet Strikes Again!

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As should be clear from the summary of Chapter One, The Green Hornet Strikes Again has no shortage of twists and turns. In fact, it has one of the most convoluted plots of any serial I’ve watched yet: while in broad outline it follows a similar plot to The Green Hornet (from earlier in the same year), with its overarching Syndicate being broken apart by the Hornet one racket at a time until he can finally confront the big boss, it has more chapters, more characters, more settings, and, like most sequels, is generally overstuffed. (Of course, it was meant to be watched on a weekly basis rather than all at once, but I’m not sure how it would have been any easier to keep track of with a week elapsing between each chapter.) Having said that, there are many enjoyable scenes and chapters in this, and plenty of action in the serial tradition.

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The Green Hornet Strikes Again features a different actor in the title role (Warren Hull, who unlike his predecessor Gordon Jones also provides the Hornet’s voice while in costume), but otherwise brings back the main cast of the earlier serial. Keye Luke plays Kato, Anne Nagel plays Leonore Case, and Wade Boteler plays Irish policeman-turned-reporter Michael Axford. Instead of Jenks, the ambitious young reporter is Lowery (Eddie Acuff), whose antagonistic partnership with Axford is the main source of comic relief. A few references are made to events from The Green Hornet, but the Syndicate in Strikes Again isn’t the same one that was defeated in the first serial.

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The Syndicate’s plots are also more ambitious than those of its predecessor: in addition to the attempt to take over the Sentinel, there’s a plot to replace the heiress to an aluminum fortune with an actress, allowing the Syndicate to control the aluminum company’s board of directors; an attempt to sabotage the source of the aluminum plant’s electricity when that scheme fails; a plot to develop a “magnetic bomb” in a secret laboratory in a steel plant; and even some that don’t involve metal or factories. This provides ample room for stock footage, often integrated smoothly through the use of rear projection: it really looks like Reid and Lowery are on the floor of the steel plant, and through quick editing they appear to be in real danger of having molten metal “accidentally” spilled on them. In other scenes, the Green Hornet is called on to commandeer speeding cars, trucks, or airplanes, and survives all kinds of crashes, explosions, and building collapses (including one caused by a bolt of lightning!). In almost all the crimes perpetrated by the Syndicate, there’s a theme of urgently-needed wartime materiel being diverted to foreign buyers, and again there’s no need to specify who they are, or why they are bad news.

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Kato, who is both Reid’s manservant and the Green Hornet’s faithful ally, doesn’t have as much to do in this serial, unfortunately: in The Green Hornet he got to karate chop a few bad guys, but in Strikes Again he mostly drives the car and pulls the Green Hornet out of the rubble after the aforementioned disasters. I wanted to mention him, however, because there’s a good case to be made for Kato as the most interesting character in the Green Hornet saga. According to the exposition at the beginning of The Green Hornet, Kato is loyal to Britt Reid for saving his life in his native Shanghai; although Kato’s subservience fits the “Oriental houseboy” trope, he has always been portrayed as intelligent and capable. In addition to his martial arts skill, he designed and built the Green Hornet’s gas gun and equipped their customized automobile, the Black Beauty.

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Kato has been well-represented in the movies as well: Keye Luke, who originated the role on film, first became prominent playing Charlie Chan’s “Number One Son,” Lee, and had a distinguished career as a character and voice actor in film and television, including a recurring role on Kung Fu. In the 1966 television series, Kato was played by up-and-coming martial arts icon Bruce Lee, who was so popular in his native Hong Kong that the series aired as The Kato Show there. In 1974, three episodes of the program were edited together into a theatrical Green Hornet film to take advantage of Lee’s growing fame.

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Finally, the comedic, Seth Rogen-starring 2011 Green Hornet feature leans heavily into the realization that Kato (played by Jay Chou) is the skilled one while Rogen’s Britt Reid is a clueless party animal who at first gets into the hero business for kicks and only gradually realizes his responsibility. Like Big Trouble in Little China and the 2013 Lone Ranger film, the 2011 Hornet delights in reversing the expected relationship between hero and sidekick, and the pair can only work together effectively when Reid is able to see Kato for what he has always been: a partner.

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

Where I Watched It: A Pacific Entertainment DVD, which, since it was sourced from videotape, manages to look worse than The Green Hornet did when I watched it on YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Racketeering Vultures” (Chapter Fourteen)

Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Twelve (“Crashing Barriers”), Michael Axford and Leonore Case have been taken hostage by the Syndicate and taken to a warehouse to be disposed of. Following in another car, the Green Hornet drives straight through the warehouse’s freight door–and right into a huge pile of explosives stacked inside, which detonate immediately!

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Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: All but one of the cliffhangers in this serial feature Britt Reid in his role as the Green Hornet, but the end of Chapter One (“Flaming Havoc”) allows him to take heroic action as himself. When a fire breaks out on the ship heading back to the mainland, Reid rescues Gloria (a character whom I thought would continue to be important, but who turned out to be another member of the rotating cast, never to be seen again), carrying her through a blazing hallway to the open deck. The serial appears to be over before it’s even begun when a flaming rafter falls directly on top of them and the screen fills with the ever-growing fire. In my notes for the beginning of Chapter Two (“The Plunge of Peril”), I have simply jotted, “they make it,” indicative of how little danger these mishaps actually pose for our heroes. The boat still sinks, however.

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Favorite Character (Aside from Kato): Every once in a while a secondary character shows up and steals the movie for a chapter or two. Frenchy Ludoc in Gang Busters was one such character; Vultan in Flash Gordon was another. In Chapter Fourteen of The Green Hornet Strikes Again, it’s Foranti (Jay Michael), a racketeer illicitly placed in charge of the Builders’ Association by the Syndicate. While skimming off Association funds for his own use, Foranti is funneling money toward the construction of an expensive house, ultimately to belong to Crogan. When the Sentinel prints the truth about him, he shows up to intimidate Britt Reid in person.

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Although soft-spoken, every line he speaks sounds like it was written for Edward G. Robinson, see? He just figures Reid needs to be leaned on a little, see? And the squealer who fed the Sentinel the information about Foranti is dead now, see? You get the picture. Foranti isn’t exactly comic relief (that’s what we have Axford and Lowery for), but as a parody of the popular gangster, he veers farther into camp than the rest of the film; he’d be more at home in Columbia’s Batman serials. This chapter also makes good use of the conceit that the Green Hornet poses as a criminal to get information, and here he gets Foranti to turn on his associate Breedon by playing to his paranoid fear that Breedon is betraying him. On top of all that, Foranti has the distinction of being gassed twice in the same chapter by the Hornet, the only villain so treated.

Sample Dialogue: Crogan (Pierre Watkins), to his men (sarcastically): “Yes, that’s right, the Green Hornet: a lone wolf who plays your own game and makes monkeys out of all of you!” (Chapter Twelve, “Crashing Barriers”)

What’s Next: Join me next week for The Fighting Marines!

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!