The first Green Hornet serial was released in January, 1940. By this time “The Green Hornet” was already an established and highly successful radio drama, having begun in 1936. The basic premise was to modernize “The Lone Ranger” by giving the masked hero a fancy car in place of a horse and tangling with mobsters and racketeers rather than bandits and rustlers. It was meant to be timelier, with many of the stories inspired by real crimes of the day. From radio to screen it’s a very good transition and makes for a classic pulp era hero, but what makes the character truly unique is an important aspect of the way he operates.
You see, nearly all masked heroes from the day were hated and feared by the police. “The Spider”, despite his battling master criminals and mass murderers, was labeled just as they were, his biggest and most consistent adversaries being the commissioner and the city police. “The Black Hood” was wanted for crimes he didn’t commit. “The Moon Man” was a notorious thief, etc. It’s no surprise that the Green Hornet is pursued by the police who see him as a criminal just like the men he fights. The difference here is that the Green Hornet embraces this misconception of his deeds, exploiting the reputation it gives him as a masked gangster so he can get even deeper into the seedy underworld of the city’s criminals. Kato serves as his enforcer and getaway driver, and he employs fancy gadgets and violence to threaten and terrify his enemies, it makes for great fun and thrilling adventures where he’s caught between both the police and the gangsters.
To make this even better, Britt Reid, the secret identity of the Green Hornet, owns and operates The Daily Sentinel, a popular and powerful newspaper he inherited from his father. He uses (or abuses, depending on how you look at it) his power of the press to spread the fiction that the Green Hornet is a terror and a menace to the city. He’s building his own press and underworld reputation, also using his own reporters as his unwitting agents to ferret out leads and investigate criminal activities on his behalf. In this sense, he presents his alter ego as a crusader against gangsters while when in fact he delights in pretending to be one. Not a one of his employees is ever aware they’re secretly supplying the fearsome masked vigilante information about the entire city. It’s great stuff that brings into question the morals of the titular hero, but in the golden age, he was just another good guy. Never question the actions of the good guys.
The Universal serial was out to capture the excitement of his adventures, but boost the thrills and action in order to satisfy a movie audience. The 13 episode series is fairly formulaic, playing out as a new racket to expose each week. They are all only loosely connected to a villain who masterminds the mob, but that doesn’t really come into play until the finale. The set up of each episode goes mostly like this: action continued from the previous week gets resolved, then the new action is established in the newsroom, and the last act is action once more for the cliffhanger finale.
The action is wild and interesting, since it turns out just about anything back in the ‘40s could be turned into a racket of some kind. The racketeers infiltrate just about every aspect of society looking to extort cash from the helpless citizens. The Green Hornet would show up and give them the shake down before things inevitably turned violent. Sometimes Kato would assist in the action, though he was usually relegated tot eh car and gadgets. The first episode is the only one to deviate from this, since it had to establish the hero and his origin. The thing is, the Green Hornet never really had one. Bad guys were at large, so he dressed up to go out and beat them up. That’s all the explanation he needed. In the serial, they give us two things. One, he saved Kato’s life and gave him a job, and two, his altruistic actions will prove that he’s not “just a playboy”. This is a strange motivation since his actions must be kept secret; therefore he continues to portray himself as an apathetic playboy.
The cast is very good for the first serial with all the favorite radio characters brought to life. Gordon Jones plays Britt Reid/Green Hornet, giving him a sly charisma as the publisher. He fits the character and adds a bit of arrogance to his actions. He seems to often enjoy his big secret that no one else is in on, save for Kato. It’s actually worth noting that in order to really capture the drama of the radio show, each time Gordon Jones puts on the mask, he is dubbed by none other than Al Hodge, who was the radio voice of the Green Hornet at the time. It’s a completely unnecessary gimmick, but I’m sure it was fun to hear the known voice of the hero the same as the one on the screen.
Keye Luke plays Kato, and he is likeable if a bit underutilized. A fun fact regarding the character’s ethnicity is that originally, Kato is meant to be the Japanese valet. Due to rising anti-Japanese sentiments in the country, by the time of this serial he was changed to have been Korean. Wade Boteler is the loudmouth Irish crime reporter Mike Axford, also the comic relief for the most part, as he is the most dedicated to the capture of the Green Hornet. For reasons unknown, he’s made capturing the outlaw his life’s work. It’s mostly just so Britt Reid can laugh at him for not knowing the truth.
Rounding out the cast is the lovely Anne Nagel as Lenore “Casey” Case, Reid’s secretary and the central girl of the series. This mainly means that she’s in love with the Green Hornet, the only one in the city convinced he’s not as bad as everyone claims. Philip Trent is the other reporter Jenkins, who often clashes with Axford, and Cy Kendall plays the central villain.
The action is pretty fun throughout the series, with lots of car chases, gas gun shooting, fist fights, shootouts, and some even more bizarre set pieces. In one episode, the Green Hornet survives a plummeting airplane by leaping out of the door just before it hits the ground. I’m pretty sure physics wouldn’t allow that, but it’s all in good fun here. He survives a lot of certain death situations, some by pure luck, and others by cheats. A few episodes end with him crashing into something and the car exploding, only to learn that he jumped out at the last possible second when you know that’s not what happened. Other times he didn’t escape at all, he just didn’t crawl out of the wreckage until the next episode. No explanation for how he lived, he just did. The resolution to the final episode is fantastic, creative, and surprisingly violent. The last episode is by far one of the strongest of the series, offering some of the biggest thrills and an extremely satisfying end to the series.
There are several obvious shortcuts that are forgivable considering the budget. The Black Beauty driving through the city is pretty much the same few shots shown over and over again. Lots of stock footage spliced in where necessary, miniatures, day for night shooting, you name it. It doesn’t detract from the charm, and the pace is often quick enough to distract from these staples of the genre.
As it is, “The Green Hornet” is a classic example of a well made serial. It captures the essence of the character, but gives him far more action to contend with and much more excitement than a usual episode of the radio drama. It’s a bit more realistic than some of its contemporaries, relegating the crime to more grounded gangster fare, rather than a colorful super villain and his endless supply of goons and death traps. The character and all his classic elements are on full display here, and it makes a great case for his appeal at the time, and even now.