The Green Hornet (1940)

The_Green_Hornet_(1940)‘Miss Case, you’re positively psychic!’

Playboy Britt Reid inherits newspaper ‘The Daily Sentinel’ from his father, who crusaded for social reform and justice. Although initially reluctant, Britt follows in his father’s footsteps when a criminal syndicate try to take over the city. But instead of just running hard-hitting editorials, he takes a more active role in the guise of masked crime fighter, The Green Hornet.

The first screen appearance of the Green Hornet, a character who came to life a scant 4 years earlier on WXYZ radio in Detroit. He was created by station owner/manager George W Trendle, who also gave the world ‘The Lone Ranger.’ Indeed, the two characters were originally related(!) and the format is similar, with sidekick Tonto replaced by Kato, Reid’s valet and resident scientific genius. In fact, there is some dispute about Kato’s character; with some commentators asserting that he was originally Japanese, rather than Filipino. There seems little evidence that a change was made specifically because of the attack on Pearl Harbor (as has been suggested) because this film serial was released the year before and Kato’s origin is specifically established in the opening chapter – as a Korean! But the very fact that it is stated so particularly is probably indicative of international tensions at the time.

The serial itself has some unusual points. The first is that the Hornet is not up against a super villain with various scientific gizmos and plans of world conquest. No, the bad guys here are simply gangsters; guys who wear their hats indoors, can’t shoot straight and run a different protection racket every week for the Hornet to bust up. In a nod to more outlandish serials, the main villain is an unseen voice on the radio, but the revelation of his secret identity at the climax is almost an irrelevance and a real damp squib.

It’s also interesting that the Hornet never kills anyone, however evil they may be. Villains die as a result of their own nefarious schemes; killed in car smashes, explosions and by the police. Even the deadly resolution sees the Hornet’s hands stay clean!  This was obviously deliberate. Despite his heroic motives, the Hornet is essentially a vigilante and the idea of him imparting deadly justice was probably unacceptable at the time. For a change, the official forces of law and order feature quite prominently and the Hornet is regarded as a crook working to his own agenda. Hence, the Hornet has a gas gun (invented by Kato) that knocks people out but does not kill them. In fact, it’s mentioned several times that the effects are purely temporary and people make a swift, and complete, recovery.

The_Green_Hornet_(1940)

‘Hang on, Kato! Remember I do all the heroic stuff, you just wait in the car.’

The serial as a whole is a little above average with Gordon Jones acceptable in the lead, although he didn’t return for the sequel and his ‘Hornet voice’ was dubbed by the actor from the original radio show. The under-rated Keye Luke is wasted – as usual! – as second banana Kato, but still gets into the action more than heroine Anne Nagel, who plays Reid’s secretary. The closest she comes is taking a bit of dictation!  Also on the Sentinel’s staff is reporter Wade Boteler who sports a desperately poor ‘oirish’ accent and allegedly provides comic relief.

Fortunately, some of the most familiar names in serials were behind the camera to keep things moving right along: Ford Beebe and Ray Taylor share directing duties and George H Plympton had a hand in the script.

Fittingly for a radio adaptation, the most memorable aspects are auditory – the use of the ‘Flight of the Bumble Bee’ as the musical theme and the buzzing noise made by the Hornet’s super-car ‘The Black Beauty’. Actually it’s a pretty nifty motor all told, cornering at impressive speeds, although almost always around the same ‘S’ bend!

But my favourite aspect was the criminal’s reaction to our masked avenger. Almost to a man, it’s identical. They jump and shout ‘The Green Hornet!’ as if seeing him is the biggest shock of their lives, despite the fact that he’s been interfering in their plans for the previous dozen chapters…

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