Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Green Hornet (Universal, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I decided to follow up The Phantom Creeps with another Universal serial I’d got from The Green Hornet, made a year later with a good chunk of the same production team: Henry MacRae as producer, Ford Beebe as co-director (with Ray Taylor this time; Saul A. Goodkind was involved again, but demoted from co-director to “supervising editor”) and George H. Plympton and Basil Dickey once again on the writing committee (this time with Morrison Wood and Lionel Margulies as their collaborators) and the same cinematographers, Jerome Ash and William A. Sickner. Surprise: though The Green Hornet doesn’t have any iconic actors in it the way The Phantom Creeps offered not only Bela Lugosi but his Dracula cast-mate Edward Van Sloan, it’s a much better movie so far (the first two episodes): faster-moving, more exciting, more relentless in its pacing and also better plotted even though this time the writing committee fell back on the old serial chestnut of having the number one villain be a man who preserves his incognito, even from his associates, communicating with them in roundabout ways and never letting them see him (we’re in Moriarty and Mabuse territory again!), obviously setting up an issue in which the revelation of this person’s identity — and it’s likely to be a powerful, influential person with a spotless public reputation — will provide the climactic resolution of the plot.

The Green Hornet
was originally a radio show created by Fran Striker (who gets a solo writing credit on the serial, with her name in cursive script, larger than any of the actual screenwriters) for George W. Trendle’s company, and many of the comments on the serial on delved into the Hornet’s background as a modern-dress version of the Lone Ranger (also a Striker creation and a Trendle property) — indeed, he was even supposed to have been descended from the Lone Ranger’s slain brother. The Lone Ranger had a white horse named Silver; the Green Hornet had a black car called Black Beauty. The Lone Ranger wore a mask; so did the Green Hornet. The Lone Ranger had a Native American sidekick named Tonto; the Green Hornet had an Asian sidekick named Kato — originally he was Japanese but when the U.S. entered World War II and Japanese good guys were suddenly politically incorrect, the radio writers made him a Filipino, while the writing committee (even on a film made almost two years before Pearl Harbor) anticipated problems to come and made Kato a Korean. (What made this uncertainty over which Asian country Kato came from even more bizarre is that the best-known actors who played him — Keye Luke, who is Kato in this serial; and Bruce Lee, who had the role in the mid-1960’s TV series before he returned to Hong Kong and made the martial-arts movies on which his enduring fame rests — were Chinese.)

The Lone Ranger and the Green Hornet even had signature themes derived from classical music — the final strains of Rossini’s William Tell overture for the Ranger and the Rimsky-Korsakov “Flight of the Bumblebee” for the Hornet. (The listing for this serial has no fewer than nine composers whose themes were used for stock music for the serial — not counting Rimsky-Korsakov; among them were major names like Franz Waxman, Frank Skinner, Hans Salter, Heinz Roemheld and David Raksin, while the score was assembled and partially composed by Charles Previn, André’s father.) The Green Hornet is actually Britt Reid (Gordon Jones), young publisher of The Sentinel newspaper (I wonder if Fran Striker was thinking, “Gee, Superman is just a reporter — we’ll go one better and make our guy a publisher!”), who has abandoned his father’s crusading editorials against racketeers because he doesn’t think they did any good, and who blows off a story one of his reporters offers him about a dam whose contractor skimmed extra profits by using cheap materials. When the dam bursts and the resulting flood destroys everything in its path that Universal had access to stock footage of, Reid has a change of heart and decides that what the city really needs is a modern-dress Robin Hood, so he decides to become one.

The Green Hornet suffers a bit from Universal’s preference for vehicle chases over fight scenes as the action highlights, and though Keye Luke is a first-rate actor and well-built enough he’d been believable as a U.S. swim team member in Charlie Chan at the Olympics, Bruce Lee he wasn’t — but for the most part it’s a crackerjack serial that delivers the goods. and it has the advantage of the remarkable Cy W. Kendall as one of the principal baddies (as he was in Monogram’s similarly plotted 1937 feature The 13th Man) as well as a relentlessly fast pace that suggests Beebe and Taylor had been watching a lot of Warners product and were determined to goose this one up similarly and avoid the longueurs of The Phantom Creeps. About the only disappointment in this download is that the image quality seems even worse than that of The Phantom Creeps — much of the film has faded to white and in the two episodes we’ve seen so far it would have been impossible to discern Wade Boteler’s character name in the opening credits. — 3/17/10


Charles and I had a cinematic nightcap with episodes three and four of The Green Hornet — and though the downloads we got from (as .avi files) were of poor quality and through much of it all we got to see were ghostly images on the screen, the film itself (to the extent to which we could see it through the ghosting) is exciting and powerful, everything a serial should be. True, it doesn’t have a bravura villain — it’s one of those tales in which the bad guys dress in normal business suits and await orders from an unseen boss (who, no doubt, will be revealed as someone with a prestigious position in the legitimate world who uses that as a blind to cover his criminal activities) — and like The Phantom Creeps it relies far more on car chases than fisticuffs for its action. It’s also a bit disappointing in that, again like The Phantom Creeps, its female lead, Anne Nagel, is merely decorative and not a participant in the action the way the spunkier, more butch women in the Republic serials were. But it’s staged by co-directors Ford Beebe and Ray Taylor with an infectious brio that seems to have been goosed along by the relentless rhythms of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” which the George W. Trendle company and the Hornet’s creator, Fran Striker (who also created the Lone Ranger and seems to have consciously conceived of the Hornet as a Lone Ranger in a contemporary setting), appropriated as the Hornet’s theme.

The “Black Beauty” car is a closed two-seat speedster sedan, a good deal more maneuverable than the automotive norm of the day, and though as an icon of cool it’s hardly as credible as the customized Lincoln used in the mid-1960’s TV series, it is fun to watch through the heavy-duty auto chases the Universal serial directors loved to stage. The acting is competent and serviceable — there aren’t any horror icons here and there aren’t any opportunities for bravura villainy, and star Gordon Jones has the right mix of surface naïveté and underlying authority to be credible as the Hornet’s alter ego, publisher Britt Reid — but his voice wasn’t deemed authoritative enough for the Hornet and Al Hodge, who played the Hornet on radio, dubbed Jones’s lines when he was in Hornet drag (and there’s one point in episode four where the register shift as Jones’s voice cuts out and Hodge’s voice comes in is almost too obvious). — 3/18/10


We squeezed in episode five of the 1940 Green Hornet serial, which proved to be the equal of what we’ve seen before — and which seems unusual among superhero fictions in the relatively realistic nature of the crimes the good guys are fighting. The plot of The Green Hornet centers around a gang of criminals, headed by a secret boss, who make money in evil but relatively mundane ways — here by stealing cars from parking lots they own and stripping them in chop shops, then junking the remnants (and in earlier episodes by graft in construction contracts for public works). The cast is personable, though Anne Nagel’s character seems almost totally irrelevant to the story (all she gets to do in episode five is defend the Green Hornet when the police come to Britt Reid’s office to question him — no, they don’t suspect he’s the Green Hornet; they merely want to ask for his help in getting the public to turn the Hornet in) and there was another abrupt cut in the soundtrack as the Hornet slipped on his mask, from the voice of Gordon Jones, who plays the Hornet on screen but voices him only in his Britt Reid identity, to that of Al Hodge, who played the Hornet on radio and voiced the soundtrack for this serial when Jones is in Hornet drag. — 3/19/10


We managed to squeeze in episode six of The Green Hornet, which though it’s getting rather repetitive (even more than the TV series that are their progeny, serials tended to repeat the same kinds of situations over and over again) is also impressing me more and more — despite a few annoyances like the buzzing sound effect whenever the Green Hornet’s car, “Black Beauty,” moves (dubbed, according to, from a recording of a real hornet!) — mainly because though it was a Universal production, it comes off as the sort of serial Warners would have been making if they’d got into the serial business: tough, fast-paced, action-packed and, most importantly, grounded in normal reality.

The subject of episode seven was an attempt by the crime syndicate to sabotage one bus company and thereby give the city contract to another, which they’d bought six months previously; the company they’re trying to put out of business is called “Whippet” (an off-take on the real Greyhound company which Charles felt probably eluded most moviegoers even in 1940!) and the company they own and are trying to steer the contract to is “Blue Streak.” There’s even a radio message from the chief of the crime syndicate — the mystery man who no doubt will be unveiled in the final episode — so we get to hear his voice even though we don’t see him. The fact that the crime the Green Hornet and Kato are fighting is the sort of crime one can think of as actually happening gives this serial an unusual taste of credibility even through the hair's-breath escapes that are so much part and parcel of the genre, and make it quite a bit more fun than The Phantom Creeps even despite a relatively low-voltage cast. — 3/21/10


We watched episode seven of The Green Hornet serial, which continued the proletarian theme of the villainy — this time it’s a trucking company, Acme, that’s in trouble, not (Charles’ joke) because of all the defective products they shipped to Wile E. Coyote but because a rival, owned by the crime syndicate represented on screen by Cy Kendall (a fine actor for smarmy villainy but rather wasted here — I don’t think at this point in the serial he’s ever been shown other than sitting behind that stupid desk in the gang’s headquarters, waiting for instructions from the unknown “Big Boss” of the rackets and relaying them to his subordinates), is sabotaging them and also threatening retaliation against the produce companies that use them.

Though the serial has its problems — few fight scenes (Universal went more for car chases than fight scenes as their action highlights than did their rival serial producers, Columbia and Republic), virtually nothing for the heroine (Anne Nagel) to do, and some pretty unimaginative and stupid cliff-hangers — it’s still a fun one, driven by the relentless, Warners-style pacing of directors Ford Beebe and Ray Taylor (the buzzing noises that frequently punctuate the action — which according to were the recorded sound of a real hornet! — get a bit annoying at times but they also add impetus and energy to the show) and the personable performances of Gordon Jones (usually known as a villain) as the Hornet and Keye Luke as Kato (though this Kato, unlike Bruce Lee in the 1960’s TV series, gets precious little opportunity to participate in the action himself). — 3/26/10


We ran episode eight of The Green Hornet, which turned out to be pretty much more of the same — the Green Hornet, still suspected of being a crook himself by the cops (a suspicion deliberately fostered by Britt Reid, publisher of the Sentinel newspaper, which offers a $1,000 reward for the Green Hornet, dead or alive, to divert attention so no one realizes Reid actually is the Green Hornet), goes after a protection racket that preys on dry cleaners and in the process runs into an interesting character named Lavenson, a dry cleaner played by Robert Brister in a much more powerful performance than one usually gets in a transitory serial character who doesn’t even make it through one episode before being killed (by the real crooks, who fake the scene to look like the Hornet killed him and is also behind the protection racket). Brister, a tall, lanky actor who seems almost to fade into the woodwork under the influence of his fears, dramatizes the dilemma of the ordinary businessman facing extortion a good deal better than some of the character actors who inhabited the Warners gangster films of the 1930’s, and his performance is enough of a high point that (as with Charles Middleton in his rare good-guy role in the 1943 Batman) when he’s killed, we’re genuinely sorry to see him go. Even the cliff-hanger — the Hornet is trapped in a dry cleaning establishment in which gasoline has been poured everywhere as a prelude to arson, and one of the baddies fires a gun and the explosion torches the whole place — is more exciting and unusual than has been the norm for this serial.

On the down side are the misuse of the fine character villain Cyrus W. Kendall — he’s pretty much played his entire role from behind a desk, on which is the closed-circuit radio through which he receives instructions from his superior in the gang, though I think in this episode he actually got to stand up — and the fact that virtually nothing is made of the sinister gang boss working incognito. In virtually all the serials using this gimmick, we were presented with a slate of plausible suspects and invited to guess which one would be revealed as the ultimate villain in the last chapter; this time, the writers (George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, Morrison C. Wood and Lyonel Margulies) offer us no plausible suspects and do virtually nothing with the premise at all. Also, as Charles pointed out, for all the hoo-hah made early on about the Green Hornet inventing a non-painful, non-lethal weapon to bring down the baddies without killing them and thereby rendering them impossible to interrogate afterwards, he seems as oddly reluctant to use his super-gun as he would be if it shot real, normally deadly bullets. Still, the 1940 Green Hornet serial remains a fun piece of work, unusually fast-paced and with the hornet sound effect (a real hornet, according to and Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous theme music, “Flight of the Bumblebee,” goosing the pace along relentlessly and making this one of the fastest-moving serials ever made. — 3/28/10


When we got home I eventually started running movies, including episode nine of The Green Hornet — not a real departure from what we’d seen before, but dealing with the murder of Lynch (Guy Usher) just as he was about to spill the secrets of the crime syndicate’s takeover of the cleaning and dyeing business. There’s an appealing proletarianness about the whole plot of The Green Hornet serial — the bad guys are at least recognizable gangster types and they’re seeking, not to rule the world with some fearsome new super-weapon, but simply to make themselves a lot of money by taking over legitimate businesses, driving their competitors out of business and extorting racket-style payoffs from the honest owners they allow to stay in operation — and though the “Black Beauty” auto isn’t quite as imposing as I would have imagined it (or as it was in the 1960’s TV series that followed on the heels of the camped-up Batman and featured Bruce Lee as Kato, where it was a customized Lincoln Continental instead of the hopped-up two-seat speedster it is here) and the hornet sound effects do get a little wearing at times, it’s a serial whose relentlessly fast pace and able deployment of the Universal production infrastructure make it compulsively watchable even though one shot of the Black Beauty turning a streetcorner on the Universal backlot has recurred so often that, like a lot of the stock clips in the Ed Wood movies, you want to wave to it and say hello to an old friend every time it appears. — 4/2/10


Charles and I ran the tenth and eleventh (of 13!) episodes of the 1940 Green Hornet serial, and these were surprisingly entertaining — especially episode 10, in which the villains who run the crime syndicate that dominates the serial’s plot decide to insulate themselves from any further interference from law enforcement by setting up their own candidate in the upcoming mayoral election, Canby, and stuffing the ballot boxes and recruiting people to vote multiple times in order to make sure Canby wins. (As I rather grimly joked to Charles, “This is what you had to do to rig an election in the days before computers.”) The Green Hornet, who’s still being presented as a crook — Casey Case (Anne Nagel), who has some unspecified job at the office of the Sentinel (the newspaper owned by young publisher Britt Reid, who really is The Green Hornet), is the only person who ever sticks up for him and insists he’s a crimefighter rather than a criminal — hijacks the stuffed ballot boxes before the crooks can destroy them and gets away in an armored truck, but the baddies force it off the road in the cliffhanger between episodes 10 and 11.

That cliffhanger is a bit of a cheat but the one that ended episode 9 is a humdinger — Axford (Wade Boteler), Reid’s assistant at The Sentinel and someone who’s sworn to destroy the Hornet, traps him inside the closet at a building and shoots through the doorway; the Hornet manages to escape the bullets but three of them hit vials of acid that just happen to be stored there, releasing a poisonous fume, and it’s only after Axford leaves that the Hornet can finally get the closet window open and make it appear he’s escaped through it, when in fact all he’s done is change back into Britt Reid and rejoin his friends and employees. Episode 11 was a bit of a disappointment by comparison because the ruling intrigue (the gangsters are trying to smuggle out weapons shipments to unfriendly foreign powers and are forcing legitimate shippers to help them by using phony bills of lading) is more the stuff of which ordinary serials were made, but it was still fun and it moved — and the fact that the Hornet was kept in his Britt Reid identity much of the time helped with the suspense. — 4/5/10


Charles and I ended up watching the last two episodes — 12 and 13 (and just the fact that it’s in 13 episodes makes this an unusual serial: the usual numbers were 10, 12 or 15) of the 1940 The Green Hornet, which turned out to offer a rather limp conclusion to a show that for most of its length has been surprisingly engaging. The serial had its weaknesses — Anne Nagel in the one significant female role (as Casey, secretary to Britt Reid a.k.a. The Green Hornet) had virtually nothing to do except decorate the set representing the offices of the Sentinel, the crusading paper Reid owns, and defend The Green Hornet whenever the other people in the office (including Reid himself) denounce him as a crook, and though the people running the crime syndicate got their orders from a mysterious über-boss who communicated with them via intercom, no one is ever unmasked as the Big Boss and it turns out in the final episode that the instructions were pre-recorded and played on a turntable over a loudspeaker to give the gangsters the impression that the Big Boss was someone else and not one of their own number.

It’s startling, to say the least, that a 1940 serial would plant so many clues as to a big surprise revelation of the Big Boss’s identity and then not deliver on it — instead the four gangsters conveniently shoot each other after The Green Hornet puts Kato in the room with the record player (as luck would have it, there is a live microphone as well) and has him relay instructions that make it seem as if two of the gang leaders are double-crossing the others and making off with the accumulated loot from all their rackets. Chapter 12 seemed largely familiar — its plot line was the attempt to extort money from a private zoo (actually a carnival complete with a Big Tent and circus acts performing inside), which is accidentally set on fire after an incident in which a tiger meant for the zoo breaks loose while being unloaded at the New York docks (the operator of the crane carrying the tiger’s cage loses control and drops it, whereupon it splits open); it’s footage from The Big Cage, a 1932 Universal film starring real-life animal trainer Clyde Beatty as himself, and though we’ve never seen that film we had seen this footage when Universal recycled it again for the 1943 were-ape horror film Captive Wild Woman three years after using it in The Green Hornet. At least raiding the Beatty footage enabled Universal to stage a bigger and more spectacular action scene than they could have anew on a serial budget.

The Green Hornet is an oddly mixed movie, since for most of its running time the frustrations around the non-use of the gimmick of the secret villain and the annoyingly male-chauvinist conception of Anne Nagel’s character (especially by comparison with the female lead of The Phantom Creeps, who was actually allowed to take some part in the action — though nowhere near as much as her counterparts at Republic) were more than made up for by the relative believability of the script and in particular the nature of the crimes — instead of being out to rule the world these crooks are just trying to make a dishonest dollar by extorting money from legitimate businesspeople — and the show as a whole maintains a relentless pace closer to what we’d expect from Warner Bros. (which wasn’t in the serial business) than a studio like Universal, which wasn’t known for fast-moving action outside their great horror films. But the ending is really disappointing — after the crooks kill each other and Britt Reid solemnly announces that The Green Hornet is going into retirement (that rather gives away his identity, since if he weren’t the Hornet himself, how would he know?) he’s given a commendation by someone named Judge Stanton — and I expected any moment to hear Reid go, “That’s the voice on the crooks’ records!” and expose the judge who was giving him his award as the real mastermind behind the rackets. Now that would have made a powerful ending in the serial tradition instead of the limp conclusion we have! — 4/7/10