"It's gone, like a spook. I never saw a car move so fast."
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Before Seth Rogen assumed the mask of the humorous "Green Hornet" in 2011, there was the campy 1966 television series; and before the television series, there were the two dead-serious 1940-41 Universal serials; and before the serials there was the original 1936-52 radio show.
What we have here is the movie version of first "The Green Hornet" serial, distributed by VCI Entertainment and edited into an eighty-four-minute feature-cut film by "Green Hornet" historian Martin Grams Jr. from the show's thirteen episodes. Of course, if you are a true, dyed-in-the-wool "Green Hornet" fan, you'll want the complete serials, and VCI can help you out there, too, making "The Green Hornet" and "The Green Hornet Strikes Again" available in separate sets or together in one big package. I chose to watch and review the movie version only because of time constraints, the individual episodes totaling too many hours that I didn't have.
Anyway, for those of you who don't already know, the Green Hornet is the crime-fighting alter ego of Britt Reid, a young newspaper editor/publisher who sees so much corruption in his city, he decides to take matters into his own hands. He dons a mask and a gun, and along with his trusted sidekick Kato, plus the fastest car in the world, "Black Beauty," and a theme song, "The Flight of the Bumblebee" by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, he operates "outside the law" to fight evildoing wherever he finds it.
If the show and its characters strike you as bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Lone Ranger, Tonto, Silver, and Rossini's "William Tell Overture," it shouldn't come as a surprise. The creators of "The Green Hornet" radio show also created "The Lone Ranger." Station owner George W. Trendle and writer Fran Striker developed "The Green Hornet" for radio, and Universal Pictures subsequently based their serials on the show. As a further tie-in, the creators of the radio show even made Britt Reid a descendent of John Reid, known more familiarly to us today as, yes, the Lone Ranger. Everything that goes around comes around.
Ford Beebe handled the directing chores, he being an old hand at such things with movies like "The Last of the Mohicans," "Buck Rogers," "Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe," "The Phantom Creeps," "Bomba the Jungle Boy," and other such titles on his resumé. His job here is to keep things moving, and he does so at a reasonably fast clip, managing to get decent performances from his B-list actors at the same time. What's more, Universal appear to have put more money than usual into the serial, with plenty of location shots and colorful stock footage to spice things up.
Gordon Jones stars as Britt Reid (and the Green Hornet). However, to satisfy fans of the radio show, the studio hired Al Hodge to do the actual voice of the Green Hornet, the voice behind the mask, because Al Hodge was the radio voice of the Green Hornet. I'm not sure why they didn't just hire Hodge to do the whole show; maybe because he had never done any movie work before. Hodge did go on, however, to become early television's "Captain Video" for a number of years, which is where I first saw him.
In any case, Gordon Jones does a fine job as Reid and the Hornet, even if his voice changes to a lower pitch as the crime-fighter. I had never seen "The Green Hornet" serial before this VCI disc, yet Jones looked suspiciously familiar to me. Turns out, Jones went on to become a regular on the old Abbott and Costello TV show that I grew up with, along with continuing parts in "The Ray Milland Show," "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," "Richard Diamond, Private Detective," and numerous other programs of the Fifties and Sixties before his premature death in 1963.
Co-starring with Jones is Keye Luke as Kato, Reid's valet, chauffeur, fellow crime-fighter, and friend. As an invaluable inventor, it is Kato who built the Green Hornet's car, Black Beauty, capable of 200 mph, and the Green Hornet's gas gun, with which he incapacitates his enemies. (The Green Hornet and Kato never kill anyone; the Hornet puts them to sleep for a few hours with his gas pellets, or Kato karate chops them into submission.) TV fans may recall Bruce Lee as Kato, but older movie buffs will know Keye Luke as well since he also played Lee Chan, Charlie Chan's Number-One Son in the movie series; and later was the voice of Charlie Chan himself in an animated TV show; and still later was Master Po in "Kung Fu" and the old grandfather in "Gremlins." Keye Luke was around for a lot of years and a lot of movies and TV, becoming a familiar face and a familiar voice to millions of followers.
So, in "The Green Hornet" Britt Reid inherits a big-city newspaper, the "Sentinel," from his father and decides to use his position to right some of the wrongs no one else seems able to do. He gets tips on wrongdoing mainly from his ace investigative reporter, Jasper Jenks (Philip Trent), who always seems to have a lead on some big story about the rackets in town. It is only Kato, however, who knows the real identity of Reid as the Green Hornet. Everyone else thinks the Hornet is just another criminal because the guy keeps showing up when crimes occur, stopping them but getting blamed for them anyhow. That's fine with Reid, who would rather the city thought the Hornet a criminal since Reid is such a modest fellow and all.
Other folks in the cast include Wade Boteler as Michael Axford, a tough old ex-cop and Reid's bodyguard; and Anne Nagel as Lenore "Casey" Case, Reid's secretary (and admirer of the Hornet).
"The Green Hornet" movie suffers from not having the chapters end with the kind of cliff-hangers we get in the serial, but that's OK. The composite film moves along at an acceptably smooth pace despite its being obviously episodic in nature. And how can you deny that a relentless barrage of extortion plots, blackmail schemes, citywide crime syndicates, and outright murder aren't going to keep a viewer occupied?
Considering the age of the production, the type of Saturday-morning material it covers, and the dice-and-splice compilation that went into the movie version of "The Green Hornet," it's downright astonishing that it would hold one's interest after all these years. But it does, in spite of its limitations.
VCI restored and remastered the picture, then added colored tints to many of the transitional shots, mostly green but yellow, orange, violet, and red tinges as well. Although it livens up the visuals considerably, if you want to watch the whole film in black-and-white VCI offer that option, too, among the extras. In any case, the transfer displays fairly good definition and fairly strong contrasts, making it a pretty good picture. There are no major age marks, just a little natural film grain and a few minor flicks, specks, and lines here and there.
The audio engineers render the soundtrack in Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural to good effect, considering what they had to work with. It's the tiniest bit noisy on occasion, but for the most part it's quiet and easy on the ear. Don't expect much in the way of frequency extremes, but the dynamic range is surprisingly wide.
For extras, the disc includes the feature cut without all the tinted transition shots. It's not quite as visually fascinating, but it might be easier on the eyes. Then, we get the uncut chapters one and two from the serial, which are fun to watch if only to see how the editor of the movie version compiled them into the shorter film. Finally, we get twelve scene selections and English as the only spoken language.
Sure, the old "Green Hornet" heroics are corny. If they weren't corny, they wouldn't be any fun. Yet despite the corn, the derring-do holds up pretty well even by today's standards. There is no wink-and-a-nod about them, no tongue-in-cheek patronizing of the characters or anything they do; there is just straightforward, no-nonsense action and adventure. Of all the old-time movie serials, "The Green Hornet" remains one of the best, and whether you choose to watch it in truncated form as a single movie or in its earliest glory as a series of chapters, you can't go far wrong. Fun stuff.
"Only those with a guilty conscience fear the Green Hornet."