Todd Gault's Movie Serial Experience

Todd Gault's Film Serial Experience: Movie serials, cliffhangers and reviews. A gallery of movie serial stars.
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"The Green Hornet"; 1939

The Green Hornet is an interesting anomaly in the serial universe. Usually when one serial producer adapts a character from another medium, they also get to adapt any other characters that are held by the same copyright owner. Not so in this case. When Republic adapted the Lone Ranger from radio, they made so many changes to the original character that it was all but a new creation. The only things they kept were the mask, silver bullets, and Tonto. George W. Trendle, the owner of the character, was reportedly so disgusted with Republic’s cavalier attitude that he went to Universal with The Green Hornet, and got that character transferred to the serial screen virtually intact.

Britt Reid (Gordon Jones) has just taken control of his father’s newspaper, “The Daily Sentinel” but is unsure about how he wants to run it until there is a horrific accident with a new underwater tunnel being constructed with what appears to be shoddy material. After he quickly publishes a scathing editorial about obvious corruption involved with the project, The Syndicate, a criminal organization separated into twelve different operations, decides to have Reid removed.

The Leader, who is only heard but never seen, orders his chief lieutenant Monroe (Cy Kendall) to send their lawyer Felix Grant (Edward Earle) to attempt to buy the newspaper from Reid. Reid refuses to sell and decides that Grant needs to be investigated. He has Michael Axeford (Wade Botteler), an ex-cop/ex-reporter who now works as Reid’s body guard, follow Grant but the lawyer spots the tail and gives him the slip. When Grant tells Monroe, he is told to get out of town for a while.

Unknown to everyone Reid and his friend Kato, who acts as his houseboy in public, have invented a super fast car dubbed The Black Beauty and a special gas gun that harmlessly puts people to sleep. Designing a mask and calling himself The Green Hornet, he decides to visit Grant.

The Hornet arrives at Grant’s home in time to stop him from skipping town. The Hornet’s threatening appearance frightens him into talking, but before he can name any names he is gunned down by Dean (Walter McGrail) and Corey (Gene Rizzi), two hoods sent by Monroe to help get Grant out of town. The Hornet uses his gas gun to put the two thugs to sleep and leaves a paper seal with the image of a hornet on it at the scene and leaves. When the police arrive, Dean and Corey are gone, having revived in time to make a get away, and the Hornet is blamed for the murder.

Everyone at The Sentinel believes that The Green Hornet is a new crook who has come to take over the criminal organizations in town. The only one who seems to be on the Hornet’s side is Reid’s secretary Lenore Case (Anne Nagel), who feels that he may just be what this city needs to get rid of crime. Publicly Reid sides with the general opinion of the Hornet’s criminal intent, feeling that the belief will help him get information easier than if it were known he is actually doing good.

That night after Axeford has gone to sleep, The Hornet and Kato slip through a secret tunnel to their hidden garage and drive out to the construction site where they confront the crooked foreman Markham (Don Rowan). When he refuses to talk, the Hornet pulls out his gun and forces the man down into the tunnel. Just as Markham declares that there is nothing wrong with the tunnel the air compressor that keeps the river from flooding the tunnel as it’s being constructed stops working. Markham tries to flee but the Hornet forces him to stay and make sure all of the workers are able to get to safety first. When the Hornet still won’t let him leave and frightened that he will be left to drown, Markham blurts out all he knows about the twelve sections of The Syndicate. Just then the tunnel collapses and the two men are engulfed in a torrent of water.

Luckily the Hornet is able to grab onto a fallen timber that floats past and he uses it to get Markham and himself to safety. Unfortunately Markham has been badly injured and ends up in the hospital unable to talk.

The next morning The Sentinel’s number one reporter Jasper Jenks (Phillip Trent) uncovers that all of the workers on the construction site are insured by one man, Mortinson (Douglas Evans), and that all of the money paid out so far has gone to the construction company. Axeford, on his own volition, decides to go to Mortinson’s house with a couple of his old friends from the force to back him up and interrupts the Hornet who was attempting to make the man talk. Axeford, falling back on his cop instincts, pulls out a gun, and starts shooting at the “Harnet” as he calls him. The Hornet evades Axeford and makes it to Kato in The Black Beauty. The police take off in pursuit but the super charged energizer Kato built into the engine allows The Beauty to easily out race all pursuers.

Mortinson decides to leave town and grabs all incriminating papers from his safe and leaves a bomb in it’s place. The Hornet and Kato return to the house to try and crack the safe. The Hornet is suspicious that the safe door has been left slightly open. Using a piece of cord cut from a curtain, he ties it to the door handle and pulls the door open from around the corner, setting off the bomb.

He and Kato quickly track down Mortinson who tries to evade them by transferring from his car to a passing train. The Hornet easily makes the same transfer and chases the fugitive along the top of the cars to the engine cab. The two men struggle and fall out of the cab. They are almost swept up under the wheels of the train but manage to roll down a nearby hill instead. Mortinson, and his papers that expose the whole swindle of using shoddy construction equipment to collect the insurance on the workers who are killed, is dropped off at a police station, but the man refuses to talk.

The next morning Jenks comes in with a story about the Bartlett Flying School. They have more students die in air crashes than anyone else. Investigation shows that the students aren’t getting more than three or four hours of training before being sent up on a solo flight. As to why the school would be recklessly endangering the lives of their students remains a mystery until Reid is visited by Josephine Weaver (Anne Gwynne). She tells him that she was the fiancée of the latest dead student pilot at Bartlett’s school. She had signed his insurance policy as the benefactor, but when she went to collect the money she found that the benefactor on the policy had been changed to a Josephine Allen. Reid decides that The Green Hornet needs to look into this.

The Hornet pays a visit to Josephine Allen (Ann Doran) where she reveals that the flying school is a set up to collect insurance on the dead pilots by changing the benefactors on the policies. After collecting the money, most of it is kicked back to The Syndicate. Dean and Corey show up just in time to hear Allen voice regret about what she has done to Weaver and agreeing to go to the police. They grab the girl at gunpoint and leave in a car. But like the police cruisers, their car is no match for Kato and The Black Beauty. Losing control, their car crashes. Dean and Corey survive without a scratch and manage to escape into the countryside.

Seeing that Allen is dead, the two heroes pause for a moment of silence over her before getting back to the case. They head for the hanger where they over hear plane mechanic Pete (John Kelly) tell Bartlett (Ben Taggart) over the phone that he has given the latest plane to be taken up “special service”. Kato incapacitates Pete with a sharp Karate blow to the side of the neck while the Hornet takes over the call without a pause in the conversation and imitates Pete’s voice perfectly. He tells Bartlett he needs to see him right away. Bartlett agrees to come over to the school.

Before Bartlett can arrive the Hornet goes out to talk the pilot Gilpin (Alan Ladd, yes “the” Alan Ladd) from taking up the plane scheduled for his first solo night flight. Gilpin gets argumentative and the Hornet is forced to gas him. When Bartlett shows up Kato chops him down too. He and the Hornet tie up Bartlett, load him into Gilpin’s plane, and the Hornet takes off in it. When Bartlett comes to and realizes where he is, he is scared spitless.

Bartlett begs the Hornet to land the plane. The Hornet agrees, but only if Bartlett explains what “special service” means first. Bartlett agrees and explains that there is a bomb set to explode after the plane has been in the air five minutes. It will knock out the engine when it explodes and the plane will crash. The body of the plane is also coated with a special chemical that will cause the entire vehicle to be incinerated, destroying all traces of the bomb.

The Hornet keeps his part of the bargain and unties Bartlett. He is repaid by Bartlett attacking him in an attempt to grab the only parachute in the plane. Just then the bomb goes off and the plane starts to plummet toward the ground. The Hornet kayos Bartlett with one blow. Strapping on the parachute, he bails out with Bartlett in tow before the plane crashes and burns. Landing near the school, the Hornet takes a retied Bartlett to the Black Beauty and goes to collect Kato.

He tells Kato to leave the tied up Pete there, they can pick him up later, right now they have to get Bartlett to the District Attorney (Selmer Jackson). Pete, who has woken up by this time over hears this. After they leave, a newly revived Gilpin finds Pete. After he is untied, Pete tells the novice pilot to clear out, then calls Monroe to tell him where Bartlett is being taken. Since the flying school scam is smashed, Pete heads out himself to another Syndicate operation.

The Hornet arrives at the DA’s house and forces Bartlett to confess to swindling Josephine Weaver out of her insurance money. Before Bartlett can expose who else is involved in The Syndicate, Dean and Corey shoot Bartlett through a window and escape into the night. The Hornet takes advantage of the confusion to slip away himself, assured that Weaver will now get her money, and ready to tackle another arm of the Syndicate’s organization.

“The Green Hornet” has an unusual set up. Unlike other serials in which each week the hero deals with the same set of henchmen involved in a new scheme, here the hero deals with a new set of henchmen involved in an already established operation. Though Dean and Corey appear throughout, they remain peripheral to most of the main action until the final few episodes. The exception is the character of Pete. A running gag in the serial is that the Green Hornet will bust up a Syndicate operation, causing Pete to high tail it to another one only to run into the Hornet again almost immediately. By the fourth or fifth time you begin to wonder why the other Syndicate members never get suspicious of this or suspect that Pete may be leading the Hornet to their operations and get rid of the man.

The crimes the villains are involved with are also different from the usual in a serial. Where other main villains are concerned with a super invention to help them take over the world, or trying to revenge themselves against a group of upstanding citizens; The Syndicate is involved with such real world crimes as insurance scams, muscling in on legitimate businesses, forcing business owners to buy “protection”, fixing public elections, and smuggling guns out of the country to foreign governments. Except for that last one, these are all crimes kids of the era could relate to and might have even been exposed to at some point, making this one of the most relevant serials ever put out.

The plotting of the serial is complex, to paraphrase Jim Harmon and Don Glut from their book, “The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury”, the individual chapters in this serial have more plot than most entire Republic serials. Some fans have complained that the serial is too confusing and hard to follow, But I tend to agree with William Cline that “The Green Hornet” is told in a straight forward manner that is easy to follow, if you pay attention. This is one of the few serials where you can actually say that and mean it.

Speaking of things that fans have voiced a complaint about, most seem to feel that Gordon Jones, though okay as Britt Reid, makes a rotten Green Hornet. This is an odd feeling to me as during the course the serial Reid gets involved in fist fights and intrigue as often as the Hornet does. The reason for this is that Reid only goes out as the Hornet at night, leaving all daytime investigations to be done in his normal guise as a newspaper publisher. I think the reason for this belief is that after Jones served in the Second World War he came back twenty pounds heavier and began his long career playing comedic character roles, culminating in his being the perpetual foil for Lou Costello in “The Abbott and Costello Show” on TV, and this is the image most fans see him in, not a heroic crime fighter.

I was kind of lucky in that I had never really been aware of Jones’s comedy roles until after I had seen “The Green Hornet”, so I was able to judge his performance without any preconceived notions. I have to say I think he made a great Hornet. He was slender and athletic looking, with a nice deep and distinctive voice, almost too distinctive. Whenever Jones would put the Hornet mask on his voice would then be dubbed by Al Hodge, the voice of the Green Hornet on radio. I think part of the reason for this was that Jones’s voice was so distinctive that it would be hard for audiences to believe that no one would recognize it coming from the masked figure, and it helps tie the serial in with the radio program.

The rest of the cast is filled out nicely. Anne Nagel makes an excellent Lenore Case. She has little to do for most of the serial but in the final chapters she gets more in on the action, even helping the Hornet escape from the police. Wade Botteler is a riot as the not quite bright Michael Axeford. He is one of those rare talents that can make you laugh at his slowness while shuddering at his almost manic desire to put a couple of rounds in the “Harnet”.

But best of all is the incomparable Keye Luke as the ubiquitous Kato. Though he spends a majority of his time sitting The Black Beauty waiting for the Hornet, there are occasions when he is allowed to be a true asset; such as helping the Hornet escape from the relentless Axeford, or delivering a well placed Karate chop on a thug. The only problem with the character is that he just wears a chauffeur’s uniform with a pair of goggles and is referred to as Kato by The Green Hornet. You would think someone might notice that Britt Reid employs a similar looking guy with the same name, but apparently the crooks aren’t any smarter than Axeford.

While the action is plentiful with fist fights and car chases galore, it gets a little repetitious. Every fight has the Hornet and a thug rolling around on the floor while the Hornet says, “Give it up, you haven’t a chance!”. Every car chase ends with the Beauty screeching around a corner out of sight while the film is speeded up to increase it’s appearance of greater speed as the pursuing police screech to a halt and comment on how much faster that car is.

Of course the coolest thing about the serial is the gas gun. It resembles a German Mauser with several metal capsules suspended under the barrel and connected to the magazine in front of the trigger guard by a tube. The special effects to emulate the gas gun are simple but believable. When the gun is fired there is phhhtt sound and a small puff of gas erupts under the head of the victim who usually gives a cough and then drops like a rock. Take that you unscrupulous miscreant!

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