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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"Green Hornet Strikes Again"; Universal, 1940.

With “Spiderman 2” coming out this month, and the critics already saying that it is better than the first (Roger Ebert panned the first film and now praises this one, go figure) I thought I would highlight a similar film in the serial genre. Many fans have thrown a myriad of brickbats at “The Green Hornet” (1939). The lead was miscast, the plot was confusing, and so on. And the sequel “The Green Hornet Strikes Again” (1940) was considered to be great, a better man in the lead and more cohesive plot. Ironically most of these charges came at a time when “The Green Hornet” was available commercially and the sequel wasn’t. Now I have addressed the concerns about the first serial in my article on it, so if you are interested in my take on those questions I refer you to the archives.

Newspaper publisher Britt Reid (Warren Hull) has decided to take a vacation in Hawaii to relax after the excitement of his previous adventures as the Green Hornet. Joining him is his faithful valet and friend Kato (Keye Luke). While Reid is having fun in the sun, and enjoying the company of socialite Gloria Manning (Jeanne Kelly), his paper The Daily Sentinel, was being run by his chief editor Gunnigan. Unfortunately soon after Britt left, Gunning was hit by a car and the paper fell into the control of head of advertising Harper (William Forest).

At first it looks as if Harper is doing a great job, advertisements in the paper increase. But Harper is also cutting stories from ace reporter Lowery (Eddie Acuff) detailing dirt he had dug up on a racketeering outfit taking over the city with an illegal lottery. Harper says Lowery needs more proof before accusing people of misdeeds. This makes Lowery, Britt’s bodyguard and reporter wannabe Michael Axeford (Wade Boteler), and Britts private secretary Lenore Case (Anne Nagel) suspicious. They have every right to be. Harper is actually part of the criminal Syndicate, and head of the lottery Lowery was investigating. The added advertisements are actually coded lottery numbers.

Lenore is not one to just whine and moan about the problem of Harper. After Harper kills the latest story on the lottery, she cables Britt to come home immediately. Britt receives the cable and sends a reply that he will cut his vacation short and catch a clipper flight back home as soon as he can. The reply arrives while Lenore is out to lunch and is received by Harper instead. Panicked, he calls the Syndicate boss, respectable business man Crogan (Pierre Watkin). After berating Harper for simpering at him, Crogan dispatches Bordine (James Seal) to take a clipper to Honolulu and make sure Britt never returns.

Bordine arrives and immediately hires some thugs to grab Britt and kill him. Britt meanwhile has gone to a luau with Gloria, one last night of excitement before catching the clipper in the morning. While Britt and Kato drive back to their hotel, they are waylaid by the thugs and captured. Tied up, they are driven to a shack and left. Since the sun is coming up, the blackguards will have to wait until dark to dispose of Britt and Kato. Bordine pays them and then plans to catch a steamship back home.

The thugs aren’t too bright and leave the two victims in a room with a meat cleaver on a table. After cutting their bonds, Britt and Kato jump their captures and make mincemeat of them. Racing on foot back to their hotel, they miss their flight. Having no other choice, Britt takes up Gloria’s offer to travel by steamship with her. This of course just happens to be the same ship Bordine is on. So while Britt is having a great cruise, dancing and dining with Gloria, Bordine is stuck in his cabin the entire time so that Britt won’t see him. Nerves stretched to the limit, Bordine decides to take care of Britt on the final night of the cruise.

Bordine steps out of his cabin for a minute to get something to eat and is spotted by Kato. Kato returns to the cabin he is sharing with Britt and waits for him to return. Gloria calls off their dancing early due to a headache. Britt sees her to her cabin and returns to his own. When he hears what Kato has to say, Britt says that he would pay big money to have his Hornet costume with him at that moment. Kato accepts the offer and produces the outfit, saying he thought it better if Axeford didn’t stumble upon it while they were gone. Britt laughs, pays Kato, and slips into the Green Hornet personae.

Bordine returns to his room and finds the Hornet there waiting for him. Scared stiff Bordine admits he tried to kill Britt because the Syndicate is afraid of his exposes if he returns. The Hornet forces Bordine to write a full confession about the lottery activities and sign it. After pocketing the confession he presses Bordine for the name of the Syndicate’s boss, but Bordine refuses to name the boss, fearing him even more than the Hornet. Just then a fire breaks out in the ship’s hold. During the excitement and confusion Bordine braves the famed gas gun and attacks the Hornet. The fight takes them top side, where Bordine knocks the gun aside and almost succeeds in pushing the Hornet overboard. But the ever faithful Kato is close at hand. He scoops up the gas gun and shoots Bordine. Stunned into unconsciousness, Bordine topples overboard.

After thanking Kato for his quick thinking, Britt hands him the outfit and races to Gloria’s cabin to make sure she has gotten to a life boat. He finds her lying unconscious on the floor. Scooping her up into his arms, Britt carries her topside, but by this time the fire has spread everywhere, and as he is going under an upper deck, it collapses on him and Gloria. Trapped under burning debris, it looks to be over for our hero until Kato once again saves him by digging the two of them out. Making it to the lifeboats, everybody manages to get off the ship and are picked up by the coast guard soon afterwards.

Arriving at the dock, Britt runs into Lowery and Axeford who are covering the ship disaster. They are overjoyed that he is not only alive but can give a first hand account of the fire, thereby scooping the other papers. Once back at the office Britt assumes command of the paper, compliments Harper on keeping things going while he was away, and then sends him back to the advertisement department.

Harper is scared, and has good reason to be. With Britt’s return, Crogan feels that Harper has become a liability. He dispatches his top man, Tauer (Arthur Loft) to take care of Harper. Tauer grabs Dolan (Joe A. Devlin) and they go to pay a visit to Harper. But Britt is also interested in Harper and decides to visit him also, as the Green Hornet. The Hornet’s arrival interrupts the planned assassination, and the two killers high tail it out of there. Except that Tauer doesn’t leave, he just waits outside to listen.

Harper, scared out of his wits by the attempted murder and facing the Hornet, starts talking. He tells all about the lottery he has been running. But when he gets to the part about revealing who’s boss of the rackets, Tauer shoots him from the window. Kato had been on watch outside as well and sees this. He quickly disarms Tauer with a well placed karate chop to the man’s gun arm, preventing the Hornet from being the next target. The two men struggle. Tauer just barely manages to disentangle himself from the ferociously battling chauffer and gets away. Meanwhile the Hornet does a quick search of Harper and finds a personal journal. Grabbing it, he leaves his signature paper seal at the scene and splits before the police arrive to investigate the gunshot.

The next day after secretly mailing Bordine’s confession to the police, Britt calls Lowery into his office. Explaining that he found Harper’s journal in his own desk, where the man must have forgotten it, he notices a lawyer’s name mentioned in connection with the exposed lottery racket. He sends Lowery to talk to the man. Lowery can learn nothing, Crogan had already suspended all lottery activities and the lawyer was nothing more than a go between who knew nothing. Britt isn’t too concerned about that anymore, he has discovered something more important in the journal, several mentions of the Koltin Manufacturing Company, an important maker of war supplies.

Reid, taking Axeford along, goes to visit the plant, but is stonewalled by plant manager Foley (Eddie Dunn), who says that their work is too vital to the Government to allow anyone access to the workings of the plant. Actually Foley is making extra munitions and selling them to foreign powers, something that it wouldn’t do for the Government to discover. Britt and Axeford leave discouraged, and pass Tauer and Dolan, who were going to check with Foley about the latest shipment, on the highway. Seeing this as their chance the two hoods u-turn and attempt to force Britt’s car off a cliff. Only the timely arrival of a patrol car chasing a speeder saves the intrepid reporters as Tauer breaks off the attack and makes a quick getaway.

Foley notifies Crogan about Britt’s snooping. Crogan decides to take up an offer by their foreign customer to buy the plant outright. Of course Crogan also plans to have the plant bombed after the money has been paid so that no evidence survives of what they were doing, and the money won’t have to be sent to Koltin’s innocent stockholders, thereby ruining them as well. Things don’t go off completely as planned. After the foreign agent has left with a soon to be worthless deed to the plant, which is bombed from a plane when Foley signals that he has the money, the Green Hornet steps out of hiding where he has heard everything.

Foley has more spine than most of the Hornet’s opponents. He grabs the money and jumps out a window. Hopping into his convertible, the wily traitor speeds away. The Hornet beats feet to the supercharged Black Beauty and engages in a hot pursuit of Foley while riding on the running board. Kato pulls up along side of the open car and the Hornet leaps into the back seat. Grabbing Foley, the two men exchange a series of furious body blows while the unmanned car recklessly cruises up a raising bridge and drops into the drink. Foley gets swept away by the current and drowns. The Hornet, who has thirteen more chapters ahead of him, manages to swim to the bank with the satchel of money. After returning home and drying off, Britt and Kato divvy up the money and mail it to the many Koltin stockholders.

The next morning the CEO of Aluminum Products Incorporated dies of natural causes. His daughter Francis Grayson (Dorothy Lovett), who is in England at the time, will inherit his entire fortune and controlling interest in his company. Britt is concerned because aluminum is a necessary product for the country’s defense and he is convinced the gang will try something. He doesn’t know how right he is. Crogan doesn’t waste any time in finding a night club actress named Stella Merja (Lovett again), who not only resembles Grayson, but is a professional celebrity impersonator. After putting on makeup and a wig, Merja is the spitting image of Grayson. Crogan has her fly to England, where she is able to book herself on the same ship Grayson is traveling home on. Merja strikes up a friendship with her to learn her mannerisms and speech pattern. The switch is made before the ship docks. Merja disembarks as Grayson, while the real woman is taken off on a covered stretcher as a sick passenger.

The first thing that Merja does is take control of the company away from it’s board of directors and gives it to Syndicate lawyer Otterson (Charles Miller). Britt is notified of this by friends who sit on the board. Worried, and a little suspicious, he visits the Grayson mansion that night as the Green Hornet. He finds Merja with Tauer. After gassing and tying up Tauer, the Hornet notices that Merja was practicing Francis Grayson’s signature. Realizing the truth, he forces the actress to reveal where the real Francis Grayson is being held, Otterson’s house. After tying her up, the Hornet high tails it to rescue the damsel in distress.

Otterson shows up at the Grayson estate and finds out what happened. After untying Merja and the revived Tauer, the two men jump in Otterson’s car and try to head off the Hornet. The Hornet reaches Otterson’s house first and after knocking out Dolan, frees Grayson. The arrival of Otterson and Tauer forces the Hornet to grab the first available car and race away with them in pursuit and Kato in the Black Beauty a distant third.

A rain storm starts. Lightning hits a tree which drops on the Hornet’s commandeered car, disabling it. Spotting a house nearby, he and Grayson seek shelter in it. The house proves to be empty. Otterson and Tauer find the abandoned car and notice a light in the house. Tauer decides to search outside around the car while Otterson investigates the house. Entering quietly, he gets the drop on the two fugitives and holds them at gunpoint. Just then lightning strikes the house, causing the roof to cave in. Uncannily the Hornet and Grayson are unharmed while Otterson is buried under tons of rubble. Getting outside, the Hornet spots the Black Beauty and succeeds in getting Grayson away to safety.

If Britt felt that she was now safe from the Syndicate, he guessed wrong. Crogan is chomping at the bit to get control of Aluminum Products. Knowing that the company gets their power from Home Electric, he does a little investigating and finds that Home Electric’s contract to it’s customers becomes null and void if they are unable to supply power for an entire twenty four hour period. Crogan plans to sabotage the power company and take over it’s customers with his own company, Triple State, and gain control of Grayson’s business that way.

Home Electric suffers a series of power outages, none that have lasted twenty four hours yet, but the frequency of the outages, sparks Britt’s interest. He gets permission to visit their dam that powers the turbines that make the electricity. Taking Lowery along, they are intercepted by Tauer and Dolan. Tauer takes a couple of shots at them but Britt gets away by taking a dirt road off to the side of the highway and kicking up a huge cloud of dust. Suspicious already, Britt gets even more so when he is introduced to the head watchman DeLuca (William Hall) who looks real familiar. Looking over the water gate control room, Britt realizes that if it was disabled Home Electric would be ruined.

Once back at home, Britt clandestinely searches through Axford’s old rogue’s gallery and discovers DeLuca’s picture there under a different name, the reason he looked so familiar is that he had been involved in the tunnel insurance fraud from the previous adventure. Convinced that something is afoot, Britt decides to investigate the dam that night as the Green Hornet.

Crogan has decided to blow the dam that night. He has Tauer find an explosives expert. Tauer is way ahead of him and brings in a white haired man with a scar that starts under his left eye and travels across his cheek down to his neck. It takes Crogan a minute to realize he is looking at Bordine, who’s injuries suffered during the first chapter have made him almost unrecognizable. Satisfied, Crogan sends him to the dam where DeLuca with get him to the water gate control room.

The gang is surprised when they arrive at the dam, the guards are sharper than they realized and a shootout commences. This provides the cover needed for Deluca to sneak Bordine into the control room where they start to lay the charge. The shootout also allows the Hornet to sneak into the control room, where he gases the two men. After planting the charge and lighting the fuse, the Hornet revives Bordine, but doesn’t recognize him. He shows Bordine the burning fuse and holding him at gun point says he either talks or dies. DeLuca revives and jumps the Hornet from behind. Knocked against the control panel, it short circuits and electrocutes the Hornet who drops to the floor. DeLuca grabs the charge and discovers the fuse was never attached to the bomb. The Hornet was only stunned and leaps to his feet, battling DeLuca again as Bordine makes a hasty retreat. Retrieving his dropped gas gun, the Hornet puts DeLuca asleep again then makes his getaway.

The dam guards, having driven the gang off find a just reviving DeLuca in the control room. Seeing the disabled charge on the floor and the Hornet running away, they assume he fought off the Green Hornet trying to sabotage the water gate. DeLuca embellishes their belief with a tale of daring do and gets written up in the paper as a big hero.

I have to admit that this serial gets off to a thrill packed start almost immediately. After less than five minutes of exposition, we are treated to a fight, a kidnapping, another fight, a race against time, and then after a brief respite, a third fight that ends with an out of control, raging fire. Usually Universal lets over half of the first episode go by setting everything up before pouring on the action. Apparently believing that since the first serial had finished it’s run a mere eight months previously, they didn’t need to due much of a set up as the fans would remember who was who and why, even if the lead actor was different.

Warren Hull makes a dynamic Green Hornet, being used to playing masked characters thanks to his excellent portrayal of the Spider two years earlier. Unlike the first serial with Gordon Jones, Hull’s voice isn’t dubbed by Al Hodge once the mask is on. This lends a certain amount of legitimacy to the part as Hull actually changes his voice when he becomes the Green Hornet, giving it a tougher, nastier tone that is different from his Britt Reid, but you can tell that it is him doing it. Chapter Fourteen shows this by his making a threatening phone call as the Hornet but not in costume. If anything mars his dynamic turn as the Hunter of the Biggest of all Game, it is the odd moments when the serial will use footage from the first film and it is obvious as Hull was huskier than Jones.

But such reuse of footage is to be expected, all serial sequels reuse footage, for example Columbia’s “Batman and Robin” (1949) used footage from the six year earlier “Batman” (1943) even though the two costumes look nothing alike. Other reuse of footage includes almost all shots of the Black Beauty racing through the streets and screeching around corners, evading police or bearing down on fleeing criminals. Footage isn’t the only thing to be reused. Not only are the offices and apartment of Britt Reid the same as before (one of the few bits of real continuity seen in a serial, all of Ralph Byrd’s Dick Tracy serials gave him different digs each time, as did the two Spider serials), but the office used by Pierre Watkin is the same one Cy Kendall had used in the first serial (and like Kendall, Watkin never leaves the office, much less his chair, until the final episode).

Not only is footage reused. The plot is a reworking of the first serial. Once again we have a Syndicate with a multitude of branches that the Hornet works his way through till he reaches the top. The differences here are that the same henchmen continually show up at each enterprise and while we still get insurance scams, gun smuggling, and intimidation of business owners; the Syndicate is flexible enough to go after new crimes such as the heiress they attempt to rob, not once but several times. Just because one job fails that doesn’t mean you have to abandon the whole scheme, right?

An interesting sub plot has to do with Bordine’s changed appearance. When he reappears he isn’t recognized at first. The Hornet isn’t even aware of who he is until Chapter Ten, when a paid underling describes who hired him and says his name Hull wonderfully plays the scene, giving his voice a real sound of dawning comprehension as he realizes who he’s been fighting with and not knowing it till just then.

Getting back to the cast, it is excellent, Watkin gives a bombastic performance, all but chewing on the telephone end as he spits out orders, threats aren’t necessary, his tone is all the threat he needs. Henchmen Arthur Loft, Joe Devlin, William Hall, and James Seal all give good performances. The stand out being Loft, who is at turns submissive, bullying, and bemused at the turn of events he goes through. Seal has the hardest part, as his change of appearance is obviously supposed to make him look more menacing ala Carleton Young in “Dick Tracy” (1937), but he just doesn’t have the voice for it.

Returning cast members Keye Luke, Wade Boteler and Anne Nagel easily slip back into their roles. Nagel doesn’t have much to do in this one again, though she is shown actually doing real secretarial work like taking dictation and fielding phone calls. Her main purpose seems to be the lone proponent for the Green Hornet and be amused at Axeford’s stupidity. She eventually gets to be in on the action in Chapter Twelve where she goes with the hero to investigate a nightclub, is abducted and has to be rescued. Her overjoyed reaction at being rescued by the Hornet is letter perfect.

Keye Luke is given a more expanded part this time. No more sitting in the car and waiting for the Hornet to come back for him. He is the ultimate back up, always right behind the hero and usually saving him during the resolutions, with the exception of a factory guard in Chapter Five who beats the stuffing out of both of them until the Hornet manages to gas him. Throughout most of the serial Luke is forever hauling the hero off of cliff edges, out of bodies of water, or from under tons of debris. He doesn’t get a lot of lines, but Luke garners a lot screen time.

(A minor digression. Fans of “The Shadow” (1940) continually complain about how the cliffhanger resolutions mar the serial as the hero continually just gets up from under a ton of rubble, brushes himself off, and is none the worst for wear. They obviously have never really watched either Green Hornet serial. Writer James Van Hise makes some great jokes about the character’s seemingly invulnerability in his book “Serial Adventures”, saying that must be one well padded coat. It’s not hard to see why. Through two serials he has been shot at close range, buried under collapsing roofs, fallen out of high windows onto concrete, and hit with electricity; yet no matter what happens to him, the Hornet always gets up without a single scratch, dusts off his trench coat, and sprints away. Amazing! Now where was I? Oh yes…)

Boteler is even funnier than he was in the last serial. His obsession to get “the Harnut” has been softened up quite a bit. No more taking wild pot shots at him and actually being a real threat. Instead he merely talks a lot about how his new supped up car will easily catch up to Black Beauty which leads to a great running gag of how bad a driver Axeford is. He is constantly having to swerve out of the way of people who are in the right lane and getting pulled over by old friends who are still on the force and not wanting to hear his excuses.

Eddie Acuff joins the cast, replacing Phillip Trent’s Jasper Jenks. An able comedic actor, Acuff is that anomaly in a serial, a comedy relief player who is actually funny without being an idiot or a coward. A typical example of this is in Chapter Four. When they are being shot at, Acuff says he doesn’t have and asks Hull if he has one. Hull replies, “Of course not. Respectable people don’t carry guns.” Which prompts Acuff to quip, “I think I’d like to be a little less respectable.” He also has a great running gag himself in which he continually makes Boteler his patsy by pretending to flick dust off the man’s coat, prompting Boteler to look down, at which point Acuff will then flick Boteler’s hat off his head. This leads to a final comeuppance in the final chapter when Boteler pulls the same trick on Acuff, only jamming his hat down over the man’s eyes.

Most of the original stunt work is comprised mostly of fight scenes, which are an improvement. Instead of two people just rolling around on the floor, the fights have been choreographed. Unfortunately Universal seems to not have been comfortable yet with doing the type of knock down drag out fights Republic excelled at as all of the fights are clumsily executed, some being obviously speeded up, and several clearly show the stunt man getting set to take a punch.

The special effects are well done as cars are rolled down hill sides, buildings are set ablaze, and the climax features a huge safe door blown off it’s hinges. But for all that, the simple, inexpensive, and realistic looking gas gun effect is still the coolest thing about the Green Hornet. Phhtt! Cough cough! Thud!

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