Part 2: The Hornet Goes West
In 1938, Universal Pictures was one of the lesser major film studios in Hollywood. In the sound era, only Universal, Columbia, and Republic Pictures made serials, with a few independents turning out a handful. Unlike the early silent films, wherein chapterplays (a series of short films about the same story and characters) like the PERILS OF PAULINE appealed to a wide audience, by the 1930’s cliffhangers were aimed at the kid’s matinee market. Universal had a big hit with 1936’s FLASH GORDON, and began to look to comics and radio for material likely to be popular with youngsters.
Republic Pictures had made two serials based on the Lone Ranger, THE LONE RANGER, and THE LONE RANGER RIDES AGAIN. Though successful, George Trendle had been less than entirely pleased with the productions, specifically the liberties the studio had taken with the character, including showing the Ranger unmasked. Thus he and his legal advisor Raymond Meurer determined to take a direct and personal interest in seeing that the Green Hornet was translated to the screen in a manner that would be true to the radio show.
The Green Hornet, Inc. insisted on actor approval, both via pictures of the players and voice recordings.
Gordon Jones, a likable young actor, was chosen to play Britt Reid. In later years, Jones would specialize in comedy roles, and is perhaps best known for his role as the blustery Mike the Cop on THE ABBOTT & COSTELLO SHOW.
For the role of Kato, Chinese-born artist-turned-actor Keye Luke was selected. Luke had a long career in Hollywood, appearing in the Charlie Chan series as Number One Son, and playing Master Po on the TV series KUNG FU. Universal, also leery about a heroic Japanese character at a time of growing hostilities, decided to have Kato declare himself Korean in Chapter One.
Anne Nagel (MAN MADE MONSTER) was cast as Lenore Case. In addition to being an attractive woman with striking eyes, Nagel had a pleasant, cultured speaking voice, which surely was a plus in getting the role. Veteran character actor Wade Boteler was chosen as Mike Axford, and in most scenes wore a derby, just as in publicity artwork for the radio series. Philip Trent played Jasper Jenks, one of the various Daily Sentinel reporters that appeared on the radio show. Joe Whitehead played Gunnigan, the often harassed and irascible Editor of the paper, while Myrtis Crinley played Clicker Binnie, wise-cracking lady photographer.
Leading the villains was Cy Kendall as Munroe. Kendall had been the crime boss in Grand National’s THE SHADOW STRIKES in 1937. He put his henchmen through their paces in schemes that relied both on radio scripts by Fran Striker provided by Green Hornet, Inc. and the stock footage that Universal had on hand from other films, serials and real-life newsreels. Collapsing tunnels from shoddy construction material, as well as train wrecks, fires due to arson, and flight school insurance-murder rackets would appear. Future star Alan Ladd played played young Gilpin, an aspiring pilot who nearly falls victim to the deadly scheme.
The thirteen-episode chapterplay began filming on September 7th, 1939 under director Ford Beebe (THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE, 1944). Within a week, Ray Taylor (DICK TRACY, 1937) was brought in to alternate with Beebe –- it was not at all unusual for serials, with their break-neck pace to be handled by two directors. With only 26 days allotted for filming, it became a necessity.
THE GREEN HORNET was filmed on the Universal back lot’s New York street, and all over the studio. Some familiar edifices, such as the mansion seen in a number of horror films such as SON OF DRACULA, and the steep inclined rail tracks from THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS can be glimpsed. Locations nearby the studio, such as Mulholland Drive and a cliff-side stretch of road familiar to movie fans helped open up the film.
Though Gordon Jones was quite good as Britt Reid, to insure that The Hornet sounded right to the audience, radio actor Al Hodge made a trip to Hollywood to dub in the masked man’s dialog. This was simple, as the Green Hornet of the serials wore a mask that covered the entire face— usually.
There seems to have been at least three different masks used in the serial, one made of cloth for the stunt work, and two fairly rigid ones, possibly made from leather, varnished cloth, or papier-mache. One of these two, seen in some of the early chapters, revealed Jones’ mouth and jaw from some angles, and was likely replaced for that reason. One plus is that it also allowed the Hornet to be a brilliant mimic, by simply dubbing the actor he was impersonating over the footage.
In the serial, kids got to see the Hornet’s gas gun, vaguely described as looking like a “foreign automatic” on the radio show. Universal’s prop men crafted an interesting weapon along those lines. Though it appeared to have gas cylinders, on-screen the gun seemed to fire a gas pellet, which broke on contact —it was sometimes described that way on the air. The effect in the film used a pyrotechnic charge from the muzzle, with a gas cloud explosion nicely superimposed over the victim.
They also got to see the Black Beauty, played by what appears to be a 1937 Lincoln-Zephyr fitted with fancy “stream-lined” chrome mudguards.
THE GREEN HORNET is a pretty exciting serial, with a lot of verve, intelligent plotting, and better than average acting for a cliffhanger. Some viewers may carp at the low budget and obvious use of stock footage, along with a distinctly episodic feel.
However, all serials are episodic by nature, and THE GREEN HORNET script by George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, Morrison Wood, and Lyonel Margolies and the photography by Jerome Ash (FLASH GORDON) and William Sickner (THE MUMMY’S GHOST) gives the production a lot of the feel of a crime B-movie of the period.
It’s more than a collection of action sequences for the kiddies, strung together with just enough story to connect the fights, chases and other set-pieces. Other serials might simply and repetitively follow a MacGuffin back and forth between heroes and villains for 12 or 15 weeks, while this one has many plot threads and situations for variety.
Though generally listed as a 1940 release, it seems THE GREEN HORNET opened in some theaters in November of 1939. It was a hit with its audience, and by December of that year a sequel premiered.
THE GREEN HORNET STRIKES AGAIN returned most of the actors to their roles, with the major exception of the lead. For whatever reason, now lost to the mists of time, Gordon Jones did not reprise his part of Britt Reid.
Replacing him was the more mature Warren Hull (THE WALKING DEAD, 1936), who had previously played Mandrake the Magician, and Richard Wentworth/The Spider/Blinky McQuade in THE SPIDER’S WEB (1938)and THE SPIDER RETURNS for Columbia Pictures.
Hull was good choice, despite being less physically imposing than Jones. Possessing an easy charm and a fine voice, it seems that The Green Hornet, Inc. didn’t feel it necessary to have the Hornet’s dialog dubbed this time around. As a result, some of his lines are slightly muffled (under a new lighter colored mask), but much worse were the few occasions when supervising editor Saul Goodkind saw fit to dub his own raspy voice in places where he felt lines were missing.
Warren Hull would soon leave the movies for radio, and later television, usually to host programs such as VOX POP and game shows, most notably STRIKE IT RICH.
Jasper Jenks was not in this serial. Instead, comic actor Eddie Acuff (the hard-luck mailman in the BLONDIE movies) played reporter Ed Lowery (voiced by Jack Petruzzi in on radio) and Jay Michael, one of the WXYZ regulars made it out to Hollywood for the serial, playing the sinister-voiced gangster Foranti in Chapters 14 and 15.
The lead villain, Crogan, was character actor Pierre Watkin, who played Perry White in the two Columbia SUPERMAN serials. Among those backing up his criminal syndicate was familiar face James Seay (KILLERS FROM SPACE, THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN )as the slick gangster Bordine.
It should be noted that Kato’s role in these serials (as in the radio show) tends to be more that of a skilled inventor and trusty aide. The Green Hornet handles the overwhelming majority of the fights and action, mostly limiting Kato to rescues of the hero and to take out only the occasional gangster with a timely karate chop from behind. In STRIKES AGAIN, we learn that Kato is relatively well-connected in local scientific circles.
THE GREEN HORNET STRIKES AGAIN runs 15 chapters, featuring interesting setups, including pre-WWII preparedness themes dealing with schemes to take over vital aluminum production via impersonating a naive heiress (Dorothy Lovett) and borderline science fiction aerial projectiles designed to foul plane engines.
The serial is nicely shot at times (Jerry Ash again, solo), but even more stock footage dependent, and a little sloppy and rushed in the editing, notably in the music cues. They often don’t seem properly timed or appropriately selected to match the onscreen events. Someone also thought it would be funny to bring in an Irish jig (The Irish Washerwoman), whenever possible on Mike Axford’s entrances and exits. Rear projection backgrounds are used in a number of scenes to tie into stock footage of locations, and work fairly well.
Ford Beebe returned as director, this time alternating with John Rawlins (SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE OF TERROR). Both serials were produced by Henry MacRae, who directed the first werewolf film (THE WEREWOLF, 1913), now sadly lost. He’s listed as “Associate Producer”, but this was an idiosyncrasy of Universal Pictures at the time, which considered that the Studio was the actual producer of the film.
Universal ended the series here, and though there was some discussion on a Universal Lone Ranger serial, that never came to fruition. Seeing as the radio series would connect the two characters, that might have been interesting to see.
The Green Hornet looked good in B&W on the silver screen. His next appearances would put him color —4 colors, to start.
THE GREEN HORNET STRIKES AGAIN is also available in an inexpensive regular edition in the CINEFANTASTIQUE STORE