Universal, 13 Chapters, 1939. Starring Gordon Jones, Wade Boteler, Keye Luke, Anne Nagel, Phillip Trent, Cy Kendall, Gene Rizzi, Walter McGrail.
Britt Reid (Gordon Jones), a wealthy young world traveler and amateur inventor, has recently taken over the management of his father’s influential metropolitan newspaper, the Sentinel–and is already being urged by solid citizens to take a strong stand against the racketeering that infests the city. Reid begins a conventional journalistic crusade against the racketeers, but also makes plans to combat them more directly–by assuming the alias of The Green Hornet and battling the underworld on its own ground. Equipped with a powerful gas gun and a fantastically swift bullet-proof car–developed by his brilliant friend and valet Kato (Keye Luke)–Reid soon begins to stamp out the various rackets controlled by the city’s powerful crime syndicate, using the Sentinel to start investigations and the Hornet to finish them. Kato and Reid are the only ones who know that the Hornet and the Sentinel are on the same side, however; both the police and Reid’s own staff believe the Hornet to be simply a lone-wolf racketeer bent on removing rivals–a misapprehension that helps the Hornet in intimidating criminals, but also makes his crusade doubly dangerous.
The Green Hornet is a well-made and very distinctive serial, its emphasis on realistic crimes–car theft, insurance fraud, protection rackets, construction-project graft– setting it apart from the espionage, exotic adventure, or science-fiction themes common to most other late-1930s serials set in the modern era. In this aspect of its plotting, and its depiction of its leading characters, the serial hews very closely to its excellent source–the radio series created by Frank Striker.
Green Hornet’s script is the work of serial veterans George Plympton and Basil Dickey and to writers named Lyonel Margolies and Morrison Wood–whose lack of additional screen credits leads me to suspect they were radio scripters hired to ensure the serial remained close to its air-waves roots. The quartet of screenwriters manage to keep their hero’s crime-busting quite interesting throughout the serial’s 13-chapter length, despite the repetitive structure of their plotting (Reid discovers racket, Hornet busts racket, repeat cycle); they do so by providing Reid with a wide and varied array of criminal endeavors to investigate and a long line of Syndicate sub-bosses for the Hornet to engage and defeat. The series of duels with the sub-bosses is a particularly good idea; it helps to make it seem like the hero is making real progress in his crusade. Had he skirmished exclusively with the same set of heavies throughout the entire serial, in the fashion of most Republic chapterplays, the repetition would have been far more irksome.
Above: The Hornet in the first of many confrontations with a racketeer leader (Don Rowan, back to camera).
The writers further diminish the repetitive aspects of the storyline by varying the ways in which Reid discovers the existence of Syndicate rackets–through personal appeals by racket victims, through accident or public outcry, through clues picked up during investigations of other rackets, and sometimes through the connivance of villains seeking to trap him. The writers also let the Hornet set some traps himself; although he uses less manipulation and more physical force in his crime-fighting than his radio counterpart did, he still pulls off some nice pieces of trickery–most notably his deception of crooked bus-company boss Rockford (with a time-honored verbal trick dating back to the legend of Croesus and the Delphic Oracle), and his skillful and surprisingly ruthless manipulation of the main villains in the final chapter.
Above: Rockford (George Lloyd) suddenly realizes that the Hornet has outsmarted him.
The script’s most enjoyable aspect, however, is its strongly characterized depiction of Reid and his Sentinel colleagues–reporter Jenks, reporter/bodyguard/diehard ex-cop Axford, and secretary Miss Case (“Casey”), all of them carried over from the radio show. Axford’s pugnacity and bumbling eagerness, Casey’s sharp-tongued sarcasm, Jenks’ combination of shrewdness and conceit, and Reid’s quietly authoritative but occasionally flippant manner make the interchanges between the quartet highly enjoyable, particularly when they’re arguing over the Hornet’s honesty or lack of same–Casey warmly insisting that the vigilante is a misunderstood hero, to the amusement of Reid and the frustration of Axford and Jenks.
Above: Axford (Wade Boteler, standing second from left) makes a delighted announcement to Jenks (Phillip Trent, seated back to camera), Reid (Gordon Jones, seated), Miss Case (Anne Nagel), and managing editor Gunnigan (Joe Whitehead, standing left).
The serial moves at a fast pace, dexterously balancing the expositional scenes needed to establish each racket’s premise with detection, character bits, and action sequences. Eddie Parker doubles star Gordon Jones in the fight scenes, with Dave Sharpe and George DeNormand also contributing; most of the fistfights are competently if unspectacularly executed, with the four-man brawl in the Cooper Zoo offices (in Chapter Twelve) and the fight between the Hornet and Rockford (in Chapter Six) standing out through their heavier use of acrobatic leaps and falls. However, some of the more grounded fight scenes, like the Chapter Seven fight in the back of the truck or the Chapter Eleven train-compartment slugfest, are noteworthy too.
Above: George DeNormand (doubling George Lloyd) leaps on Eddie Parker (doubling Gordon Jones).
The Hornet’s automotive pursuit of henchman Pete and his car-to-car transfer before slugging it out with him (in Chapter Four) is also well-done; this and the many other car-chase sequences in the serial are given added flair by the Hornet’s super-car, the “Black Beauty”–a neatly-designed vehicle that is convincingly made to look (through speeded-up film) as if it’s really going at the hundred-mile-an-hour pace it’s supposed to be setting. The shots of the Beauty zipping through dark city streets or along country roads, eluding police or chasing crooks, furnish some of the serial’s most memorable visuals. The Hornet’s other chief gimmick, the gas gun, also adds a colorful touch to the proceedings, its frequent usages made believable by simple but solid special-effects work.
Above: The Black Beauty speeds on one of its nighttime excursions.
The Chapter Two sequence–with the Hornet overtaking and boarding a train with the Black Beauty’s help, then battling heavies in the engine cab after running along the train’s top–ranks as another of the serial’s action highlights. The bus scene in Chapter Six is also excellent, with Britt Reid and a nervous bus driver trying to save a sabotaged and brakeless vehicle from destruction in a very suspenseful sequence; Reid and Axford’s later rescue of a similarly sabotaged truck on a steep grade (in Chapter Seven) is very good as well. Both sequences draw on stock footage from earlier Universal serials or features, but the stock–unusually for Universal–is integrated so smoothly here that it’s hard to tell where it begins or leaves off. There are some other, more noticeable stock scenes scattered through the serial–like the fire in Chapter Eleven–but only the Chapter Twelve carnival sequence makes really jarring or extensive use of borrowed footage.
Above: Shots from the runaway bus sequence.
The serial’s chapter endings are largely composed of respectable if understandably mundane car, train, and plane crashes–really imaginative cliffhanger setpieces would have spoiled Hornet’s comparatively realistic atmosphere. The Chapter Three car/gas-station explosion, the Chapter Seven bridge collapse, and the Chapter Ten mined-road ending are among the serial’s best, all of them featuring some good miniature work; the Chapter One flood ending, in which we actually see the Hornet caught by the raging waters (unlike the heroes in other, process-screen serial floods) is also memorable. Perhaps the most interesting ending, however–if also the least spectacular–is the Chapter Nine one, which has the Hornet trapped in a closet full of choking acid fumes by his unwitting friend Axford; the resolution to this peril is particularly clever.
Above: The collapsing bridge cliffhanger.
Universal’s backlots, complete with numerous extras, handily supply most of the business offices, hangars, garages, fairgrounds, warehouses, mansions, truck stops, and busy city streets needed as backdrops for the serial’s action–although directors Ford Beebe and Ray Taylor also stage a few scenes on what seem to be real-life urban locations, most notably in the Chapter Five junkyard sequences. The musical score, based around the Hornet’s famed radio theme (which was borrowed in turn from composer Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”) provides the chapterplay’s visuals with memorable accompaniment, its insistent, driving tone seeming particularly well-suited to the aforementioned scenes of the Black Beauty in action.
The serial’s cast is excellent all the way down the line, with Gordon Jones making a fine leading man. Reviewers familiar with Jones’ later work as a comic sidekick to Roy Rogers or a foil to Abbott and Costello have been quick to dismiss him as “miscast” in a heroic part, but these critics are usually unaware that Jones played many such roles in the 1930s before switching over to comedic parts. If one ignores prejudices arising from Jones’ later typecasting, it’s easy to appreciate his performance in Hornet; he gives Britt Reid a likably laid-back and jovial manner when interacting with his newspaper associates, but also conveys shrewdness and dogged determination when engaged in journalistic investigations or discussing strategy with Kato.
Above: Gordon Jones with Keye Luke.
Jones could undoubtedly have been properly forceful in Reid’s scenes as the Green Hornet, but was not given the opportunity; the owners of the character insisted on having radio Hornet Al Hodge dub his voice in those sequences–not, as is frequently claimed, because Jones couldn’t handle the dialogue (Reid actually has more lines than the Hornet), but because the radio show’s producers wanted to link the serial firmly to the airwaves version of Hornet. Hodge sometimes fails to scale back his vehement radio-trained delivery, occasionally giving the Hornet’s confrontations with heavies an almost comically overwrought sound, but for the most part his intense, authoritative, and slightly sinister-sounding vocals work well for the character and make his intimidating effect on gangsters quite convincing.
Wade Boteler is excellent as the hot-headed Axford, who clumsily tries to emulate the subtlety of his reporter colleagues but usually relapses into an old-school policeman’s manner and aggressively accosts suspected crooks. Despite his character’s frequent blundering and his misguided obsession with capturing the Hornet, he remains amusing and extremely likable throughout, conveying a stubborn honesty and a childlike devotion to Reid’s crusading cause that is very endearing. The charming Anne Nagel turns in a similarly lively performance, bouncing witticisms off of her fellow Sentinel staffers in saucy but refined fashion and enthusiastically and defiantly championing the Green Hornet.
Above: Anne Nagel scores off of Phillip Trent.
Phillip Trent is also good as Jasper Jenks–coming off as cocky and occasionally reckless, but also as a seasoned and capable reporter, convincingly executing some of the solo bits of sharp detection that the writers allow him. Keye Luke turns in a strong and somewhat atypical performance as Kato; he’s much more aloof in manner than in his later wartime serials, delivering his lines in a precise and noticeably accented fashion but still letting his usual warmth and cheerfulness show through his reserve, particularly in the scene where he jokes with Reid after surviving an explosion.
Cy Kendall is perfectly cast as the Syndicate boss Monroe, his portly build giving him an appearance of bloated corruption and his sneering manner and harsh, cynical voice complementing his unprepossessing looks. Aside from Kendall’s Monroe, the serial’s only recurring heavies are the henchmen characters played by Gene Rizzi, Walter McGrail, John Kelly, Ralph Dunn, and Arthur Loft, who form up the Syndicate’s executive branch. The hard-faced Rizzi and the slickly saturnine McGrail make an effectively menacing pair of killers, while Kelly is enjoyably smug and thuggish as the crooked mechanic Pete. Dunn is suitably nasty but has much less screen time, while Arthur Loft as Kendall’s raspy-voiced lieutenant has little to do but smirk in agreement with Kendall’s criticisms of his underlings.
Above: Ralph Dunn, Gene Rizzi, John Kelly, Walter McGrail, and Arthur Loft (standing left to right) in conference with Cy Kendall (seated).
The subordinate Syndicate leaders are played by an interesting array of character players, who make the most of their generally brief roles; the most memorable are Douglas Evans as the slick but nervous crooked insurance broker Mortinson, George Lloyd as the tough-talking and slightly comic bus-company boss Rockford, Guy Usher as the crafty drycleaner Lynch, German-accented Fredrik Vogeding as the suavely cold-blooded smuggler Max Gregory, and John Harmon as the shifty but aggressive “collection man” Lefty Bates. Other racket bosses are played by Clyde Dilson, Eddie Dunn, pompously dignified Ben Taggart, and formidably tough Don Rowan. Harry Tenbrook, Robert Long, William Pagan, Sigfrid Tor, Bob Kortman, and Charles Sullivan can all be seen among the many incidental henchmen that pop up in various chapters.
Joe Whitehead is good as Gunnigan, the Sentinel’s grizzled and cagey managing editor; veteran character players Joseph Crehan and Stanley Andrews are their usual dependable selves as the judge and police commissioner. Selmer Jackson has a good scene as the confident and fearless District Attorney, and an actress named Myrtis Crinley is amusing in her quick turn as a wise-cracking Sentinel photographer. Alan Ladd–still several years away from This Gun For Hire and movie stardom–has a noticeable role as a student pilot whose plane is sabotaged as part of an insurance scam; he gets to display more chipper enthusiasm than in most of his subsequent starring vehicles, as well as courageously (if wrong-headedly) defy the Hornet himself when the hero orders him not to take off in the booby-trapped plane.
Above: Phillip Trent (left) and Bill Hunter assist Alan Ladd after a crackup.
Ed LeSaint appears briefly as the chief of police, while Raymond Bailey and James Blaine both pop up as honest businessmen targeted by the racketeers. Kenneth Harlan has a smaller role as another racket victim, Jerry Marlowe is his earnest younger brother, and Robert Brister is a persecuted drycleaner. Anne Gwynne, soon to play leading roles in many Universal B-features, has a small part as the grieving fiancée of a flyer killed through the heavies’ machinations; Ann Doran plays the female crook who impersonates her. Edward Earle is a crooked lawyer, Jack Donovan a concerned bus driver, Karl Hackett a whistleblowing construction worker, Ed Cassidy a polling official, Monte Montague and Edgar Edwards policemen, Lane Chandler and Reed Howes truckers, and Edward Keane a Syndicate agent who tries to plant a bomb in the Sentinel offices.
The down-to-earth basis of The Green Hornet’s action has frequently caused it to be underrated or dismissed through the years by those serial buffs who prefer their chapterplays on the fantastic side and expect to see a masked hero battling larger-than-life super-villains–but for chapterplay fans of more catholic tastes, or for devotees of its radio source, the serial has a great deal to offer in the way of entertainment value.
Average serial. The heroes were interesting. The villains not so much. *** out of *****
I watch these serials often as my father Gene Rizzi played the henchman “Corey.” While they seem drab today with repeated scenes of Mulholland Drive and poorly lit night shots, the Green Hornet Serials held the attention of movie goers with cliffhangers and lots of action. Back then, entertainment was just that and people gladly paid two bits for a double feature and a serial.
Enjoyed this one more than the sequel, mostly due to the performance of Gordon Jones. Only time I can recall him playing the lead and he did well by it.
I very much enjoyed this one. It was a great deal better than I expected going in. The “down to earth” nature of the crimes was an entertaining break from the fanciful (and often ridiculous) schemes that many serials rely on. I especially liked the interplay of the large and varied cast, with Gordon Jones’ performance being a surprise given the roles he was more typically associated with in later years. The “radio voice” dubbing was a drawback for me, but not enough to really spoil my viewing. I agree with Richard Decker’s comment above. As much as I like Warren Hull, I definitely prefer this installment to the sequel.