Serials were the film industry’s answer to the pulp magazines. From around 1910 to the rise of television in the mid-50s, moviegoers could head to the cinema to see not just a feature film or two, but a newsreel, a cartoon (we’ll come back to this in a couple of months with Superman), and the latest installment of their favorite serial. In anywhere from six to over a hundred episodes (but usually twelve to fifteen), the serial would tell a nailbiting story of action and adventure, usually ending on a cliffhanger to keep audiences coming back from more.
Often serials starred beloved characters from literature, comic strips, radio, and even comic books. Superman, Batman, and Captain Marvel all made their first live action appearances in serials, and we’ll cover each of them in turn. But before the capes-and-tights set hit the silver screen, there were two Green Hornet serials: The Green Hornet and The Green Hornet Strikes Again!, both from Universal Pictures. (If you’re unfamiliar with the Green Hornet’s shtick, I talked about his original radio show here.)
The Green Hornet ran for 13 chapters in 1940, starring Gordon Jones as Britt Reid (though for some reason, his voice was awkwardly dubbed by the original radio Hornet Al Hodge whenever the mask was on). The Green Hornet Strikes Again! ran 15 chapters a year later and replaced Jones with Warren Hull. Both featured Keye Luke as Kato, Anne Nagel as Lenore “Casey” Case, and Wade Boteler as Mike Axford, and both had the Green Hornet and Kato taking on a crime syndicate, smashing one racket per chapter before defeating the big boss in the final installment.
Watching these was my introduction to serials, and what I found really striking about it was how…well, familiar this mode of storytelling was. Serials disappeared from the theaters decades before I was born (though what I wouldn’t give to attend a 1940s-style Saturday matinee…!) but their pedigree lives on: in homages like Indiana Jones and in parodies like Dudley Do-Right and Penelope Pitstop, but also just in regular, everyday comic books. The rhythms of hurling the hero into danger at the end of each installment to keep the audience coming back, though completely over the top in these films, was a language I already spoke. (Even the term “cliffhanger” derives from film serials!)
Now, the Green Hornet’s a pulpier character than, say, Superman, and only kinda sorta a superhero, which means he fits into the pre-existing milieu of serials better than the real capes-and-tights set. In other words, he didn’t really change serials, and serials didn’t really change him – they just fit together. There’ll be more to say about superheroes on screen when we get into Captain Marvel and Superman and start believing that a man can fly.
That said, should you watch the Green Hornet serials? Well, sure! They’re a lot of fun. I found them more engaging than the radio show, mostly because the nature of the storytelling format (GH gets out of the jam he was in at the end of the last episode and catches a bad guy, the remaining bad guys come up with a new plan, the reporters stick their noses where they don’t belong and almost get killed by the bad guys, GH chases up this new lead and finds himself in peril, CLIFFHANGER!) keeps Britt a lot more involved in the actual cases than he was on the radio.Plus, you know, I’m a Millennial, and it’s a lot easier to keep my attention with a visual to accompany the audio track while I play Angry Birds and fail to purchase real estate or whatever.
Are the serials groundbreaking storytelling? Of course not. As the plot summary above should indicate, they’re relentlessly formulaic. They’re also charmingly slapdash, with rickety special effects and stock footage scattered throughout with a liberal hand. (The Black Beauty careens down the same backlot street in exactly the same way like three times an episode.) The biggest name in the casts is Keye Luke, and that was for playing Number One Son in the Charlie Chan films; everyone else is a likable but not dazzling stock performer.
But they’re fun. They’re fast-paced and hokey and everyone wears really nice suits (minus Casey, whose dresses are on point). It’s fun watching train cars roll down hillsides and cars flip off bridges to the semi-hysterical strains of “Flight of the Bumblebee” as each episode ends; it’s fun watching Britt calmly get up at the beginning of the next episode, look at the smoldering wreck behind him, dust himself off, and assure Kato that he’s fine. And you certainly don’t have to watch every episode to follow the story – you can pop in and out, or try a handful from each serial. If you’re picking just one, I found Jones to be a warmer but more playboy-ish Britt, whereas Hull’s Britt is both more urbane and more forthright and responsible. Overall, I prefered the second serial because the storyline’s a bit more cohesive and it ties the Daily Sentinel cast in much better. Plus, Kato’s given more to do in the second one, and I’m a shameless Kato fangirl.
Basically, if you’re wondering about the Green Hornet, or serials in general, you could have worse introductions than these lovably silly sagas. Check them out on YouTube:
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