First, an introduction to serials…
Back in the days of old, our then-youthful ancestors would go to the local theatre and pack themselves in for an entire afternoon full of laughs, thrills, and chills. Kids were treated to a handful of cartoons, newsreels, a two-reeler (short), previews of the many coming attractions, a double feature and, of course, the latest exciting chapter of this week’s Saturday Matinee Serial.
Also known as “Cliffhangers,” these multi-chaptered features (many of which were produced by studios like Republic, Columbia and Universal) depicted our insanely-brave heroes and heroines alike in their never-ending pursuit of justice (and the American way, of course). Each week, our dashing champions would match both wit and brawn against some of the most unscrupulous scoundrels that the world of cinema had ever known: Nazis (and other Axis criminals); aliens armed with atomic weaponry; killer robots; hooded villains named after fierce animals (and their fedora-wearing, pin-stripe-suit clad henchmen). You name it, the serial era exploited it. The good guys were cheered, the bad ones were jeered. Gorilla-infested jungles, lost underwater civilizations, the Bronson Caverns of doom, the seedy underworld of the big city, the sky and outer space were all well represented as locales.
Generally, a complete serial ran somewhere between 12 to 15 chapters, with each chapter running anywhere from 15-25 minutes in length. At the end of each week’s chapter, our stars would find themselves in a precariously fatal predicament, about to face their eminent and most-impending doom in what is famously referred to as “a cliffhanger ending.” Would they survive? If so, how on earth would they accomplish it? Well, one of the great things about serials is that you would have to wait an entire week to find out what really happened, all the while speculating the outcome with your friends (a surefire way to guarantee that the theater would be jam-packed again next week).
Another great thing about serials were their cliffhanger endings, as they featured some of the most bizarre escapes (or copouts, if you prefer) ever conceived and committed to film. “No, you did not see our hero being flattened like silly putty by a steam-roller, his helmet flying off into the air like we depicted last week–what you really saw was him ducking out of the way just in time! And the helmet? Ha, that was a tin can that happened to be lying on the ground.”
Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever. Somewhere between the advent of the Nuclear Family, Suburbia, the blatant but oft-ignored fact that Franco-American changed their recipe for Spaghetti-Os, and the rise of television, the serial died. But, despite its passing, the serial still continues to live vicariously through devoted fans and films like the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films (and them some). However, since the re-invention of the serial on the big-screen is a bit unlikely, we hereby invite you to go out and pick one of these classics on DVD — and then join us here at blogcritics.org as we (or perhaps just I) salute the Saturday Matinee Serial.
(And, should you want to get better acquainted with this phenomenon from yesteryear, there are two sources that I highly recommend: The Serial Squadron, a great place to discover and discuss serials; and VCI Entertainment, the only outfit with enough balls to release serials on DVD.)
In the wide world of serials, there is perhaps no bigger hero than the crime fighter. Well, I suppose that, in essence, every serial hero was a crime fighter, but I’m referring to the type of person that was so fed up with the seedy underbelly of his or her city/town/jungle/planet, that they never thought twice about slipping into a pair of baggy pajamas and strapping a goofy dime store mask on their face — they were only concerned with justice (and, where applicable, the American way). During the days of World War II, these sort of crime fighters and superheroes had their hands full.
Spy Smasher would take on the Nazis at Republic Studios in 1942.
Columbia’s own The Batman battled the Japanese a year later.
But — prior to America’s entrance to the war — there were already bad guys to be fought. Some good ol’ homebrewed evil was lurking around every corner in every city. Gangsters were taking over. The innocent cried out for help. And Universal’s The Green Hornet answered the call.
In case you are unfamiliar with The Green Hornet (and shame on you if you are, you Commie rat!), the show began as a radio program co-developed by George W. Trendle, who also helped bring us The Lone Ranger (and Sergeant Preston Of The Yukon, too). The story told of the adventures of Britt Reid and his loyal and trusted manservant, Kato. By day, Reid was just a newspaper publisher. By night, he transformed into The Green Hornet — and, with Kato’s assistance, the two defended their city from all of the various crooks and spies the underworld had to offer.
Oh, while I’m on the subject of The Lone Ranger, I might as well take the opportunity to inform you that Britt Reid, alias The Green Hornet, is actually The Lone Ranger’s grand-nephew. Seriously, he is.
There, you have been officially brought up-to-code.
For a while there, it seemed that we, the faithful fans of classic crime fighters, were in some serious trouble. An ever-developing sense of dread had come over us upon hearing the news that Seth Rogen would portray a new, modern-day version of Britt Reid (and his alter-ego, The Green Hornet) — a remake that would surely tarnish everything we loved about the character. Yuck. Worse still, the film elements for the original cinematic serial incarnations of the beloved radio/film/TV/comic icon had fallen into a vast state of disrepair.
OK, so while there is really nothing for us to do about the upcoming remake (apart from boycott it or assassinate its cast and crew**), the good folks at VCI Entertainment have done an amazing restoration job for both The Green Hornet (1940) and its 1941 sequel, The Green Hornet Strikes Again!. Now, at long last, you can see these two exciting wartime cliffhanger serials as they were meant to be seen: in one piece.
In The Green Hornet (1940), our hero (portrayed by Gordon Jones, who also played Danny Kaye’s rival in The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty and later had a recurring role on The Abbott And Costello Show as Mike the Cop) discovers that the damn near the entire city is rampant with hoodlums and racketeers. These public enemies are working overtime to sabotage the very core of America — in a time of war, mind you — so Britt seizes the opportunity to put in some overtime of his own as a masked vigilante known as The Green Hornet. Together with his trusted valet Kato (played by the great Keye Luke, best known as Charlie Chan’s Number One son and later as David Carradine’s mentor in Kung Fu), the two set out to make the city (and thus, the American way of life) safe.
Kato (whom the writers make damn sure we definitely know is not Japanese in the first chapter — although, by origin, the character is) also happens to be a mechanical genius (wait — are you sure he’s not Japanese?), and has devised a gas gun that knocks out the bad guys and a revved-up super car to boot called “The Black Beauty.” Of course, at first, The Green Hornet is seen as an enemy by the law — but those lazy and foolish dicks will soon learn the truth. Hi-yo, Silve–er, um Black Beauty. And Kato. Away!
Next up in the series The Green Hornet Strikes Again!, with Warren Hull portraying Britt Reid/The Green Hornet this time around. Frankly, I like seeing Hull as the character a lot better than I like Gordon Jones. Hull comes off as more believable than Jones, who just comes off as a big dumb feller. I think it’s probably because I’m so used to seeing Jones playing big dumb fellers (such as his roles in The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty and The Abbott And Costello Show). Oh, well.
So anyway, The Green Hornet Strikes Again! starts out with Britt on vacation in Hawaii (the lucky bum). Unfortunately, the fun in the sun doesn’t last all that long when Britt learns that, during his short absence, the evil racketeers have managed to creep into just about every corner back in the city. And so, once again, Britt dons his mask and dubbed voice (The Green Hornet radio performer Al Hodge provides the Hornet’s voice for both serials) as he and Kato (Keye Luke again) head back out into the night to kick some gasters.
One of the major distinctions with these serials is their unique, almost non-linear, approach. Traditionally, serials featured a common (usually unseen) enemy, whom the good guys worked their way up to (and defeated) in the final chapters. With both of The Green Hornet entries, however, the stories are more of the standalone variety. Example: one chapter might involve The Green Hornet battling bootleggers, while the next has them fighting off spies. Whereas normally in serials, the protagonists would fend off the same devious henchmen chapter after chapter, all of whom were working for one big bad boss-man hellbent on ruling the city/world/universe.
On DVD, VCI Entertainment presents The Green Hornet and The Green Hornet Strikes Again! in their original cinematic 1.33:1 ratios with mono stereo sound. The image for both serials is very lovely and, as I mentioned before, neither one of these gems would not be viewable today had it not have been for the tireless efforts of VCI Entertainment. The suits at Universal Studios even lent a hand for once, and the end-result is incredible. Should the changes it not be evident to the average eye, VCI has included a before-and-after demonstration on each DVD. Trust me, you’ll notice after that.
Of course, VCI didn’t stop there. They have also included a few extra goodies for the diehard fans and newbies alike. Aside from the aforementioned “Before-and-After Restoration Example,” each two-disc set contains two vintage episodes from the original The Green Hornet radio program; photo galleries; and liner notes by author Martin Grams, Jr. The Green Hornet also features an audio segment entitled “I Am…The Green Hornet” by Clifford Weimer and a bio on George W. Trendle. The Green Hornet Strikes Again! supplements its bonus material with some facts and trivia as well as a bio on actor Keye Luke (who deserves a biopic, in my opinion).
It’s time to cut a few eyeholes into large piece of bulky plastic and smother your face with it. Assume a crime fighting alias (with a color in it). Adopt a slightly fierce animal or insect as your mascot. Find an ethnic guy to be your sidekick. Spice up a big-ass car. And hit the streets, fighting crime!
No, on second thought, don’t do that. People will only laugh at you. You’ll probably wind up in the emergency room, too. No, kiddies — instead, please go out and pick up The Green Hornet (1940) and The Green Hornet Strikes Again! on DVD. You’ll love it. I guarantee it. Plus, Seth Rogen wasn’t even born when these came out, so you won’t have to worry about him.
** — Joke. I do not recommend, nor shall I take responsibility for, such actions committed by anyone. Besides, killing these jokers will only hype the whole project up way out of proportion, ensuring the fallen a place in history as (gasp) idols, and causing the film to soar higher at the box office than Timothy Leary in a rocketship. Don’t do it. It’s not worth it. Just boycott the movie instead.