Movie Review: The Green Hornet (1940)
Is there a better example of white privilege in the superhero world than the Green Hornet?
He’s got a superfast car ... that Kato built. He’s a got a gas gun ... that Kato invented. He’s got a mask ... that Kato made. What does the Hornet do exactly to earn top billing? Is he good in a fight? Well, at one point we see him trade blows with a 50-year-old dry cleaner, so not really. It’s Kato who has the moves. In one of the earliest depictions of Asian martial arts in Hollywood movies, he sneaks up behind guys, and, with one swift, silent blow, karate-chops them into unconsciousness. It’s so swift it almost feels like a forerunner to (or inspiration for?) Spock’s Vulcan neck pinch.
Each evening, Kato (Seattle’s own Keye Luke) is there to help Britt Reid (Gordon Jones) on with his trenchcoat, mask and hat; then he drives him to the scene of a crime. After the cliffhanger, he’s there with the car to speed the Hornet from inquiry and prison. He’s the gentleman handler of an incompetent.
Did no one see this disparity back then? Were we all that blind?
Not the brightest bulb
The Green Hornet was born on the radio. In 1932, George W. Trendle, a rapacious lawyer, was searching for content for his radio station WXYZ in Detroit, and he thought a cowboy version of Robin Hood/Zorro would work well for Depression-era audiences; so with Fran Striker, a prolific freelance writer, he created The Lone Ranger. The Hornet is their 1936 update—the Ranger, but in a modern, urban setting:
- Tonto --> Kato
- Silver --> The Black Beauty
- Revolver--> gas gun
- The William Tell Overture --> The Flight of the Bumblebee
Instead of leaving behind a silver bullet, the Green Hornet’s calling card is a button reading “The Green Hornet.” (Not clever, but a must-have, I’m sure, for kids in the fan clubs.) Oh, and instead of the hero being thought of as a hero, or even a vigilante, he’s considered just another racketeer by the people in the city.
Battling rackets is actually perfect for the serial form. It allows for progress within the stasis necessary to keep the serial going. The big boss doesn’t get his until the final chapter, but with each episode, and each racket ended, the Hornet gets a little closer.
But it works oddly here. At the beginning of most chapters, in Reid’s office at The Daily Sentinel, someone—the police commissioner, reporter Jasper Jenks (Phillip Trent), Reid’s own bodyguard Mike Axford (played with an over-the-top brogue and vaudevillian befuddlement by Wade Boteler)—will inform him of a racket in town: shoddy equipment at a mine; insurance scam at a flying school; car thieves at a parking lot. And invariably Reid dismisses the idea in either a high-handed or a jokey/fratboy manner:
Mike: I just made an important discovery!
Reid: Don’t tell me you solved perpetual motion!
Mike: No, I ... [saddened] No, it’s about the Mortensen place over at the Westwood Pike.
Reid (still joking): Is it haunted?
This is from Chapter 6, “Highways of Peril,” and it’s not hard for viewers to connect the dots:
- Hey, the Mortensen place is where the syndicate has operated in the past, and...
- Mike says it’s been taken over by the Blue Streak Bus Co., which...
- A rival bus operator has just told Reid is trying to run him out of business!
But it takes further cajoling before Reid finally, sourly relents: “Alright, alright, put Lowry on the story.” Is this obstinacy an act? The way Clark Kent’s meekness is an act? I could never figure it out. Worse, Reid often investigates things himself in a hamhanded manner: He rides one of the buses that’s breaking down; he takes off in one of the airplanes that crashes; his own car gets stolen from a parking lot.
In the very first chapter, after Reid refuses to take a public stand against the rackets, we see, via stock footage, a local dam burst, which is tied to faulty construction. “I tried to give you that story the other day!” Jenks cries. In a later chapter, an old friend of Reid’s phones him with news about a racket in the transportation biz; then he’s cut off, and found dead. Jenks offhandedly refers to his friend’s company as “the Jinx company” because of all of its recent accidents, and Reid expresses surprise. Jenks: “Ever read your own paper?”
You get the feeling that if Britt Reid were simply a better editor, the Green Hornet wouldn’t be necessary at all.
Jenks, Axford, Reid, slightly confused.
That’s a good question, actually: Why does Britt Reid become the Green Hornet? This is an origin story so we should get a definitive answer. We don’t.
As the serial opens, Kato and Reid are in their garage testing a chemical; then we get some painful exposition, including why Kato, with World War II looming, is no longer Japanese, as he was in the radio serial:
Reid: That chemical has a powerful kick! You think the motor will stand it?
Kato: It’s the strongest motor ever built! And the fastest.
Reid: Thanks to your scientific knowledge.
Kato (subservient): I am satisfactory ... as a valet, too?
Reid: Perfectly. It was a lucky day for me when I rescued you from the native in Singapore.
Kato (affronted): He tried to kill me. Because I am a Korean.
Kato then pushes the car horn, Reid says it sounds like the “giant green hornet” they encountered in Africa, and he anticipates springing it on the world. “It’ll prove to that skeptical old dad of mine that I’m not just a playboy!” he says.
As the Green Hornet? Slow down, Sally. Reid hasn’t thought that far ahead. (Which raises the question: What was the superfast car for? To tool around town?) He first gets the germ of the idea later that day, when a judge and police commissioner encourage The Sentinel to look into the rackets:
Reid (ultra serious): The Sentinel will back you, but it won’t take the lead. That’s for you to do. What are you waiting for—a modern Robin Hood to lead you out of the woods?
Comm.: Yes, Reid. That’s just what this city needs: a Robin Hood.
Reid (to secretary, amused): Miss Case, check the want ads and see if there’s a modern Robin Hood looking for a job.
But after they leave, he strokes his chin and muses aloud: “A modern Robin Hood...” So you could say the Green Hornet starts as a joke.
Except he still doesn’t start. First, the local dam bursts; then a foreman named Gorman is about to blow the lid off a tunnel-digging operation. “I’m hoping to get something from Gorman tonight,” Jenks says. (“I doubt if you will,” Reid responds helpfully.) Of course, Gorman is killed, and that turns out to be the last straw for Reid.
No, he still doesn’t become the Hornet. Instead, he writes editorials against corruption in the city—so many editorials, in fact, that the racketeers try to shut him up by buying his newspaper. Reid is suspicious; but when Axford tries to follow a potential buyer, his car is cut off and he’s roughed up by hoodlums.
And that appears to be the final straw. Kato develops the mask and gas gun, and off they go:
Reid: Funny isn’t it, Kato?
Kato: What, Mr. Britt?
Reid: When we built this secret garage to construct our super speedster, we never thought it would become the lair for a modern Robin Hood!
The first superhero?
The most annoying thing in the serial may be the Hornet’s voice. At first, I thought Jones was doing the Bud Collyer/Superman thing—dropping a register to key the transformation—except his superhero voice sounds tremulous, almost desperate. Turns out, it’s not Jones. It’s Al Hodge, who voiced the Hornet on the radio. Apparently, the producers wanted continuity from radio to theatre, even if they couldn’t manage it from scene to scene.
The serial does do a few things well. There’s nice irony in the fact that Axford, Reid’s bodyguard, keeps trying to kill him (as the Hornet). I also like the resolution to the mysterious crime boss. In every episode, in a nondescript office, three crooks gather before a fourth, Curtis Monroe (Cy Kendall), the chief’s right-hand man, who invariably mentions that the chief is about to call. Then he turns on an intercom-like device and they get instructions. The only point to an unseen chief is that he’s one of the other characters. So who could it be? The Judge? Jenks? Kato? Nope. It’s Monroe himself. “Using a phonograph record to conceal from the rest of the gang that you were the chief!” the Green Hornet cries in the final chapter. I liked this twist because I didn’t guess it, but it does make the syndicate seem a bit small? Just these guys? Taking over nearly every industry in the city? From that office?
Another plus: The serial doesn’t overdo the standard cliffhanger resolution, which is to wait for the next chapter and then insert a shot of the hero falling off the thing about to explode before it explodes. Half the time, Reid survives simply because he’s ... thickheaded. He’s in a car that crashes into a gas station (knocked out, but fine), near a car that explodes (blown back, but fine), falls out a second-story window (no biggee), and near a gas tank that explodes (coolio). In a later chapter, a car goes over a cliff with him in it. “These armored cars are built for protection!” he tells Kato the following week.
Question: Was “The Green Hornet” the first modern superhero to hit the big screen? An argument can be made. The ones that came before were in the past (Zorro/Lone Ranger), the future (Flash Gordon), or in the jungle (Tarzan). So why didn’t the Hornet catch on like, say, Batman? The lack of a solid comic-book foundation probably didn’t help. More, I think it’s the white-privilege thing. The Hornet is a mix of cool (mask, car) and lame (everything else), and the lame trumps the cool. The minority does all the work and the rich white guy gets all the credit? For a fantasy, that’s a little too close to reality.
That's right, Kato, you got rooked.