'Green Hornet' serials buzz on DVD

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceAugust 9, 2009 

During the golden days of radio, gangsters, murderers and enemies of the American way found the going plenty tough on airwaves populated by numerous heroic crimefighters. None was more tenacious than the Green Hornet, who along with his faithful partner Kato brought many of the lawless vermin to justice.

"The Green Hornet" premiered on Detroit's WXYZ in January 1936 and two years later came to the national Mutual network. The adventure series was popular enough to stay on the air through the 1940s, finally signing off in 1952.

It was just the kind of property that Hollywood studios coveted for the weekly cliffhanger serials that flourished in the 1930s, 1940s and part of the 1950s. It was Universal that struck a deal to twice bring the Hornet to the big screen.

Both serials, "The Green Hornet" (1940) and "The Green Hornet Strikes Again" (1941), have just been released on DVD by VCI Entertainment and the sharp images are quite stunning. That's because VCI got access to the original 35mm film material from Universal's vaults.

Each two-disc serial is priced at $29.99. Among the extras on both are two original radio broadcasts, a look at the film before-and-after restoration and wonderfully detailed liner notes by writers Martin Grams Jr., and Terry Salomonson, authors of a forthcoming book on the history of the Green Hornet.

One of the unique aspects of the radio show was that newspaper publisher Britt Reid (The Green Hornet) was the son of Dan Reid, the nephew of another memorable radio hero, The Lone Ranger. That's easily explained because George W. Trendle created both characters and Fran Striker wrote many of the episodes for each series.

The two serials stuck closely to the radio vision of the Hornet; even basing many of the chapters on Striker's scripts. On screen, the Green Hornet wore a trench coat, a white scarf, a full facial mask decorated with a hornet symbol and a fedora. He also made use of a gas gun that rendered his foes helpless.

Gordon Jones took on the role of Britt Reid/Green Hornet in the first serial, which ran 13 chapters. Whenever he donned the mask, Jones' voice was dubbed by Al Hodge, who was then playing the character on radio. During the ensuing years, Jones performed in many movies and even played the comic sidekick of Roy Rogers in six of his Westerns. In the 1950s, Hodge gained some measure of fame as TV's "Captain Video."

Keye Luke proved to be an excellent choice for Kato, the Hornet's Korean sidekick, who could more than hold his own in a fight and drove the Hornet's buzzing car Black Beauty. Luke had played Charlie Chan's "No. 1 son" Lee in several movies during the 1930s. He went on to a lengthy career in movies and television and is noted for his role of Master Po in the "Kung Fu" TV series.

Among the other characters on the radio series that showed up in the serials were reporter Michael Axford, played by Wade Boteler, and Miss Case, played by Anne Nagel. Heard over the opening credits of both chapter-plays was a stirring version of "Flight of the Bumble Bee," which also was the theme music for the radio program.

Both serials are packed with well-executed fast-paced action and hair-raising escapes, necessary ingredients for any cliffhanger worth its celluloid. First, the Hornet and Kato fight to smash a group of racketeers, then they go up against a crime syndicate which seems to have its tentacles around every organization in the city.

Warren Hull took on the role of Reid for "The Green Hornet Strikes Again," which runs 15 chapters. And if you think the Hornet is a relic of the past, think again. A Green Hornet feature film is supposed to be released theatrically in 2010. It is hoped that it can match the whirlwind action of the two classic serials.

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