On the Life Cycle of the Green Hornet

Launched this day in 1936, the original radio incarnation of The Green Hornet, an interesting pop culture character for all sorts of reasons. For example, it is one of the few such characters to debut on radio, as opposed to the comics or pulp fiction, though it rapidly spread to those media and others as well. Also, rather like Dick Tracy and the later Batman, the Green Hornet was a HUMAN crime fighter. He possessed no uncanny attributes other than a costume and interesting inventions to supplement his natural abilities.

The Green Hornet was devised by radio producer George W. Trendle and writer Fran Striker, to build on the success of their earlier franchise The Lone Ranger. It is often forgotten that the character is the Lone Ranger’s great-nephew, a somewhat tenuous attempt at continuity. His real identity is Britt Reid, a wealthy newspaper publisher (making him a sort of combination Bruce Wayne/Clark Kent). As the Green Hornet, he wears a face mask like his famous cowboy relative, with the difference being its emerald color, the same hue as his fedora, overcoat and gloves. By his side is his trusty Asian manservant Kato, at once a valet, chauffeur, and muscle man in a pinch. (At various times Kato’s ethnic identity was given as Fillipino, Japanese and Korean). Their futuristic car “Black Beauty” is a clear model for The Batmobile and James Bond’s many gadget-laden sports vehicles. And much like Dick Tracy, the pair battle tommy-gun toting gangsters, as opposed to superhuman supervillains. The police believe the Green Hornet and Kato to be crooks themselves, and they do nothing to dispel the rumor, as it allows them to infiltrate the criminal organizations.

The radio show launched on WXYZ in Detroit in 1936 and later went national, broadcast on Mutual, NBC Blue and ABC networks before winking out in 1952. The theme music was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee. The original Green Hornet was played by Al Hodge (later TV’s Captain Video). Kato was Raymond Toyo (Tokutaro Hayashi).

1940 saw a massive expansion of the franchise in all directions. That is when the comic book version was launched, the first Green Hornet pulp fiction novels were published, and Universal Pictures released a movie serial The Green Hornet, followed by a sequel The Green Hornet Strikes Again (1941), both starring Gordon Jones and Keye Luke. Also in 1940, the somewhat derivative character The Green Lantern was launched in All-American Comics, creating a certain amount of public confusion thereafter. To be fair, the characters and scenarios are QUITE different, but the similarity of the name and the mask are enough to confuse people who don’t pay much attention — which is most people.

In the 1950s, as the radio version faded from the scene, George Trendle tried to interest producers and executives in a television version, but no one bit.

It was only after William Dozier had success with his tongue-in-cheek Batman series that he was able to creat a Green Hornet for TV. It ran a single season 1966-67, with Van Williams of Surfside 6 as the title character and Bruce Lee as Kato. Famously, Lee, with his dazzling martial arts abilities, became the break-out star.

In 2011, following nearly 20 years of development hell, with an uncountable number of stars, studios, produces, writers, and directors attached at various times, a high concept, big budget Green Hornet was released, starring Seth Rogen and Jay Chou, with Christophe Walz, Cameron Diaz, and Edward James Olmos. It cost upwards of $110 million to make, and grossed double its costs at the box office, but it is sadly one of those forgotten and forgettable modern reboots (I tend to associate it with Alec Baldwin’s 1994 version of The Shadow). Rogen was an interesting choice (and I like him a lot as an actor) but the subversive casting (not unlike, oh, Tobey Maguire as Spiderman) doesn’t jibe with the huge outlay on special effects, resulting in a movie that’s neither fish nor foul, and not very memorable either as action or comedy.

At present, there is a talk of yet another future cinematic reboot. We shall see. Who knows if movies will even exist any more after a while? Might be smarter to return to the radio concept!