THE GREEN HORNET: HIS ORIGIN AND POSSIBLE REVIVAL
Back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s when radio programs ruled the airwaves, parents deplored them as unwholesome trash. I have to admit that some of them were pretty silly, but compared to recent television programs, they are about as violent as the puffed cereal they peddled. The Green Hornet, for example, felled his adversaries from a harmless gas squirted from a sort of gun that also made a nasty hornet-like buzz. It scared miscreants or knocked them out. Unlike Eliot Ness on television’s The Untouchables, the Hornet never killed or permanently injured anybody.
The Shadow (alias Lamont Cranston) possessed a secret weapon too: knowledge. He had the gift of “clouding men’s minds” and making himself invisible – he had learned the trick from Oriental Sages – and he simply terrified crooks into submission. The original Shadow and the greatest was Orson Welles. During the two seasons Welles played the Shadow, he used the knowledge only to defend virtue – and in repeated rescues of Margo Lane, his “lovely fiend and companion.” (I have always assumed the word “companion” was probably as far as the radio producers could go without using the words “non-committed relationship.”)
Since the heyday of these heroes, American parents have changed their minds about them – judging from the flood of enthusiastic old-time radio collectors who frequent to conventions held across the nation each year. The November 14, 1951 issue of Variety magazine described The Green Hornet radio program . . . “series is aimed for young teeners and it dishes out the kind of excitement that should take them away from their comic book literature for the twice weekly tune-in.”
The concept was simple, centering on the exploits of Britt Reid, a newspaper publisher who assumes the guide of “The Green Hornet” to uncover murderers, counterfeiters, saboteurs, etc. The action moved swiftly and through some deft scripting managed to sustain radio listeners’ interest for 16 years from (January 31, 1936 to December 5, 1952).
“Dad,” Britt Reid said to his father, Dan, “I know personally that the Green Hornet is no criminal. In his own way, he fights for law and order. Can you believe that?”
Old Dan Reid nodded his gray head slowly. “I think I can believe a lot more than that. I think I know what you are trying to tell me.”
The young publisher met the eyes of the man who had built the Daily Sentinel into one of America’s greatest newspapers. “Dad, I am the Green Hornet.”
“I suspected as much,” the elder Reid said.
“How could you? The world thinks I am nothing but an idle playboy, dabbling in the newspaper business.”
“Son, you’ve seen the painting on this wall many times. I gave it to you years ago.”
“Why yes, Dad – the picture of the Masked Man on the great white horse.”
“Everyone knows who he was – he is a part of American history. But the world does not know that the Masked Man is your ancestor, Britt – my uncle, your great-uncle.”
“Then I’m – I’m carrying on in his tradition, bringing to justice those he would fight if he were here today.”
“Yes, Britt. He would be as proud of you as I am.”
Faintly, the “William Tell Overture” played through this scene on The Green Hornet . . . a radio broadcast so memorable for its significance that fans of the radio program regard this as one of the top ten episodes of the series. The Green Hornet was a descendant of The Lone Ranger. George W. Trendle created both programs. Set in a present-day city instead of the Wild West, Britt Reid also hid his identity behind a mask, and a colorful assumed name, striking fear into the heart of lawbreakers. But the radio program was not without its own problems.
Al Hodge, who played the part of Britt Reid from 1936 to 1943, stated on Richard Lamparski’s program, Whatever Became Of…?, that Trendle could not copyright the name of “The Hornet” without an adjective. Since green hornets are known to be the most liable to sting, Trendle added the word “green” to the program title and whola, the origin of the name.
When the program first went on the air in January of 1936, it began with the announcer saying: “The Green Hornet . . . He hunts the biggest of all game – public enemies even the G-men can’t catch!” Naturally, J. Edgar Hoover objected to this slur and the line was changed to “Public enemies who would destroy our America!”
The Green Hornet originated from station WXYZ in Detroit, and remained somewhat of a local program for the first few years on the air. Beginning with the broadcast of April 14, 1938, the Mutual Network premiered the crime-fighting program nationally on a coast-to-coast level and it was because of the Mutual broadcasts that the series quickly grew in popularity. The program influenced cultures across the nation and abroad. Fast municipal trouble shooting cars in one large city were called “Green Hornets.” A southern railroad named a train “The Green Hornet.” One of the U.S. Navy’s deadliest torpedo boats during the Second World War was named “The Green Hornet.” The sales of a milk company in Detroit, Michigan almost tripled after one year of sponsoring The Green Hornet.
The April 27, 1938 issue of Variety reviewed the first program broadcast coast-to-coast:
“Coming out of the same studios, which created The Lone Ranger, it blends exciting plot with skillful production, deft writing and good all-around acting. It has sustained pace and ample imagination and about the only place that it can be better itself is in the sketching of the central character, one deriving from the vigilante school of radio drama, a la The Shadow. In this case the vigilante, or the frustrator of skullduggery, is a newspaper editor. As the writer has him now molded, this Sir Galahad is a little too vague as to characterization or personality. He needs more behavioristic buildup and a quality of mannerism of voice that will cause the listener to associate him quickly with the role.
The Variety review continued:
“Thriller caught Thursday concerned a menace who made a business of killing off for their insurance money group of men that he had just hired to work for him in South and Central America. Everything in the way of plot development, dramatic punch and character relationship was kept well within bounds.”
A. Donovan Faust, who played the role of Britt Reid for a while when Al Hodge went into the Navy in 1943, later became the vice president and general manager for operations of radio stations operated by the General Electric Company.
The Green Hornet also spawned four series of comic books. Issues 1 through 6 were made available from December 1940 to August 1941, published by Holyoke Comics. Issues 7 through 47 were made available from June 1942 to September 1949, published by Harvey Family Comics. (The character of The Green Hornet also appeared in two issues of Harvey’s “All New” comics in 1946 and 1947.) The third series was a single issue, Dell Publications, issue #496 in 1953. The fourth and last series of comic books was Gold Key’s three issues from November 1966 to August 1967. Unlike the other comics, the three Gold Key issues were based on the television series, not the radio series.
The Green Hornet sparked a revival in the mid-1960s, when Charles Michelson began purchasing the rights for radio properties such as Gang Busters, The Shadow, The Clock and The Green Hornet, among others. He began syndicating the rebroadcasts and radio stations loved the idea of bringing back the Golden Age of Radio. According to reviewer Charles Osborne in the August 14, 1964 issue of Life magazine: “Now I can stop pitying today’s youngsters. No fewer than 110 radio stations across the U.S. – as though responding to some subliminal summons – have independently bought and revived The Green Hornet. These are not pallid remakes but vintage programs recorded from original broadcasts. At the same time, a new fan magazine, Radiohero, has appeared in Los Angeles, filled with fondly retrospective articles and news of the revival.”
Within the past year, The Green Hornet’s influence was brought to the big screen in Quentin Tarentino’s Kill Bill, Volume One, featuring an ultra-violent fight scene with Orientals wearing Kato masks, and Rimsky Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumble Bee” theme supplying background music.
In 1995, a Chinese movie entitled The Green Hornet was released abroad. Though never released in the U.S. commercially, the martial arts flick is presently available on the black market from video and DVD dealers (though the producers of the film merely paid for the rights to use the name of the characters, very little resembles the Green Hornet we grew up with). More recently, Actor/Writer/Director Kevin Smith has since written a film script based on the Green Hornet character, and although unconfirmed it is possible that we may see a tentative August 2005 big screen release based on the radio program. On February 19, 2004, Miramax Films co-chairman Harvey Weinstein announced that filmmaker and comic book author, Kevin Smith, would write and direct a new big-screen movie based on the popular radio series. The son of George Trendle will executive produce along with Harold Berkowitz. Smith is keeping the plot a closely guarded secret, and would only go so far to say that the movie will stay very true to Trendle’s characters, with a few new twists. Talk that Jet Li would play the role of Kato has been rumored (a script written ten years ago when Universal Studios attempted to film their version lists Jet Li on the front page) and Jake Gyllenhall and George Clooney have both been rumored to play the role of Britt Reid. Let us hope that the movie is a success.
Martin Grams, Jr. is the author and co-author of a dozen books about old-time radio and old-time television including The I Love A Mystery Companion and GANG BUSTERS: The Crime Fighters of American Broadcasting. This article is a reprint from the June 2004 REPS Convention Program Guide and reprinted with permission.