The Green Hornet was one of the top classic radio pulp heroes, along with the Lone Ranger (from the same author -Fran Striker – and whom the Hornet was descended from) and the king of all pulps, the Shadow.
By day he’s newspaper magnate Britt Reid (back when that was a more respectable occupation than being a vigilante). When he discovers evidence of organized crime that the police cannot crack, he ventures forth as the masked Green Hornet, together with his faithful assistant Kato and armed with their various advanced gadgets – including a weapons-laden car called ‘Black Beauty’ – to prey on the criminal underworld.
Both the civilized world and the underworld believe the Hornet to be a dangerous criminal himself, which of course is what allows him to get close to the various gangsters and crooks that he takes down. Usually this involves bullying his way into the scheme and demanding a large chunk of the profit, then trapping them when they inevitably attempt a double cross. Ironically, of course, this aids in his dangerous reputation, as the crooks all know that those who mess with the Hornet end up in jail or dead.
Though the Hornet, like Batman and unlike the Shadow, typically doesn’t try to kill his opponents. Rather than a normal firearm he uses a gun that sprays a green knockout gas, though he also carries ‘the Hornet Sting’; a powerful energy weapon for blasting through barriers. And at least in the show, he doesn’t have a hard and fast rule against killing, he simply prefers to let the crooks be arrested.
My current TV diet largely consists of episodes of the 1960s television adaptation, which sadly lasted only one season. I don’t yet know the character well enough to say how faithful an adaptation this is, though it seems to adhere pretty close to what I know of the character: the gas gun, the criminal alias and newspaper magnate day job, the Black Beauty, and so on.
In any case, I think it’s great fun: a solid bit of pulpy adventure from a time where such things were largely falling out of fashion. Unlike the contemporary Batman show (which the Green Hornet had a crossover with at one point), this one mostly plays it straight as a crime-based adventure series. There’s frequent death and danger, and though the criminals often employ science-fiction conceits – subliminal messaging, advanced prototype weapons, etc. – these are nevertheless fairly restrained. Like, the MacGuffin of the first episode is a completely silent, flashless gun. Impossible, but not ridiculous like, say, the Penguin’s various umbrella-based weaponry (not hating on the Batman show, by the way, just drawing distinctions).
(I also like how the Hornet’s theme music is a variation of Flight of the Bumblebee)
Of course, the main reason people still remember this show is because Kato is here played by a very young actor named Bruce Lee (!!!!) in his first major role. This fact so overshadows everything else that it is Lee and not Van Williams (who plays the Hornet) who is on the cover the DVD (which declares “Bruce Lee is Kato in the Green Hornet”), and the show was even renamed ‘The Kato Show’ when screened in Asian markets.
It is a little surreal seeing a legendary, world-class talent like Lee in what is after all a rather humble adventure show like this, though everyone has to start somewhere. Lee certainly makes the most of his role by stealing the entire show every time he goes into action with blindly-fast moves and startling grace as he effortlessly destroys thug after thug. Or he doesn’t even have to be beating people up: one episode has him simply grab a reluctant witness by the shirt, but you’re still awed by just how fast he is.
This was the show the not only introduced American audiences to Lee, but also helped to popularize to Asian martial arts as such and demonstrate how effective and visually impressive they could be on screen, setting the stage for the martial-arts film boom of the next decade as well as Lee’s own mythic career (it also marked a permanent change in the Kato character, who had not previously been depicted as a martial arts master. After this, it became all-but unthinkable for him to be anything else).
(To be clear, Asian martial arts were featured before and had been long-since introduced to American culture – e.g. Barney’s Judo instructor featured in an episode of The Andy Griffith Show – but I don’t believe they had ever been shown to this level on a mainstream show before).
Incidentally, this was also where Lee learned the film business. He had done small parts before, but this was his first major role and he was paired with industry veteran Van Williams (with whom he became very good friends), who would give him tips on acting on how the business was run.
I watched an interview with Van Williams (who passed away in 2016) where he related the following story. Lee was, of course, very touchy about how his action scenes were filmed, since he took his fighting very seriously and wanted it to be shown to the best effect. So early on he would frequently argue with the stunt director about how the scenes should be done, and even tried to demand that he be allowed to direct his own fight scenes. Eventually they got the idea to give in and let him do a scene, just to show him what he was asking for. So Lee directed the scene, and then Williams and the stunt director got special permission to let him view the dailies (ordinarily actors are never allowed to see the dailies, otherwise they’d be wanting to do scenes over and over or critiquing their own performances non-stop). So they ‘snuck’ Lee into room and sat down to watch the scene.
It was a total train wreck; the lighting was off, the perspective was completely wrong (Lee hadn’t realized how much the two-dimensional film compresses depth perception), Lee himself wasn’t even visible, and so on. Everyone started laughing, and poor Lee was begging to be allowed to sneak out. So he went back to his trailer, took two hours to calm down, then went to the stunt director and humbly admitted he had no idea what he was doing and asked to learn.
That’s how Bruce Lee, future director of Way of the Dragon, learned how to shoot a movie.
For today’s viewing pleasure, I present the first episode of The Green Hornet (the entire series is currently available for free on YouTube)
PS A final bit of Hornet trivia. In the two movie serials from 1940, Kato was played by none other than Keye Luke: then-current ‘number one son’ to Charlie Chan in about a dozen films, later Master Po of Kung Fu and the mysterious shop owner of Gremlins. Mr. Luke, for those who don’t know, was an extremely prolific character actor with well over 200 credits to his name…including a role in a later episode of The Green Hornet.