Monday, January 31, 2011

The Green Hornet at 75

A superhero is celebrating his 75th anniversary today, but few will notice.

On January 31st, 1936, more than two years before Superman first appeared in comic books, and more than three years before Batman, the adventures of the Green Hornet were first broadcast over a Detroit radio station.  Perhaps to call the Green Hornet a "superhero" overstates the case.  After all, he has no superpowers, nor even the physical or mental prowess of Batman (although the Hornet's sidekick Kato is a brilliant martial artist).  In fact, the Green Hornet has more in common with the Lone Ranger (Britt Reid, the real name of the Hornet, was intentionally implied to be the Lone Ranger's decendant) than a superhero like Superman (Batman's arguably closer, with the exception of Batman's obvious connections to the Superman crowd). But if I said "pulp hero" or "vigilante" (as the Wikipedia article does, and those terms are unarguably more accurate), who would care?

Of course, there is the recently-released movie starring Seth Rogen, but from what I can tell, that's been in the works for years, and it's only a coincidence that it came out so close to the 75th anniversary of the Green Hornet's first appearance.  I haven't yet noticed any reference to the anniversary in the movie's publicity (including a campaign at Carl's Jr., which is where I was first made aware that the movie was coming), and the Wikipedia article for the movie doesn't mention the anniversary at all.

Once upon a time, the Green Hornet was extremely popular.  Besides the radio series which ran for over a decade, the Green Hornet was featured in multiple comic book series, a couple of movie serials (a bit more on that later), and even a mid-60's television series that featured a crossover with the Batman television series that was on the air at the same time (and on the same network).  But, to be perfectly honest, I learned of Bill Cosby's parody, the Brown Hornet, which featured on some of the later Fat Albert cartoons, first.  In fact, it was quite a few years before I realized that Cosby's Hornet was a parody of some specific existing franchise.

But even though the days of the Green Hornet's greatest popularity are clearly behind us, 75 years is nothing to sneeze at, so I've been working up to this event by watching the 1940 Green Hornet serial produced by Universal, which is in the Public Domain (although I'm not using that link myself, but rather watching via my Roku set using the "Pub-D-Hub" channel).  This was one of those kinds of deals where kids were supposed to go to the movie theater every week (hard for me to imagine going to a theater so often!) to see the next 20-minute installment.  I'm only about halfway through the series at the moment, and have to admit that I'm struggling.  The film quality is pretty bad, so that's probably part of it, but there's also not a lot of variation from one episode to the next.  That said, I have to say that "Flight of the Bumblebee" is absolutely perfect as superhero theme-music.  Here's how I would describe a generic episode of the serial:
The episode begins with a scrawl catching the audience up with recent events (it's well-established that the famous Star Wars opening scrawls were inspired by serials like this).  A group of racketeers is moving in on a business. Newspaper publisher Britt Reid investigates that business, and decides that something needs to be done as the Green Hornet.  The Hornet shows up to confront one of the racketeers, and a fight ensues.  Each episode ends with some catastrophe intended to make us wonder if the Hornet survives, which he invariably does (usually with the racketeer either dead or injured, and the episode moves to the next plot within the first minute or so).
I have little doubt that the current film (which I admit that I still haven't seen--again, I just don't go to theaters all that often) has more entertainment value than that, but I can't say that my interest has been piqued enough to go see it immediately.  I'll catch it on Netflix eventually.

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