“He hunts the biggest of all game— public enemies that even the G-Men cannot reach.”— (from one version of the opening of the Green Hornet radio show)
He is the Green Hornet, a man who poses as a criminal to take down criminals.
Broadcast from Detroit station WXYZ, The Green Hornet premiered Jan. 31, 1936 on the seven-station Michigan Radio Network. It was one of the great shows of the radio era, running until December 1952. It was also a 13-chapter 1940 serial; a 1966-67 TV series; a 2011 feature film; and has had several comicbook incarnations.
The Green Hornet— one of my favorite radio shows— was created by WXYZ owner George W. Trendle and scriptwriter Fran Striker, the two men who were part of the ensemble that created The Lone Ranger in 1933 and Challenge of The Yukon (AKA Sergeant Preston of the Yukon) in 1947.
Britt Reid was the “daring young publisher” of the Daily Sentinel, a crusading newspaper that fought against corrupt politicians, racketeers and other criminals. According to The Green Hornet: A History of Radio, Motion Pictures, Comics, and Television, by radio historians Martin Grams, Jr. and Terry Salomonson, Trendle instructed Striker to aim the program at young people approaching voting age.
“I want to do something to show young men how crooked office holders can be, and what they have to do to stop it… that they have to get out and vote…,” Trendle said (page 9).
Britt’s need to fight for justice must be genetic. His father, Dan, was the Lone Ranger’s nephew. However, unlike his granduncle, who was acknowledged as a good guy (after some initial misunderstandings), Britt encouraged the belief that the Hornet was a criminal. All the better to dismantle rackets from within and/or to trick criminals into turning on each other.
In conjunction with his mask, the Hornet wore an ordinary business suit. Were he to remove the mask, he could walk down the street without anyone giving him a second glance.
Brief aside: that was also true of the Lone Ranger as depicted on radio and in older comics. In From Out of the Past: The Pictorial History of the Lone Ranger (pages 158-159), Dave Holland notes that in the May 9, 1945 radio episode, the Ranger removed his mask to blend in with a posse that had been chasing him.
“Can you imagine someone in powder blue getting away with that?” he writes, referring to the form-fitting outfit worn by Clayton Moore beginning with the 1956 Lone Ranger movie.
Holland also notes that in the comics of his youth, the Ranger “wore clothes that any other male characters might have worn.”
That makes sense. Just as it makes sense for the Hornet to wear a standard business suit.
The Hornet wasn’t a superhero, but he was a news-maker, like Superman. However, unlike reporter Clark Kent’s absences when Supes was around, Britt didn’t need to explain himself. Anyone spotting the Hornet didn’t look around and ask, “hey, anyone seen Mr. Reid?” If Britt wasn’t in the office, most everyone assumed he was either at home or at the Civic Club.
And unlike Clark— who bizarrely hung out with the same people in both identities— when Britt was acting as the Hornet, he didn’t talk to people who knew him as Britt Reid and would recognize his voice.
That’s not to say no one ever suspected him. A private detective— and supposed friend— named Oliver Perry tried without success to prove Britt was the Hornet several times.
Just as the Lone Ranger was assisted by Tonto, Britt fought crime with the help of his “faithful valet, Kato.” They patrolled the streets of his unnamed city (which had a waterfront, so it could have been Detroit) in the “sleek, super-powered” streamlined car called “The Black Beauty.”
Early on, Kato’s nationality was Japanese, but he later became identified as a Filipino. However, that change took place well before Pearl Harbor, so Japan’s attack on the U.S. wasn’t the reason for that alteration of nationality.
The original Kato actor, Raymond Toyo, was Japanese and got caught up in anti-Japanese sentiment. According to the Green Hornet book (page 81), the actor disappeared in 1942, “presumably to a concentration camp in the west.”
(In the serial, Kato (Keye Luke) was identified as Korean. According to the Green Hornet book (page 318), TV producer William Dozier gave that same nationality in response to various letters. Though, on page 79, it states that indirect references claimed he was Chinese.)
Al Hodge (later TV’s “Captain Video”), was the first of four actors to play the Hornet on radio. He also dubbed the Hornet’s voice in the Gordon Jones-led serial.
The TV series starred Van Williams and the late Bruce Lee. Although Dozier also produced the contemporaneous Adam West-led Batman series, The Green Hornet wasn’t done in the “camp” style of Batman. Ironically, that may be why it had such a short run.
(Bruce Lee and Van Williams as Kato and the Green Hornet)
The Hornet’s comicbook adventures began in 1940 with a 47 issue series published first by Holyoke Comics and then Harvey Comics. A three issue series based on the TV show was published by Gold Key Comics in 1967. From 1989 to 1995, Now Comics published two Green Hornet series, running 14 issues and 40 issues respectively, plus several ancillary titles. More recently, Dynamite Entertainment has published several titles.
The Now Comics series established a “Hornet Dynasty” of radio-era Hornet Britt Reid; his nephew Britt Reid II as the TV-era Hornet; and his nephew, concert pianist Paul Reid as the 1990s Hornet (with Paul’s older brother, Alan, having briefly taken up the mantle before being killed on his first mission).
(Now Comics’ Green Hornet Vol. 1 #1 (2nd printing)
Similarly, the TV Kato (named Hayashi Kato in the Now Comics series) was established as the son of the radio-era Ikano Kato. Both Hayashi and his sister, Mishi, worked alongside Paul.
The Now Comics series was initially written by Ron Fortier, who researched The Green Hornet for about six months before showing his presentation package to the rights holders. End result: an excellent blending of the radio and TV eras and late 20th century adventures. In fact, my only real complaint about the Now Comics series was that Fortier continually spelled “all right” as one word.
As to the 2011 movie, it had both positive and negative aspects. I liked that even as a child, Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) tried to help people (in that instance, a little girl being picked on by bullies); and that fighting back against bullies was part of his impetus to become the Hornet.
On the other hand, at one point, Kato (Jay Chou) accused Britt of acting like it was all a game. Kato was right. Hopefully, if there’s a sequel, Britt will be more mature.
Of course, every subsequent incarnation owes a debt to the radio show. If not for it, none of them would have existed. Many episodes are available from vendors like Radio Spirits (www.radiospirits.com) or Salomonson’s Audio Classic Archives (http://www.audio-classics.com/welcome.html) for your listening pleasure.
Copyright 2014 Patrick Keating.