2016 saw the deaths of two people who influenced my beginnings as a storyteller: Lois Duncan, author of Ransom and many other young adult novels, and Van Williams, who played the Green Hornet in the 1960s TV series of that name. (Eerie coincidence: they were also both born in 1934!) I’ve posted previously on how they influenced me. Hearing of Williams’s death, I was inspired to go back and watch episodes of The Green Hornet to see how they hold up after a half century, and how adult me would view a series that enthralled me as a child. The result? It doesn’t look the same, and it has aged, but the plotting showed potential.
The Green Hornet got on the air because the TV series Batman, which I also loved then, was such a smashing success. Unlike Batman, Green Hornet played its crime drama mostly straight. That’s why I liked it even better than Batman. Audiences apparently didn’t agree: The Green Hornet lasted only the one season with 26 episodes, while Batman ran to 120.
The Green Hornet had some other attractions that Batman lacked. He frequently went up against new and plausible technology. I’d remembered specifically that he once had to protect his car from a laser beam! And Kato, played by Bruce Lee, then just beginning to become famous, was a martial artist the like of which I’d never seen before. He was cool, period.
Watching them over again, adult me could see how formulaic the plots were. City crime figure acquires some new technology and pulls off crimes. Publisher Britt Reid goes undercover as the Green Hornet, reputed crime boss. He tracks down the villain and demands a piece of the action. He’s able to do this, by the way, without ever actually seriously roughing up anyone. (Punching out henchmen doesn’t count.) The villain tries to double-cross the Hornet, who defeats him and leaves him to the police, who arrive after the Hornet has departed. That’s most of the plot of most of the shows. Oh, sometimes there is a damsel in distress, or reporter Mike Axford gets into trouble (which is kind of the same thing). And every episode ends with some weak joke between Reid and his secretary about his secret identity.
On the other hand, I had to admire the economy of the plots. Each episode was only about 25 minutes long, including credits. And the episodes reused a lot of stock footage of the Green Hornet and Kato getting into their formidable car, the Black Beauty, or driving through the city streets. Somehow in perhaps 20 minutes the episodes were able to pack in a plot of crime, investigation, betrayal, and vengeance, without appearing too formulaic. As a child, I unconsciously appreciated this without understanding it; as an adult, I am just simply impressed.
In many ways the series hasn’t aged well. Despite the cutting-edge technology the Hornet uses and confronts, the stories have a 1930s feel about them, being mostly about criminal mobs engaged in old-fashioned types of crime. And it’s a white man’s world. Women are mostly there to look pretty, date Britt, and need rescuing. Indeed, Britt Reid once holds a meeting in a thinly disguised Playboy Club! I don’t remember any black characters. And the Green Hornet’s one foray into Chinatown is cringe-inducing in its stereotyping.
Speaking of Chinatown brings up the elephant in the room: Bruce Lee. The man’s subsequent rise to fame has made his portrayal as Reid’s servant/driver/assistant Kato look demeaning. It doesn’t help that in the early episodes, the Green Hornet explains nothing to Kato and often gives him orders that a knowledgeable assistant wouldn’t need. Although, to be fair, those patterns may have just been the writers’ way of building suspense and informing the audience of what was happening.
Still, watching the episodes in succession, it’s clear that Bruce Lee got better treatment in later episodes: taking fewer stupid orders, occasionally taking the initiative, and definitely getting more chances to show off his fighting skills. Suffice it to say than when the Green Hornet and Kato faced off against Batman and Robin in an episode of Batman, I could believe that Batman and the Green Hornet would be equals, but I absolutely believed that Kato should have been able to take down Robin in seconds. (In the episode, it’s a stand-off all around.)
And you know who also got a bit better treatment toward the end? Reid’s secretary, Casey. In the early episodes, although she must have some brains to be Reid’s secretary and help with his secret identity, Casey is usually shown as a frustrated would-be lover of Britt’s who gets taken hostage. Even her intelligence is implicitly denigrated when she gets brainwashed in one episode. And yet . . . Britt seems to be waking up to her better qualities in the last few episodes. She finally even shows some crime fighting skill herself in the last two-part episode. Although (as usual) she’s taken hostage, she manages to escape and leads the criminals on a merry chase.
It’s as if the series writers were themselves getting tired of the same old, same old, and went looking for new ideas and developments in the last few episodes. But the series ended before they could get too daring. And given the nature of broadcast television in 1966-67, it’s not likely The Green Hornet would ever have become a ground-breaking series. But it might have become a good one.