By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Whitney McIntosh, and Cameron White
The Green Hornet
Season 1, Episodes 18 and 19: “Corpse of the Year” Parts One and Two
Original airdate: Jan. 13, 1967 and Jan. 27, 1967
Cory: One of the great things about the superhero’s place on TV is that we’ve gotten to see some of these lesser characters over the years. We started with Superman and Batman, the true A-listers, but now we’re going to be moving on to characters who weren’t necessarily created on the comic panel and then later adapted for the small screen. The Green Hornet wasn’t originally a comic book character. He first appeared on the radio in the mid-1930s and reappeared in a few film serials a short time after. Then there were a few competing comics, before the characters finally made it to ABC in the late 1960s. I think it’s fair to deem the radio series a success, but it’s not as if it was an overwhelming success. By the time Van Williams put on the mask and a young Bruce Lee joined him as the sidekick Kato, American audiences weren’t clamoring for more Hornet. Hell, based on the fact that this show only lasted a year and it took until 2011 for another (mostly failed) film version to exist tells us that audiences were never, ever clamoring for more Hornet.
I kind of understand that, but it also surprises me a little. “Corpse of the Year” is shockingly enjoyable, outside of some of its contextual period-ness. The two-part structure allows the story to develop perhaps a bit more fully than a typical episode would, but this one features a solid number of narrative twists and dukes that might not be completely unexpected, but they’re still quite effective. The show came to be around the same time as the Adam West version of Batman and though Hornet and Kato would later make a guest appearance in Gotham, Green Hornet is tonally a much different beast. This is a show where people get killed on the reg and cars careen off a cliff-side to meet a fiery end. The plot is driven by countless fake-outs, but the stakes are present.
This is also a show where you can see the budget on-screen. There are moments where I’m not sure what is going on with night and day and time, but like those things matter! “Corpse of the Year” features some decent exterior shots, mostly with the car, that aren’t too bad. This doesn’t have the same sense of style that Batman does, but it’s all sort of slick and dark in a way that’s more impressive than you would have ever guessed. Of course, this is all helped by the fact that Green Hornet doesn’t have any special abilities that cost money to shoot (like Superman) or even an visually interesting costume or hideout (like Batman). The car is fine and young Bruce Lee is as bad-ass and one-note as you’d expect, but it’s nice they spent some of the loose change on a set piece or so. Yet, it’s also clear that this isn’t the A-list treatment.
Whitney: The Green Hornet has never been one of the top tier examples of a superhero show or franchise. I can understand why, as the “hero” is a rich newspaper magnate who has a chauffeur masquerading as a sidekick drive him from scene to scene in the super car. It isn’t easy to root for someone that doesn’t actually do that many cool things, just wears a mask and crime solves with few special skills to speak of. Especially in this episode, where the mystery revolves around who is impersonating our hero in order to get ahead in the newspaper business.
And then people start dying and things get fun. That sounds awful, but it increases the entertainment quotient of this two-parter about 300%. As soon as there is danger involved everything suddenly becomes exciting, interesting and suspenseful. Instead of wondering who was attempting to carry out corporate espionage (which may be intriguing to some, but not the makeup for a superhero staple) everyone becomes embroiled in backstabbing and danger. Romance, motives, mysterious phone calls and the like give The Green Hornet a feeling of film noir on the small screen. As the episode went on I liked it a lot more than I thought I would at the outset. It doesn’t hurt that many (read:all) of the main characters and villains are attractive, rich, and well-dressed people. As we’ve learned from soaps and The WB over the years, anyone can be entertained by attractive people getting in to shenanigans. Add in a masked man and a sweet ride and you really can’t go wrong.
Cameron: This show isn’t too far off from Batman in terms of execution, which is both to its benefit and detriment. The show kind of forces you not to take the plot too seriously, which, like Batman, allows for a lot of fun. (The fight choreography alone is to be commended.) The problem is that, while Batman‘s plots are typically so far beyond what might typically be considered human limits that it qualifies as fun, The Green Hornet‘s stakes are more realistic. Disrupting a newspaper’s delivery trucks is a serious disruption (you know, in 1966, when people mostly still got the news from newspapers) and the murders in the episode only add to the escalation of the stakes. Whitney, you argue that there’s a bit of film noir in the show, and while that’s certainly something I felt as well, the over-the-top music, masks, and interstitial cuts (a hornet’s head! ABSCOND!) curb directly from Batman‘s campy… uh, camp. It’s kind of like our glorious fallen ally, THE CAPE: it wants to be taken seriously, but there’s just too much material that is either too blatantly camp or too blatantly derisive to comic book fans to actually lend it any degree of seriousness. (Film noir would demand some sort of anti-heroic type as well, generally speaking, and I never really got that sense from Rick or Kato.)
If I hadn’t been told this were connected to comic books in some way, then I could see it working. But it seems it’s torn between being Hart to Hart and being Batman. I wish I had liked it more, but the execution is mixed between men hiding in dark corners waiting for other characters to come inside, and masked men fighting some sort of crime. Plenty of other comic book shows manage to find balance and/or pick one thing to be really good at and let that be the guiding star. Unfortunately, The Green Hornet veers too much from one extreme to another without rhyme or reason. Good plotting is well and fine (“Corpse of the Year” is a bit of a classic, having someone pretending to be the masked vigilante in order to accomplish some goal or another, and I agree with Cory that the extended time gives the whole thing a bit of room to breathe) but in the long run, I feel like this show would wear on me instead of winning me over.
Besides, have you seen the first season of Arrow? Who needs Green Hornet when we have GREEN ARROW?! I just greened myself.
Les: Comparisons between Batman and The Green Hornet are inevitable given how close these shows were to each to other, and when stacking the two up against each other I think the latter comes out on top. As much as I enjoyed watching and discussing Batman last week, I have to admit that there was something lacking in it for me. I’m a fan of over-the-top villainy and wordplay as much as the next critic, but I think the show may have been a little bit too goofy overall for me to give it a ringing endorsement. I like a show that knows how to generate excitement but can still keep one foot on the ground, making us invest in the characters at the same time they’re entertaining us.
As such, I think The Green Hornet struck a much better balance between the two worlds of the superhero genre. This is a show that clearly has its roots in the world of the radio serial and is geared towards keeping the story moving along at a kinetic pace (it seemed like there was always a phone call at the moment when Reid needed a push to move his investigation along), a story structure aided by Al Hirt’s jazz trumpet driving the score forward at the same rate. I was never bored by it, and I thought it looked relatively decent, especially in the fight scenes and the Black Beauty car chases. Van Williams made for a reliable square-jawed hero with a secret identity in the Bruce Wayne/Clark Kent mold, and the supporting players all brought a little something to the table, especially Bruce Lee when he was allowed to break from the servile mode and kick some ass. (Though the fight scene here was hampered by the fact that he and the Green Hornet were beating up a batch of elderly security guy.)
And of course, I’m a sucker for plots that are focused on the world of journalism. It seems almost quaint in this day and age that a storyline about two feuding newspapers could lead to murder and mayhem in the streets of Los Angeles, but back in the days before cable news and the Internet when the newspaper was still the dominant source of information it makes total sense these sort of stakes could exist. I think the writers did a good job of keeping the true culprits hidden and the story played out nicely—the reveal that Simon had built the fake Black Beauty himself as an elaborate party trick made for a neat twist about the conspiracy being partially improvised.
At the same time, there was enough distance from the somber realism that so many people are lashing out against in comic book movies these days (at least if the reviews of Man of Steel are to be believed) that it never sacrificed its entertainment qualities. I chortled quite a bit at the inclusion of the Pony Club, a hilarious adaptation of the Playboy Club (although not as unintentionally hilarious as NBC’s The Playboy Club) and the blustering reporter Mike Axford who kept saying the Green Hornet had gone “too far!” As fake as so many of the exterior scenes felt, clearly shot on a studio backlot that reused the same streets over and over and shot-at-all-hours approach that had me quoting the Mystery Science Theater 3000 line “It appears to be daytime now!” it felt like the appropriate level of atmosphere for this breed of action.
I didn’t think it was anything special, but of the shows we’ve watched so far I think I preferred this one the most. Partially because it’s a superhero I haven’t had much exposure to and therefore haven’t had time to get sick of, and partially because it’s a show that was able to retain both the fantastical elements of the genre while keeping it reasonably grounded.
We’ll be taking next week off for the Fourth of July, but the roundtable will resume the week after that. Our schedule is as follows:
7:/11: The Six Million-Dollar Man, “A Bionic Christmas Carol” (S4E10, YouTube)
7/18: Shazam!, “Thou Shall Not Kill” (S1E3, YouTube) and The Secrets of Isis, “Spots of Leopard” (S1E3, Hulu)
7/25: The Greatest American Hero, “The Two Hundred-Mile-An-Hour Fastball” (S2E2, Hulu)
8/1: The Incredible Hulk, “Stop the Presses” (S2E9, Hulu)
8/8: The Flash, “The Trickster,” (S1E12, Amazon Instant)