Sunday, February 01, 2015

The Green Hornet: "The Silent Gun" (September 9, 1966)

In the fall of 1966, all the major American TV networks sought to duplicate the success of ABC’s superhero phenomenon, Batman (1966 – 1968).  So along came such campy efforts as Captain Nice and Mr. Terrific. 

But ABC-TV itself adopted a different strategy, and aired The Green Hornet, a superhero series with no camp touches whatsoever. 

William Dozier, who also produced Batman was adamant, in fact, about not imitating the tongue-in-cheek Batman style. “This is a much straighter show. It’s not a pop show,” he asserted. “The only thing about Batman we want to imitate is its success.” (Newsweek, July 18, 1966).

Van Williams was cast as publisher by day/vigilante by night Britt Reid, and a pre-stardom Bruce Lee played his loyal companion and crime-fighting partner, Kato.  

With their own distinctive car -- the magnificent Black Beauty -- these heroes evaded law enforcement and fought to a standstill the dark forces of many a criminal organization. And again, unlike Batman, the villains on The Green Hornet were all based reality. They were thugs and mobsters, not strangely-dressed clowns or buffoons.

Writing in SFTV #1 in December of 1984, TV historian and scholar James Van Hise wrote that the series featuring The Green Hornet proved itself “something very special…” and represented “one of the few times a character was transferred faithfully from one medium to another and with exciting results.” 

I would tend to agree. I am a big fan of Arrow (2012 - ) these days, but its clearest and most significant antecedent on television is indeed The Green Hornet.  Both series feature a playboy-by-day/avenger by night who sets about his grim task -- to clean up the city -- with a sort of hard-boiled attitude.

Alas, The Green Hornet was canceled after just one season of twenty six episodes, and most long-time fans agree that the 2011 Seth Rogen Green Hornet movie failed to live up to the promise demonstrated by the 1966 series.

The first episode of The Green Hornet, “The Silent Gun,” aired on September 9, 1966 -- just one day after the debut of Star Trek (1966 – 1969) -- and concerns a new weapon being used by criminals: A gun that makes no sound when it fires, and no light flash, either.  The weapon was developed by the O.S.S. during the Second World War, but the plans have been revived by a local gunsmith.

The Green Hornet and Kato investigate the case, interfering in criminal operations.  Before long, the Green Hornet is selected as the next target of the silent gun, but that’s exactly how the superhero wants it...

Today, it’s intriguing (and indeed, rewarding) to watch these nearly fifty-year old The Green Hornet episodes and note that they reflect not where the superhero trend was at that time (see: Batman), but where it stands today: with a focus on hard-action, and a kind of grim fatalism. 

The Green Hornet goes about his task here without humor, and treads into some moral gray areas.  For example, in “The Silent Gun,” he pretends to be a criminal himself, and make deals with other underworld figures. He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty to bring the criminals to justice.  That seems like a very modern, very 21st century concept.

Also, in a bow to reality, this costumed crusader only goes out at night, and is often cloaked by the darkness.  Adding to the sense of  ubiquitous darkness, the first scene of the episode (and of the series itself) is set at a funeral.  And then, a murder occurs at a funeral.  

You just don't get much grimmer than that.

In “The Silent Gun,” The Green Hornet goes up against a thug called Carley (Lloyd Bochner) and, again, the villain is a realistic figure, not one based in fantasy. The episode culminates with some real violence as villains tumble downstairs, or otherwise get beat up.  One thug gets a blast from a steam pipe to the face.

I wonder if the violence quotient is one reason why the show didn’t pick-up the same following as Batman did.  There’s a feeling in “The Silent Gun” of real life consequences for bad behavior, and action that isn’t candy-coated or cartoonish.  There are no ZAPP or BIFF balloons here, for certain.

Even supporting characters are treated with shades of gray in “The Silent Gun.” One woman wants two-thousand dollars to tell her story about a murder that was committed.  If she’s going to talk, she wants money...she seeks a reward. The Green Hornet disabuses her of that notion by, basically, showing up at a pre-arranged meeting and bullying her into doing the right thing, at least from a psychological perspective. 

The Green Hornet is a grounded series that was created in a time when audiences wanted something more fanciful.  

But the tide has turned today, and these deadpan, gritty superhero episodes (many available on YouTube) look new, and relevant all over again.  Even Green Hornet's "Let's Roll" catchphrase has a darker, grimmer underside in the post-911 world,   

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