February 16, 2010

Preserving the Green Hornet

The National Film Preservation Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. They work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.

The NFPF will give away 4 DVD sets as thank-you gifts to blogathon donors chosen in a random drawing: Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 and Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film, 1947-1986.

Admittedly, I'm the kind of person who watches DVD extras when seeing films - I love how films and television are restored to pristine quality. It's also tempted to see how major films are preserved, but key pieces of our pop cultural heritage are often lost, either due to lack of perspective (like the missing episodes of Doctor Who), internal politics, or some unusual confluence of events.

It's easy to dismiss VCI Entertainment's reissue of the first Green Hornet serial from Universal as simply catering to nostalgia, for days gone by...but as a piece of restored film - and a critical piece of pop culture, this is an excellent window into the past, providing an example of a now relatively extinct entertainment mode (the theatrical serial), but also providing an opportunity to enjoy a good, traditional story (as well as an entry into the Film Preservation blogathon)

As a character, the Green Hornet has served as an important role in popular culture - the pulp hero gone mainstream, the legacy hero (being related to the Lone Ranger), moving between mediums, as well as the idea of  the modern "Robin Hood" (a motif asserted in this film). However, in an age where popular culture is often becoming increasingly dependent on continuity, this film (due to obvious rights reasons) is a great done-in-one, often through the use of blatant exposition ("Kato, it's just like that giant green hornet we encountered in Africa!"). There's also the ever-shifting ethnic identity of Kato, the really unique effect of the gas gun (coming in small explosions, rather than a stream of gas). But ultimately, it's the overall look of the restored serial that is impressive - here's a small clip, taken from VCI's promotional efforts:

THE GREEN HORNET Serial: Before & After Restoration from VCI Entertainment on Vimeo.

But it's the acting that sells the piece - yes, it's that hyperkinetic 1940's style that typified most popular entertainment, but Gordon Jones manages to pull off the role of Britt Reid and the Green Hornet, depending on strong body language for the latter. (Al Hodge, who portrayed the Hornet on the radio, dubbed the Hornet's voice, and the effect seems to transition rather well). Keye Luke, later known for his role in Kung Fu, avoids the obvious stereotypes in playing Kato. (Although admittedly, too many viewings of the 1960's television show led me to expect more martial arts...but that's the price of living in a different time).

What's impressive about the restoration is that the film image looks crisp, clean, and recently filmed (except for half of episode 9, but that was due to a lack of available materials). In fact, the image is so powerful that one can easily tell the studio filmed bits (one set is repeatedly reused) from stock footage. Include some excellent additional materials (including two Green Hornet radio shows, and a fictionalized account of how the serial was developed), and you have not only a family-friendly piece of entertainment, but a very critical cultural touchstone.

But it's efforts like this that make it important for film preservation to continue, not just for the obvious masterpieces but for small diversions like this serial. It's not an easy view (a chapter or two a day works best), and yes, it may seem simplistic at times...but this is a pretty well-constructed example of the theatrical serial. This is not just our entertainment, but in many ways, is our history.
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Marilyn said...

Gordon - I love serials and was a devotee of Flash Gordon when they showed it Sunday mornings on TV. As a Chicagoan like myself, perhaps you remember it, too. I'm sure you enjoy the BOA Cinema and their serials. Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon. I really enjoyed this!

Joe Thompson said...

Gordon -- Bless you for writing about a movie serial. You are right that entertainment has come to depend on continuity. Jack Bauer in "24" must be the wimpy grandson of Jack Holt in "Holt of the Secret Service." It's nice to see people make an effort to restore some of the serials to like-new quality.

Ron Fortier said...

Gordon, I've watched both the Green Hornet and the Green Hornet Strikes Again many times over the years, as my own personal research in writing the Now Comic series. First on VHS tapes and then later on DVDs. I totally applaud VCI for their tremendous efforts in preserving this fun window into our cultural past.