About Me

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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Green Hornet and Other Great Pre-Superhero Superheroes

Sure, yeah, there's a big new blockbuster Green Hornet movie opening today. It may or may not be a huge hit and it may or may not forever connect the roles of The Green Hornet and Kato with the oddly cast duo of funny guy Seth Rogan, and pop singer Jay Chou.  Even so, The Green Hornet has a rich and varied history dating back to the 1930's. Among other things, the 30's was an era of early prototype superheroes who appeared in pulp magazines, radio shows, feature films, comic strips and movie serials.

So when it comes to The Green Hornet, forget Seth Rogan and Jay Chou, forget Van Williams and Bruce Lee of the 60's TV series and even forget Gordon Jones and Keye Luke of the 1940's movie serials (okay, okay, so nobody really remembered them anyway). Instead remember Al Hodge and Tokutaro Hayashi who originated the roles of the Green Hornet and Kato on radio in 1936.

The Green Hornet appeared two years before Superman burst on to the pop culture scene of the waning days of the Great Depression. The first appearance of the Man of Steel ushered in a new era of the superhero and the comic book (both are still very much with us today, mainly in the form of big Hollywood movies like The Green Hornet).

Before June 1938, though, there were a bunch of pre-supehero superheroes. While not strictly speaking by today's pop culture standards, superheroes, all of these characters disguised their identities, possessed a special skill set of extraordinary abilities and had a distinctive outfit that they would not be caught dead without when fighting evil.

As a side note, just so that everyone out there has a realistic idea of my age, all of these heroes are before my time. I've developed an appreciation for them either from my dad's stories about the beloved heroes of his youth or through a lifetime of an almost professional level of pop culture geekiness...or perhaps both.

In addition to The Green Hornet, here are some of  my personal faves, in no particular order.

The Phantom

The Phantom does what few men can do: pulls off wearing an all purple skin tight outfit.

The Phantom was created by legendary comic strip artist Lee Falk. The character first appeared as a daily newspaper comic strip in 1936 (before comic books, newspaper comic strips featured almost all of the most popular two dimensional characters or the era, both funny and serious).

The Phantom went on to appear in film, TV, comic books and video games over the years. Creator Lee Falk worked on the strip from 1936 till 1999, the year of his death. Wow. 63 years writing the same character. As a fellow professional writer, my hat goes off to you, Mr. Falk.

I also take my hat off to your great premise (I'm not really into wearing a hat today anyway). The Phantom is a multi-generational hero. I'm not talking about his appeal. I'm talking about the actual character. See, in the fictional African nation of Bengalla (don't ya just love 1930's writing?), there has always been a Phantom, dating all the way back to 1536. That's the year that Christopher Walker's father was killed by pirates off the coast of Bengalla. From then on, Walker swore an oath to dedicate his life to fighting evil. It is an oath passed down from generation to generation, all the way to Kit Walker, the current and 21st Phantom (all of The Phantoms have the first name of Kit in their true identities).

Thus The Phantom has become something of a a mythical legend in Bengalla. This being the 1930's, of course, the native African population can only come to the conclusion that this guy is immortal. After all, they cannot possibly conceive of the notion that different people might be able to wear the same costume.

And while we're in the business of taking 1930's comic characters too seriously, boy, it's a good thing none of the Walker kids over the years ever wanted to ditch the family business and pursue a career in the arts.  That would have been a great victory for evil, no?

Ironic detachment aside, The Phantom is still a very cool character. He got a mystical allure about him and is surrounded by all the pulp adventure props: pirates, jungles, swords, guns and a secret headquarters in cave (sound familiar, Mr. Wayne?). He fights evil in Africa (almost all of it perpetrated by white people-so there is some sense of historical perspective there). The Phantom relies on absolutely nothing more than his intense physical strength, his superior wits and the fear surrounding his mythical reputation as "the ghost who walks" and "the man that cannot die",  along with a trained wolf, horse and falcon and two semi-automatic side arms. But that's it. That's all he's got on his side.

The Phantom is an enduring, popular, if somewhat obscure, character.

There are a number of different comic book runs in many different countries around the world and the newspaper strip is still running. That in itself is stunning; not that the strip is still running but that there are still newspapers.

There is also a 1940 film serial of The Phantom, an unaired 1961 TV pilot (um, hello youtube?) , at least two TV cartoon versions, a coolly received 1996 film starring Billy Zane and a really lame-o 2008 TV miniseries/pilot shot here in Montreal (my apologies to all my actor pals that were in it-it's not you, guys, it's almost everything else).

In the wake of the current comic book superhero movie craze, there is a new film entitled Phantom: Legacy (no relation to the graphic novel) in development. Hopefully, it will make more of dent than this last big screen outing:


The Lone Ranger 

The Lone Ranger as he originally appeared on radio

"To the dump, to the dump, to the dump, the dump, the dump, dump, dump..." Sorry. Could not resist that one.

The Green Hornet's granddad  (more on that later), The Lone Ranger was the first cowboy superhero. A masked man with superior gun fighting and horse riding skills who was "riding the plains searching for truth and justice", the character of The Lone Ranger was created for radio in 1933. The masked man of the west was created by George Trendel and Fran Striker, the same duo that would later create The Green Hornet (but, again, more on that later). 

The use of the now-more-closely-associated-with-The-Lone-Ranger-than-Rossini William Tell Overture was largely on account of the fact that classical music was in the public domain and required no fees or royalty payments. The original premise of The Lone Ranger was so good that it could not possibly last. In the early radio shows, the character's true identity was never revealed nor did he have an origin story.  The audience was as in the dark about the mysterious masked man as the people he helped. Hence the now famous "Who was that masked man?" line.

But, as is the often the case today, Hollywood fucked it up. 

The release of the 1938 Republic studios serial added a back story that fans today would use the word "apocryphal" to describe.  For the record,  Republic Studios made some of the best theatrical serials ever (Spy Smasher, King of the Mounties, Manhunt in the African Jungle, to name a few) but this ain't one of 'em.  Not only did they add an origin story and give the character a secret identity but their version had six different Lone Rangers. 

Holy Tim Burton's thankfully never made take on Superman!   

Were there the equivalent of Comicon back then (Radiocon?), director William Whitney would have been booed off the stage.

With the popularity of Republic's version, the radio show producers had no choice but to incorporate some of the serial elements into the The Lone Ranger radio show and thus into the overall official masked man mythology.  So now it turns out that The Lone Ranger was-sigh-once a Texas Ranger (about a hundred years before Chuck Norris' Walker made the Rangers a household name) named Reid (Green Hornet connection alert), first name Dan or John, depending on the version.  Reid and five other Rangers were ambushed by the notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish. Reid, the only survivor of the attack, was found barely alive and nursed back to health by a Native American (though that's not exactly the terminology they used back in the day) named Tonto .  Tonto became The Lone Ranger's faithful companion. Tonto also became shorthand for "benevolent racial stereotype" for years to come.

The Lone Ranger reached icon status in the hands of actor Clayton Moore in the 1949-57 TV series. Aimed almost exclusively at a kid audience, the show made the masked man, his horse Silver, Tonto, and all their exploits into tired corny worn cliches. It all seemed pretty silly to anyone over the age of eight. 

The Lone Ranger did uphold some pretty high standards that you don't see much of in this age of the quasi-anti-hero movie superheroes like Wolverine and The Dark Knight. The Lone Ranger would only use his guns to shoot guns out of the bad guys's hands. He never shot to kill or even to wound.  He never smoked or drank.  He always used perfect grammar without the use of slang or colloquialisms. Al Swearengen, he ain't.

Many comic book versions, two Clayton Moore-Jay Silverheels feature films, two animated TV series (including an animated Lone Ranger-Brady Bunch crossover...I'm serious) and video games followed in the years to come. Most curious of all was a 2003 pilot for a WB Network teen oriented reboot starring Chad Michael Murray, of Dawson's Creek fame, as The Lone Ranger.

In 1981, there was a really bad Dino DeLaurentis produced film titled The Legend of the Lone Ranger. It starred the unknown (now and then) Klinton Spillsbury as the Lone Ranger. Spillsbury must have been pretty bad as all of his dialogue was redubbed by Stacey Keach. A pre-Twin Peaks Michael Horse played, what was by 1981, the racially problematic role of Tonto. 

I remember watching this movie once on VHS back while I was working in a video store in the 80's. As I recall, the film's only bright spot is its last line. After taking forever to foil an assassination attempt on then US President Ulysses S. Grant, The Lone Ranger triumphantly rides off into the sunset. President Grant, incidentally, is played marvellously by a slumming Jason Robards, who totally nails the immortal line "Who was that masked man?"


Anyone else suddenly have the odd sensation of being in my dining room?

Zorro is one of the earliest masked heroes. He inspired both Batman and Indiana Jones. Spanish for Fox, Zorro is arguably the world's fist superhero. Not only does he hide his identity (not an absolutely essential superhero trait but you get my point) but he also possesses some extraordinary abilities: incredible swordsman skills, excellent horsemanship, stealth, guile, cunning and he can carve a pretty mean Z too. 

Zorro first appeared in 1919 in a story called The Curse of Capistrano in the pulp publication All Star Magazine. The story was written by a New York-based pulp writer named Johnson McCulley and was serialized over several issues. In 1920, all of the installments were released as a novel under the title of The Mark of Zorro. McCulley was no doubt unaware of the magnitude of his creation at the time. Zorro's true identity is revealed to everyone at the end of the story.

The husband and wife silent movie star team of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford has just founded a studio called United Artists in 1920. They came across the book and chose The Mark of Zorro as the first film for their new studio. The movie was such a huge hit that it prompted McCulley to completely ignore the ending of the first book and go on to write 60 more Zorro novels. Those books and the enduring popularity of Zorro prompted more feature films, movie serials, radio shows, TV series, cartoons, books, video games and comic book adaptations that still continue to this day.

Zorro is actually Don Diego de la Vega, a nobleman living in the small pueblo of Los Angeles in Spanish colonial California (the date is not mentioned in the original story but that places the action some time between 1781-1821).  In most versions Don Diego adopts the character a wimpy cowardly fop so as to avoid suspicion of his dual identity. It's an idea that Bob Kane openly lifted when creating Batman and his alter ego, Bruce Wayne (along, possibly, with the cowl, the cape and the general dark look of the character).

The ideological premise of Zorro is that a benevolent aristocracy must look out for the oppressed peasants. The peasants, of course,  inherently lack the ability to stand up for themselves. If that struggle means conflict with the established order and other aristocrats, so be it (but be sure and hide your own identity so as not to threaten your wealth and property). Not written by a Marxist, in other words. 

Quite the opposite, in fact. 

The whole premise smacks of an allegory to the American Revolution. Taking into account the historical context of Manifest Destiny, the coming Mexican-American war and the eventual assimilation of California into the USA, then Zorro, really, is the ultimate agent of ideological and cultural assimilation.

Adding to the assimilationist nature of the character is the presence of only Caucasian actors in the role. That did not change until a 1974 Mexican made film gave pop culture history its first ever actual Hispanic Zorro. Antonio Banderas continued to carry the ethnically accurate casting torch in the 1998 reboot  The Mask of Zorro and its 2005 follow-up The Legend of Zorro. Otherwise, it's been white American-sounding guys wielding the swords of justice all the way.

My endowing a pulp adventure character with ideological, historical and cultural interpretations aside, Zorro, when done well, is a really fun, cool guy to watch in action. He's also the only character on this list that has seen major mainstream popularity outside of the male youth and comic book geek audience.  Part of the mainstream appeal may be on account of the sexy masked Latin lover angle that is often played up to the hilt. It's the kinda thing that opens Zorro up to a much wider (ie: female) audience. Well, that and Tyrone Power's tight bullfighter pants.

After the era of Douglas Fairbanks and Tyrone Power (actually a white guy, for my younger readers), Zorro came to TV in the 50's. Much like the Lone Ranger series, the Disney TV show brought Zorro to a massive audience while at the same time systematically suckifying and borifying (those are real words, right?) the character. 

There's also the 1975 French Spaghetti Western take on Zorro starring Alain Delon, the really very homophobic Zorro The Gay Blade parody movie starring George Hamilton and Chilean novelist Isabelle Allende's wonderfully spiritual and culturally appropriate reinvention of the iconic character in her 2005 novel simply titled Zorro.

The best of all the Zorro's for me are the Republic theatrical movie serials. Usually  consisting of 12 or 15 fifteen minute episodes or chapters, these films were originally made to to be shown once a week in theatres. Each chapter, of course, ends in a cliffhanger designed to get audiences back in theatre the following week to see how the hero cheats death once again. The resolutions of those cliffhangers are some of the most obvious cheats in cinema history. In the days before TV, that cynical ploy kept kids coming back for more in massive numbers for over 20 years. 

Unlike the Lone Ranger, Republic Studios did the Zorro thing very well. They produced five Zorro serials in all: Zorro Rides Again, Zorro's Black Whip (actually about a female descendant of Zorro and the first ever woman serial hero-but that's a whole other blog), Son of Zorro, Ghost of Zorro (starring a pre-Lone Ranger Clayton Moore) and my personal favorite of  them all, Zorro's Fighting Legion.  Zorro's Fighting Legion used an idea only previously seen in McCulley's novels: a legion of Zorro's led by the one true Zorro carry on (K, so the Marxists do take over a bit there). It's also, like all the other serials Zorro or otherwise, all about the action; no politics, no romance, no character development, just lots and lots of fights and chases. 

The entire reason why Indiana Jones has a whip was 'cause Spielberg and Lucas wanted to rip-off all of Zorro's best whip-related stunts in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Take a look at this clip and see if anything seems familiar:

The Shadow

Definitely some lurking here.

"Who know what evil lurks in the hearts of men?"

"Who knows who will get that reference in 2011?"

"The Shadow knows!"

That's a slight embellishment of the classic opening of the long running Shadow radio series.  The Shadow premiered on radio in 1930 but had been appearing in the pulp publication Detective Story Magazine for quite some time before that. There is no individual writer who is credited with The Shadow's definitive creation.

Which is kind of appropriate to the nature of the character. 

The Shadow is a mysterious figure. In most versions, he wears a big black cloak, a black fedora, red scarf and/or a crimson lined cape (that he would often drape over the lover part of his face) along with a black trenchcoat or black business suit.  He possessed various mystical mental powers including hypnosis, the ability to influence other people's thoughts and, in a clever invention for the medium of radio, the power to "cloud men's minds so that he cannot see them".  It was great device for radio. It meant much maniacal laughter on The ("invisible") Shadow's part and much freaking out on the bad guys part. In addition to his incredible mental powers, The Shadow (like The Phantom) packed two semi-automatic hand guns. It seems weird to me that all these mystically themed heroes needed the help of not one but two guns. My best guess is that these characters were initially up against the more conventional and better selling cowboy stories in the pulp adventure magazine and comic strip marketplace. They probably needed some way to compete with all those two-gun kids.

In the pulp magazines, The Shadow had two different alter egos. Now that's crafty. For radio and all subsequent versions, it was simplified to one: Lamont Cranston.  The origin stories differ but it is generally accepted that Cranston "a wealthy young man about town" acquired his powers while traveling in "far east Asia" (a setting that opened the door to a great deal of -shall we say- dated ethnic portrayals). The origin story has been greatly embellished in subsequent adaptations (most notably in the 90's movie version) but that's about as far as it went on radio.

In the late 1930's, The Shadow was voiced by a hot up and coming nineteen year old actor named Orson Welles. Nobody is really sure what happened to the guy after The Shadow but, man, did he ever hold great promise. There were three feature film versions of The Shadow and one 15 chapter Columbia serial through the 30's and 40's. None of them really do the character any justice. There were also a comic strip and several comic books (all these guys got comic books once the Superman led boom kicked in). 

In 1973, DC Comics attempted to relaunch The Shadow. I remember buying the first issue and showing it to my dad (The Shadow was his era all the way). He looked at for a moment and simply hrumphed at it. Fans never change, do they?

In 1994, a pre-dumpy, pre-funny guy on 30 Rock Alec Baldwin played The Shadow in a big screen adaptation directed by Rusell "Highlander" Mulcahy. I remember watching it when it came out. I simply hrumphed at it. Fans never change, do they?

George Lucas openly admits that the "Jedi mind tricks" are lifted directly from The Shadow (and, BTW, in case you didn't realize it, nothing in Star Wars is original). If you listen to the radio shows, you can hear some "these aren't the droids we're looking for" type scenes when The Shadow uses his mental powers to influence "weaker minds". In fact, when the '94 film came out, some lunkhead critic actually accused The Shadow of ripping off Star Wars. 

"Who knows how that guy got his job?" 

The Green Hornet

The greatest actor to ever portray The Green Hornet

If your only frame of reference for The Green Hornet is the just released Seth Rogan movie, chances are you have not read this blog quite this far. This one's for all of you that have stuck with it.

So let's get the basic premise down. The Green Hornet is rich suave newspaper publisher Britt Reid. Reid is either the grand-nephew or the grandson of Dan (sometimes John) Reid, aka The Lone Ranger.  Not surprisingly The Green Hornet shared the same creators with The Lone Ranger. Hence the connection.  

By night Reid disguises himself as The Green Hornet to fight crime along side his Asian sidekick, Kato (you see benevolent racial stereotyping Ranger connection, kimo sabe?). Kato has over the years been Japanese, Chinese, Phlipino and Korean in origin, depending on the politics of the era. He drove The Hornet's cool car, The Black Beauty. The car was, of course, equipped with all kinds of cool gadgets. The Green Hornet also has a "sting" weapon that dispensed gas designed to knock out bad guys instead of shooting them. In the TV version, The Hornet Stinger (as they called it) became an ultrasonic sound wave weapon.

The Hornet's modus operandi is that he pretends to be a notorious criminal. With that ruse, he can easily gain entrance to many an evil lair, get info, even make the bad buys cut him in on their action (the proceeds of which go to funding his crime fighting) or make a deal with one set of bad guys that gets them to take out another set of bad guys. All the while, The Green Hornet's true motivations are safely hidden. To seal the deal and take suspicion of him, Reid makes sure that his paper takes an anti-Hornet editorial stance. It's a brilliant scheme really. 

The Green Hornet also has a great outfit: green tie, green trenchcoat, green fedora and a green mask. It was a every guy on a commuter train circa 1962 wearing all green and a mask kind of a look. But, hey, I've always loved heroes that put on a jacket and tie before they go out kick some evil ass.

In the age before Seth Rogan was born, The Green Hornet is probably best remembered for the short lived 1966-7 TV series. The series was produced by William Dozier, hot off producing the campy hit Batman TV show starring Adam West. Dozier was smart enough to know that the silly Batgags format was a beat you just couldn't hit twice. So The Green Hornet show played it straight. After the silliness of Batman, it seemed that audiences were just not ready for a straight superhero show in 1966.

If nothing else, The Green Hornet TV series introduced Bruce Lee to the world. It starred Van Williams as The Green Hornet and Bruce Lee, as, of course Kato. You gotta hand it to Lee for forever elevating Kato's sidekick nature out of the hackneyed Tonto territory into the serious ass-kicker territory of a martial arts master. Martial arts were not associated with Kato before Bruce Lee. Indeed, they were generally unknown to the mainstream world before Mr. Lee. The show is worth watching just to see Lee leave a bunch of Hollywood western bar fight type stunt men in the dust.  Even when Lee is just running to The Black Beauty, he displays incredible grace and agility.  Today, the show is often sold on Lee's merits alone:

Before TV, there were two Green Hornet movie serials: The Green Hornet (1940) and The Green Hornet Strikes Again (1941). The former starred  Gordon Jones in the title role and the latter Warren Hull. Both serials, though, used the voice of the radio Green Hornet, Al Hodge, whenever the mask was on. Both also starred a pre the-old-Chinese-guy-in-Gremlins and pre-Kung Fu, Keye Luke in the role of Kato. Luke was a great character actor and one of the few Asians working in Hollywood at the time. For obvious reasons, Kato was no longer referred to as Japanese by 1941. In these serials, he is referred to as Korean.

In later adaptations, Kato became Filipino then finally returned to Japanese again by the 1960's. As far as Hollywood casting went all Asians are interchangeable (we still see that today).

As with most serials based on comic strip, pulp or radio characters, The Green Hornet serials mainly plugged pre-existing established characters into an almost constant fight, chase, then cliffhanger formula.

As I mentioned earlier, The Green Hornet began as a radio show. The character was originally called The Hornet but was changed to The Green Hornet for copyright reasons.

Like The Lone Ranger, the radio show utilized cheaper public domain classical music. In this case, Flight of the Bumblebee by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Bee-Hornet, get it?). Probably the best version of the "theme" was used in the 60's TV show. It featured legendary jazz trumpeter Al Hirt playing an amazing version of the piece. Nothing on the show ever quite matched the excitement of that theme. It's a version that was famously used by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill, part 1.

The Green Hornet has also appeared in many different comic book adaptations beginning in 1940 and continuing right up to 2011.

A Green Hornet feature film had been in development for decades. Finally, with the current comic book movie craze, the movie was finally green lit (no pun intended but I'll take credit for it anyway). 

Michel Gondry, director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep was, oddly, chosen to direct The Hornet movie. Fans, though,  are probably even more miffed by the casting of Judd Apatow comedy star Seth Rogan in the title role and Asian pop star Jay Chou as Kato. Chou's Kato, thanks to events set in motion by Bruce Lee 45 years ago, seems to have broken out of the subservient sidekick role. In fact, in the trailers, it seems like he's the guy in charge. 

The trailers also suggest a decidedly comic tone to the movie. However, that may just be a ploy to put as many millions of asses in the seats as is possible opening weekend. That's all the time they've got before potential word gets out that the movie is not really a comedy and/or is not really very good. Either is possible. Personally, I'm wary of a movie whose release has been delayed twice already, only to finally come out in the studio's January garbage dump release season.

Wannna go Saturday?

Finally, I'd like to close on this fascinating low budget indie short film made in France in 2006. Out of all The Hornet's incarnations, I find this one the most intriguing.

Feel The Sting Everybody!

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