by Bob Stepno
Britt Reid, daring young publisher…
(This page is still a work in progress, with more blog items to be edited into the whole story.)
Clark Kent’s Superman wasn’t the only radio hero staying on top of things from the vantage point of a “major metropolitan newspaper.” The Green Hornet’s adventures almost always kept one foot in the newsroom of The Daily Sentinel, a newspaper that also offered a reward for his capture..
The original Green Hornet answers the question, “What can happen when a publisher gets frustrated with the failure of his editorials to Bring About Change?”
Publisher Britt Reid’s answer was to put on a mask, pretend to be a criminal himself, uncover evidence the police couldn’t find, and trick the bad guys into getting captured. His reporters and photographers had no idea what he was up to, but became front-line investigators in the Sentinel’s fight against business rackets and corrupt government. His secretary got in the act too, at one point telling him “Oh, good grief, Mr. Reid, I’d give my new summer dress to be a reporter!”
Almost 30 years after The Green Hornet’s first success on radio, a TV version was launched in 1966 by the same network that had been running the “camp” pop-art juvenile Batman series. The two shows even had cross-promotion episodes, although The Hornet generally attempted a slightly more serious tone. A 1966 cameo, stored at YouTube, has Batman and Robin encounter The Green Hornet and Kato — probably the only time the Hornet said he was “on special assignment for The Daily Sentinel.”
The Hornet, after all, was newspaper publisher Britt Reid’s secret identity. On TV as well as radio, The Daily Sentinel‘s star reporters considered the Hornet a menace — a masked mystery man who always seemed to escape just as the police arrived to corral other racketeers and gangsters.
Radio listeners knew the secret: The Hornet was really The Daily Sentinel’s young publisher, donning a mask and pretending to be a crook to bring down criminals who operated “inside the law,” beyond the reach of the police or the paper’s editorial campaigns against crime and corruption. During World War II, spies and saboteurs were added to the Hornets enemies list, and for his last few years on radio, the mysterious fifth column of the Cold War took their place.
His brilliant inventor/valet, Kato, provided him with a knockout-gas gun and a super-fast car, which he usually drove. Radio’s Green Hornet brought criminals to justice by hoaxing, blackmailing or trapping them in contrived “sting” operations, even when it made him a police target. For example, if criminals tried to disguise a murder as a suicide, he would leave evidence at the scene hinting that he might be the murderer, in order to eventually get police headed down the right track.
The TV version relied more on James Bond or Batman style gadgetry, plus actor Bruce Lee’s martial arts expertise as Kato. The radio series and the quickly spun-off 1940-41 movie serials had Kato deliver a karate chop now and then, but fighting was never his main function until the TV series came along.
Like TV itself, that 1960s Hornet was about visual action, and the newspaper played a smaller role. In fact, by then Britt Reid’s media empire included a TV station as well as the paper; he even had a remote studio in his home, the better to broadcast emergency editorials.
On radio, the Green Hornet had much more to do with traditional newspaper journalism — reporters hitting the street, providing eyewitness accounts, interviewing newsmakers, trying to get at shifty businessmen and crooked politicians. The Sentinel’s meat was the racket-busting, crusading type of journalism popular in B-movies and hit radio series like “Casey, Crime Photographer” and “Big Town.”
Sentinel reporters were an active part of almost every Hornet story, sometimes uncovering crimes while demonstrating solid newsgathering skills, although sometimes getting taken in by the Hornet themselves. One reporter, the Irish-accented Michael Axford, was mostly for comic relief — a former policeman who helped cover the police beat for the Sentinel while serving as Reid’s bodyguard. (He was also a spy for Reid’s father, the media mogul who had given his son a newspaper to run.)
The Sentinel’s racket-busting was rarely comic book “super-hero” stuff. There were no aliens or costumed villains, but plenty of crooked dealings involving corrupt officials, public works projects, protection rackets terrorizing small businesses, and a wide range of confidence games and swindles. Along with World War II spies and saboteurs domestic black market criminals were part of the problem… all topics that might be found in a hard-hitting real-world newspaper. I can’t recall an episode in which a Sentinel investigation of corrupt business brought complaints from the newspaper’s advertising department, Reid’s friends at one of his elite gentleman’s clubs, or the Chamber of Commerce. There is a bit of the early “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper” Citizen Kane to the independently wealthy Britt Reid.
Whie the Sentinel never seemed to run into serious business trouble, some Hornet plots centered on competition with its sensational tabloid competition, the Clarion, and gave Britt Reid a chance to explain the differnce between responsible and irresponsible journalism. At least one story concerned an investigative reporter for a radio station, and the newspaper reporters’ attempt to investigate his murder.
There was plenty of journalism in The Green Hornet… I have been writing individual blog posts about particular stories, some of which are incorporated in this article.
Blog posts so far:
- The Hornet’s nest was a newspaper
- Publisher dares to report
- Journalists cutting deals, keeping secrets
- Wasp and Hornet — Journalistic Vigilantes
- Something Green for St. Patrick’s Day
- Classified ads become news
In Other Media
Unlike Superman and The Daily Planet, The Green Hornet and The Daily Sentinel began in radio, but the character was quickly licensed for use in comic books, two movie serials and, eventually, television (after the camp “Batman” series paved the way). The Internet Archive has collections of comics, the movie serials, and other Hornet memorabilia, including the “Better Little Book” shown here, which occasionally turns up for sale on eBay.
Although Superman was also a successful daily comic strip, the Hornet never made that newspaper crossover. Radio historian Martin Grams unearthed a 1939-40 plan for a daily Hornet comic strip, and published the original samples in his blog in 2012, in conjunction with publishing a book about the Green Hornet. (See “Sources” below.)
Episode notes: Journalistic practice, roles & ethics
Even without the larger issue of “fighting crime with deception and trickery when editorials fail,” the Green Hornet radio series can be an entertaining place to start journalism classroom discussions. It is full of details of newspaper practice, questions of media law and ethics, and historical snapshots of mid-20th-century social roles and attitudes — toward things like gender, politics, business, patriotism and professionalism.
For example, in one episode reporter Ed Lowery and Lenore Case (“Miss Case” or “Casey”) are sent to amusement park for a feature. Casey says “but I’m a secretary…” and Lowery explains that Reid wanted them to look like other couples out for a good time.
Like most Hornet adventures, The Devil’s Playground shows Sentinel reporters at work on a local investigation — in this case, a private business and threats to public safety — not taking on government corruption or super-villains. Along the way the reporters are threatened with a libel suit and, as you might guess, are aided by The Green Hornet, who is their publisher in disguise.
When Lowery and Case try to get access to rollercoaster accident site, a policeman blocks their way until Lowery identifies himself.
“I guess reporters are different,” is the policeman’s first response, but a carnival official vehemently disagrees, and convinces the officer that private property comes first.
After a morning of interviewing contractors who built the failed roller coaster, “The Devil’s Dipper,” Lowery and Case report to Reid. Lowery is impressed by Case, a theme that resurfaces in other Green Hornet episodes:
“Maybe she’d rather be a reporter than a secretary, boss! She’d do all right, too,” he says.
Case and Lowery get signed statements from witnesses and construction workers, which Reid implies will protect the paper from a libel suit when The Daily Sentinel begins a crusade against unsafe carnival concessions — but then the bad guys steal the signed statements and intimidate the witnesses.
Reporter Mike Axford is also in this episode, in his stereotype as “dumb Irishman,” equally incompetent as reporter, bodyguard and typist.
Grams and Salomonson list this as episode 357, first broadcast July 11, 1939. According to the dates given to it by various old time radio websites, this program may have been re-broadcast in 1942, 1950 and in the 1960s in syndication. Possibly as a result of later syndication, some audio recordings on the Internet include introductions with the wartime reference to “criminals and enemy spies” instead of the earlier tagline about seeking “public enemies that even the G-Men cannot reach.”
Is the newspaper journalist the people’s watchdog or a government lapdog? And what should a city editor have for lunch?
This Green Hornet episode, There Was a Crooked Man, is a place to tackle those specifics — and to start a more general discussion of the portrayal of newspaper journalists in radio dramas.
As the story opens, publisher Britt Reid faces a decision about making a deal for access to government secrets, but it has a personal twist: A prosecutor offers him exclusive information for a racket-busting story, but in exchange the prosecutor wants all that The Daily Sentinel knows about the Green Hornet.
It would be one ethical question for a newspaper to cut an information-swap deal, but in this case should the truth-dealing publisher tell an outright lie to hide the fact that he is the city’s green-masked Robin Hood?
Before the prosecutor makes his offer, Reid makes this comment — also worthy of discussion in a media ethics class. He says he’s willing to keep a secret:
“The simplest way to keep things out of the paper… is to confide in a newspaperman. If he thinks you’re trying to hide something and put one over on him, he’ll get answers and publish them.”
The same episode also gives us an opportunity to observe the reporting techniques of Sentinel reporter Ed Lowery (or Lowry — spellings vary between the radio scripts and movie serials). Lowery enters the story trying to get information from the prosecutor’s daughter at the airport. He’s observant and has a good memory, recognizing her low-numbered license plate on her roadster.
He generally sounds like a street-wise, tough investigator, if not the most cultivated journalism school grad. His grammar is rough around the edges. He catches himself starting to refer to the prosecutor as “your old man…” and shifts to “your father…” His techniques include a bit of flattery, “If anyone can smash this graft ring, he’s the man to do it…”
Later, there are scenes with the reporter and publisher comparing notes at the office, and Reid taking a direct hands-on approach, more like a managing editor. The city editor is at lunch at the time. “Lunch? I thought a city editor lived on ink and paper,” Lowery remarks, before heading for the publisher’s office.
Radio’s Green Hornet plots from 1936 to 1952 relied much more heavily on Reid’s connection with The Daily Sentinel newspaper and its staff than did the 1966-67 television series, with its weapons and kung-fu focus, or the 2011 feature film, full of explosions and special effect enhancements.
I’ll be back with more episodes, especially after my Portrayal of the Journalist in Popular Culture class begins in the fall.
This “There Was a Crooked Man” appears to be one of the earliest-recorded Green Hornet radio episodes, from May 24, 1938, despite Internet sources that put a date a year later in its file name. At “FreeOTRshows.com” and similar online sources, the episode is dated May 23, 1939, but the inaccurate information is duplicated widely at for-sale and free-download sites on the Internet.
Hornet historians Martin Grams Jr. and Terry Salomonson based their 802-page bookThe Green Hornet on scripts registered with the U.S. copyright office and transcription disks archived by the production company. (For background on the transcription-disk practice, see Grams’ 2015 blog essay, “The ‘Lost’ 1936 Episodes.”)
The Grams & Salomonson book identifies two episodes with “There Was a Crooked Man” as a title, one recorded as a live-transcription disk on May 24, 1938, a demo made a year before recording became standard practice. That episode was #239, about the kidnapping of a prosecutor’s daughter, which is the story we have here. The other “There Was a Crooked Man” is the title on script #330, broadcast April 6, 1939, a story a horserace racket.
Newspaper Careers and the Hornet
“The Green Hornet” was one of the series that inspired me to start paying attention to how newspaper reporters and editors were treated in radio dramas, including the frequent pop-culture suggestion that reporting the news at a paper like The Daily Sentinel was a fine career for adventurous young women — not unlike Lois Lane in a certain other radio serial.
In fact, the Hornet arrived on the radio before the Superman comic book was born, and the Superman radio serial came after that. (Hornet historian Martin Grams even reports that the Daily Sentinel briefly had a gossip columnist named Lolita Lane in October 1936! Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but that would be a year after actress Lola Lane played a “brassy female reporter” in the movie “Death from a Distance.” She later played another scrappy reporter in “Torchy Blane in Panama,” often cited as Superman’s authors’ inspiration for Lois Lane.)
The Green Hornet was from the same creators as the popular western series “The Lone Ranger,” but aimed at older teenagers and young adults who were about to become voters, according to statements by creator George Trendle. That may explain why many of its stories were about rackets and corruption in government and business.
A Humphrey-Camardella “Super Heroes Podcast” may have been the first place I heard the Hornet episode “Bid and Asked,” one that demonstrates how much of a role the newspaper played in the series. Here it is from the archive.org collection:
The story opens with newspaper publisher Britt Reid’s secretary, Lenore Case, confessing that she’s been daydreaming over a job offer from a competing paper.
Reid: “The Clarion? Miss Case! That scandal sheet? Why be a secretary there when you can be a secretary here?”
Case: “This wasn’t a secretarial job. The Clarion wants me as a reporter. Oh, good grief, Mr. Reid, I’d give my new summer dress to be a reporter.”
Reid: “Oh, I see. Well, perhaps you will be a reporter, Miss Case, but if you are you will work for the Sentinel. Now get Ed Lowery and have him follow up this phone call. Here give him this note. Well, get moving. All I said was ‘perhaps.'”
Case: “Gosh I… Mr. Reid, I could kiss you!”
[Theme: Flight of the Bumblebee]
Over the radio serial’s 16 years on the air (1936-52), Green Hornet plots involved recurring appearances by at least a half-dozen reporters at the Sentinel, as they faced deadlines and reluctant sources, competed with each other and with the Clarion, and often put themselves in harm’s way to get a story. Reid and his reporters debated the value of a byline, the evils of sensationalism, the need for accuracy, and the need to sometimes hold back a story at government request.
Underlying it all was an idea of the public service role of the press, and the suggestion that, like other institutions in society, it can’t do the job on its own.
The framework for the Hornet radio adventures was that playboy bachelor Britt Reid had been made publisher of The Daily Sentinel by his father, who hoped the responsibility of running the paper would give give the young man’s life some direction — a bit of a twist on the “Citizen Kane” role of the publisher, where the wealthy young man says running a newspaper simply looks like fun.
Reid concluded that crusading editorials weren’t enough to fight rackets that operated just out of reach of the police, so he invented the Green Hornet character as a “Robin Hood” outlaw who could trick the crooks into betraying themselves. At first, his targets were announced in the credits as “public enemies that even the G-Men cannot reach.” During World War II the targets were expanded to “racketeers and saboteurs… criminals and enemy spies.”
The Hornet had the help of Reid’s multi-talented valet, Kato, identified as Japanese in late-1930s episodes, but morphing into Filipino as tension with Japan grew. (He was identified as Korean in the movie serials, although played by Keye Luke, who was Chinese.)
The story line suggested that Reid had saved Kato’s life, earning his loyalty. In the bargain, Reid got a live-in partner who was scientist, inventor, chemist and mechanic, as well as a cook and chauffeur. Kato’s inventions included the Hornet’s gun, which fired sleeping gas cartridges, the super-speed Black Beauty automobile, and a variety of invisible inks, smoke bombs and such. Kato’s fighting skills played a smaller role in the radio and movie serials than they did in the one-season TV series, where martial arts wizard Bruce Lee played the role, or the 2011 movie revival, with it’s 3-D slow-motion action scenes.
The radio Hornet had more to do with stealth, guile and a fast car — and the work of The Daily Sentinel’s photographers, editors and reporters.
The Green Hornet and Kato were clearly modeled on two other radio heroes — the Lone Ranger and his Indian companion, Tonto; the two series were produced by the same company. A cultural-critical analysis (see Russo 2002 in source list below) might look at both the racial and sexual implications of their relationship, much as Frederic Wertham (1954) did with Batman & Robin, but that is irrelevant to this discussion. For all of his talents, no incarnation of Kato has taken a hand in the Green Hornet’s journalism.
Reporters Michael Axford, Ed Lowery and Jasper Jenks were featured in many episodes. Axford was a familiar “type” to radio listeners and movie goers — a policeman with an Irish brogue — except that Axford had traded the police uniform for a dark suit, a bowler hat, and a job with the Sentinel.
He functioned, as a reporter, as Britt Reid’s bodyguard, as a sworn foe of the Hornet, and often as comic relief. He was apparently assigned to keep an eye on the young publisher by Reid’s father when he gave Britt control of the newspaper. Some stories suggested that as bodyguard, Axford shared “the apartment” with Reid and his valet, Kato, although they had no trouble keeping the Hornet’s identity a secret from him.
He had a special obsession with winning the Sentinel’s reward for capturing the Hornet, who he constantly saw as a villain — cause of much banter with Miss Case, who saw the Hornet as a Robin Hood working for justice. (In later years, Case and the police commissioner were let in on Reid’s secret.)
As a reporter, Axford infuriated city editor Gunagin by beating around the bush when calling in a story. He was stubborn, pugnacious, and often wrong, and sometimes people were hurt as a result. In one story, he revealed the identity of a police informant in a news story, and the man was killed by racketeers.
In “Bid and Asked,” reporter Ed Lowery plays a central role. Sent to interview a whistle-blower in an investigation of a building contractor racketeer, he arrives to find the man beaten so badly he may not live. Reid holds the presses for the story.
Deadlines, press-runs, and life in the city room were common elements in Hornet plots. That episode returns from its theme music to the sounds of voices and keyboards, and a couple of hive metaphors:
“The city room of The Daily Sentinel buzzed with activity. Rewrite men pounded their typewriters. Copy boys carried blue penciled news hurriedly to the linotype room. The Sentinel was going to press in half an hour. Lenore Case, Britt Reid’s secretary, darted into the room, took one glance around, and made a beeline for Ed Lowery…”
We get a good picture of Lowery. He may have his feet on the desk and be ready to banter with Miss Case, who finds him “attractive in a repulsive sort of way,” but when he gets a “three alarm” assignment, he’s off in a flash.
Case: “Make it snappy. You can get there in fifteen minutes. Mr. Reid wants this story in before the deadline. The Sentinel wants a scoop!”
Lowery: “Fifteen minutes? I’ll be there in ten!”
He makes it in nine. The Green Hornet’s “Black Beauty” apparently wasn’t the only fast car parked near the Sentinel.
Sob sisters and scoops
While the Hornet frequently plants evidence at crime scenes to trick criminals into revealing themselves, or to lead the police to a crew, Reid draws the line between news reporting and editorial comment in the Sentinel, but he’s open to some interpretative reporting. In “Bid and Asked,” when Case calls a crook unscrupulous and vicious, Reid says “Careful Miss Case, don’t say what can’t be proved.”
Case: “It doesn’t have to be proved. I can just feel he’s crooked.”
Reid: “You sound like a sob sister… there’s an idea…”
Case: “You mean be a sob sister, write the women’s angle on stories? I’d love it! When can I start… I could do a grand job… I can wait. I’ve been waiting for years.”
He sends her along with Lowery and police Sgt. Moran to interview the woman whose husband has been beaten and threatened. Reid knows the woman will be visited by the racketeer, so the Hornet can arrive in the nick of time… and Lenore Case will get her first byline.
The episode “Torpedo on Wheels” has another woman reporter showing initiative and besting her male colleague, Mike Axford, an Irish-accented former cop who doubled as Reid’s bodyguard. Reporter Gale Manning is portrayed as a Southern belle, with a magnolia accent and expressions like “Heavens to Richmond.” To get her story, she uses a disguise to cross police lines to an accident scene, which makes Axford complain that he was assigned to cover the wreck.
She gets a mild scolding from Reid, whose “vigilante” attitudes lead him to condone a bit of rule-breaking by his reporters. But he also calls her his “best woman reporter.”
A Real-life Coincidence
While many radio series with fictional reporters were written by former journalists, The Green Hornet had a coincidence in the other direction. For part of its run, the narrator was an announcer and sometime actor named Mike Wallace, who later in his career was primarily known as a news reporter and interviewer. Wallace talked about the multiple identities of 1940s radio professionals in a 1989 interview with Chuck Schaden at the Museum of Broadcast Communications.
Several CD collections of Green Hornet programs are sold by RadioSpirits, but scores of episodes have been “at large” on the Internet as MP3 files for years, appearing in podcasts and archive collections, including those at botar.us, FreeOTRshows.com, OTR.net Library and 67 episodes at archive.org.
OTRcat.com offers the “Torpedo on Wheels” episode linked above as a streaming sample from a collection it sells on CD-ROM. It is also at archive.org and other online collections.
Terry Salomonson’s Audio-Classics.com website includes a Green Hornet episode list, although not as complete as the exhaustive compilation in the 2010 book The Green Hornet: A History of Radio, Motion Pictures, Comics, and Television by him and Martin Grams Jr.
The Internet Archive appears to go back and forth about whether collections of MP3 files of Hornet episodes should be available to the public or not, but as of fall 2012, it has a collection of 67 episodes.
This “Radio Mick Danger” page, somewhat obscured by a background image, has MP3 files linked to a headphone icon to the left of each list entry… http://www.radiomickdanger.com/ListShows2.php?seriesname=The%20Green%20Hornet
Print & other sources
- Bickel, Mary. George W. Trendle, New York: Exposition Press, 1973.
- Douglas, Susan M. Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination; New York: Times, 1999.
- Dunning, John. On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
- Grams, Martin, & Salomonson, Terry. The Green Hornet: A History of Radio, Motion Pictures, Comics and Television. 2010.
- Osgood, Dick. Wyxie Wonderland: An Unauthorized Biography of WXYZ Detroit. Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular; 1981.
- Radio Spirits. The Green Hornet. CD collections.
- Russo, Alexander. (2002) “A Dark(ened) figure on the airwaves: Race, nation and The Green Hornet,” pp. 257-277 in Hilmes, M. & Loughlin, J., ed. Radio Reader: Essays in the cultural history of media; N.Y., N.Y., Routledge.
- Striker, Fran Jr. His Typewriter Grew Spurs: A Biography of Fran Striker, Writer. Runnemede, NJ: Quest, 1972.
- The Green Hornet, MP3 collections at Archive.org, Botar.com, RadioSpirits.com, freeotrshows.com
- The Green Hornet, Movie Edition. DVD, 2010, of 13-episode 1939-1940 movie serial, VCI Entertainment, 2010.
- “The Green Hornet Strikes Again! Restored!” DVD, 2009, of 15-episode 1941 movie serial, with digital copies of 1941 press kit material. Restored Serials Super Restoration Corp., 2009.
- Smith, Kevin. 2010. Kevin Smith’s Green Hornet.
- Wertham, Fredric. 1954 . Seduction of the Innocent. New York: Rinehart.
I’ve never encountered a radio adventure based on Frank L. Packard’s books about adventure hero Jimmie Dale, “the Grey Seal,” which began to appear in 1917. Like Britt Reid, he was a wealthy young man with a valet and a secret identity that involved doing good while pretending to be a criminal, and leaving behind teltale paper “seals” to infuriate the police. Clearly the producers of The Green Hornet were inspired. Since Packard’s several Jimmie Dale books are out of copyright, they are available in audio book format from Librivox.
Unlike Britt Reid, Dale is not a newspaperman, but a friend who is one plays an important role in the first episode. A unique feature of the stories that was not copied by The Green Hornet is that Jimmie Dale is sent on his crime-fighting assignments by a mysterious woman whose talents for disguise and deduction are at least comprable to his. Give a listen to the first episode of the first book…