Universal's 1940 serial The Green Hornet is a slick number that benefits from a decent budget and a torn from the headlines hook - a criminal syndicate using shoddy building materials on dams and tunnels because they've insured the workers who'll inevitably die when disaster strikes. Even more than a decade after the St Francis Dam disaster and other scandals, this was still pertinent stuff in LA, a city built on oil money and construction scams, giving it a bit more of a classic Warner Bros. kick rather than the usual Universal house style. The other rackets they're involved in would also have struck a cord at the time - trucking and bus line scams, car theft rings, protection rackets and illegal arms shipments to Germany. As usual there's a mastermind in the shadows, communicating only via a wonderfully sinister looking intercom, and whose identity (not exactly difficult to guess) is only unmasked in the final episode.
Gordon Jones, who'd later become a staple of TV reruns as Mike the cop in The Abbott and Costello Show, plays the Green Hornet, though he doesn't always voice him: whenever he dons the mask, it's the radio show's Al Hodge who speaks for him. Kato is no longer Japanese but a Korean played by a Chinese actor, Keye Luke (better known to one generation as Charlie Chan's number one son and to another as David Carradine's blind teacher in Kung Fu and Mogwai's elderly guardian in Gremlins). As crime fighters, these vigilantes are distinctly hit-and-miss: Kato doesn't get much to do but chauffeur his boss around, while the Green Hornet often ends up causing more damage to the innocent businesses than the racketeers he defeats!
The production values are surprisingly high, with most episodes 21 minutes and none under 17 minutes (many serials would be 15 minutes, with credits and recaps eating up two or three minutes of that) and it doesn't cheat too much on the cliffhangers. Well, at least until Chapter Twelve, when it throws in a whopper: ending with the Green Hornet and a hood fighting to the death in a burning building collapsing around them, next week's caption informs us that a herd of elephants trampled the building and we cut to the two emerging from the not even slightly burned wreckage unharmed! Yet for the most part it's a distinctly entertaining bit of 40s vigilantism, and VCI's NTSC DVD is quite beautifully restored from Universal's original negatives, with only part of Chapter Nine showing a dip in quality. It also includes a couple of episodes of the original radio show and a stills gallery that covers both serial and radio incarnations of the character.