Monday, July 18, 2005

The Green Hornet Mystery

Over in his Blog, Just Another Blowhard King Blowhard poses the question "Why isn't The Green Hornet on DVD?" Damned good question; wish I had a damned good answer, but I don't, at least not entirely. Maybe Ivan Shreve has more concrete information. What I have is a little data and a lot of guesswork and supposition. Initially I though that the series was being held back pending the release of a theatrical movie which was supposed to go into production this year from Miramax and was written and was to have been directed by Kevin Smith. However Miramax has apparently dropped out of the project. What we're left with is a definite mystery.

The Green Hornet was created in 1936 at WXYZ radio in Detroit by George W. Trendle who also created The Lone Ranger in 1933 and later created Sergeant Preston Of The Yukon (1938). In fact Britt Reid, the crusading newspaper editor who was also The Green Hornet, was in fact the great-nephew of The Lone Ranger (son of the Ranger's nephew Dan Reid). The Green Hornet radio show ran from 1936 to 1952 and spawned two movie serials.

The Lone Ranger was brought to the TV screen in 1949, first by the Apex Film Corporation, and later by Wrather Productions which held the rights to The Lone Ranger for many years and indeed may still retain them. Wrather also owned the rights to Sergeant Preston Of The Yukon, and produced it as a series from 1955 to 1958. Wrather's other major property was Lassie. What Wrather didn't own, either through oversight or simple refusal to believe that it would be of any value as a TV property, was The Green Hornet.

Flash forward to 1966. Producer William Dozier and his production company Greenway Productions had had a very limited success with a western series called The Loner starring Lloyd Bridges and written by Rod Serling. Dozier had wanted to revive The Lone Ranger as a TV series but wasn't able to secure the rights from Wrather Productions. Instead he turned to Batman. Dozier's Greenway Productions was able to get Batman into the ABC lineup starting in January 1966. Greenway was partnered in the project with 20th Century Fox Television. Needless to say, the show was a bona fide hit, although the people at DC Comics were apparently not entirely happy with the campy spin that Dozier - who also did the narration on the series and made one or two on camera appearances - put on the character. None of that prevented Greenway from putting another show with a similar subject into production. For the Fall 1966 season Greenway and 20th Century Fox presented The Green Hornet starring Van Williams as Britt Reid/The Green Hornet, and a young martial artist named Bruce Lee as Reid's Driver/Valet and crime fighting partner Kato.

The Green Hornet didn't fare as well as Batman in the ratings, although in some ways it was a better series than Batman largely because it wasn't nearly as campy as Batman, which may have been the problem. Of course the reason to watch was to see Bruce Lee who even this early had a tremendous screen presence, something which Van Williams was aware of practically from the beginning. He wanted the producers to give Lee more screen time to help save the show. They refused and it died in a single season. Batman as a series lasted about a season after that. As for Greenway productions, they tried to recapture the magic of the Batman series a couple of times. There was a pilot for a Dick Tracy TV series starring Ray MacDonell (now best known as Dr. Joe Martin on All My Children, where his character is married to Lee Merriwether who played the Catwoman in the 1966 Batman movie), a pilot for a Batgirl series, and a rather bizarre four minute pilot for a Wonder Woman series starring Ellie Wood Walker. (Suffice it to say that everyone involved is lucky that this never made it beyond the four minute pilot stage or we'd never have had Lynda Carter.) Nothing clicked and Greenway went out of business. As for Dozier, he mainly restricted himself to minor acting roles. His last screen credit is 1982 and he died in 1991 at age 83

The 1966 Batman isn't available on DVD, although the 1966 theatrical movie is. Apparently there's a rights dispute that is keeping the series from being released. Conventional wisdom say that the battle is between Time-Warner, which owns DC Comics and the "Batman" characters, and 20th Century Fox, which owns the series. In fact this is the explanation that is given at However Wikipedia indicates that "it was later revealed that Warner Bros. isn't involved". However the 1966 Batman is available on DVD; in fact it supplied the only old material in the Return To The Batcave retrospective which aired on CBS in 2003. This, combined with absence of The Green Hornet on DVD would tend to suggest that the rights dispute isn't between Time-Warner and Fox, but between Greenway - or some successor entity perhaps including William Dozier's estate - and Fox. Whatever the case, it seems unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future.

Strictly speaking though, some of The Green Hornet is, or rather has been, available on DVD. Following Bruce Lee's death, several episodes of The Green Hornet were edited together to create two feature length movies, one called The Green Hornet (which isn't listed in the IMDB) and the other Fury Of The Dragon. These were meant to capitalize on Lee's presence in the series. These were later released by Brentwood Home Video. They are both out of print however and apparently quite rare. But as far as I can tell that's all there'll be for a long long time.

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