Monday, May 4, 2015



In recent years, I have quite enjoyed watching films about radio. In particular, when stories that originated in radio (which generally means they are relatively old) are remade for film.  Most of these stories have seen the light of day since radio in TV format (or, in a few cases, in graphic novels), which makes sense given the serialized format of both of these media.  I think it’s much harder to make a success of a radio-to-film transfer because the pulling power of these properties is their character development or repetition of motifs which is easier to do in serialized format.  The big idea of “them” tends to be too large by definition for film and just makes the whole thing seem cheesy.  When distilled or deconstructed episode by episode in a series, these properties are more digestible.  Furthermore, there’s just something addictive about the character interaction and their familiar modes of “doing” that makes you want to see them in many adventures—not just one film.  Granted, most of the newer adaptations to film are banking on serialization (in the form of multiple sequels) but it tends to happen that their first big-screen incarnation is a box-office disappointment, making a sequel a moot point.

A case in point is The Lone Ranger (2013), which I won’t review in detail here.  Suffice it to say, as another Disney/Verbinksi/Depp vehicle, it was heavily promoted as franchise-bait, following in big brother Pirates of the Caribbean’s footsteps.  (In the interest of full disclosure, I love the Pirates of the Caribbean films.)  With POTC anchored on the storied motif of pirate narratives, an inspiration as insubstantial as a theme park ride should have proven TLR to be a winning format, too.  TLR hinged on the storied motif of the Western, with a generous helping of froth (a theme park ride is necessarily going to romanticize and de-fang historical piracy; TLR was, in its WXYZ Detroit radio roots, a children’s show, with its protagonist a role model untouched by the self-doubt and despair we come to expect from complex heroes these days).  TLR, story-wise and character-wise, had a lot more to work with, which perhaps hindered its development in a sense.  In the end, I really quite enjoyed the film, though I think it had an identity crisis—which could be said of The Green Hornet (2011) as well.

I picked up The Green Hornet on DVD for (I think) £3, still not convinced—based on pretty poor reviews and less-than-stellar box office receipts—that I hadn’t wasted my money.  Curiously, TGH and TLR both come from the same radio station birthplace, WXYZ Detroit, from the same production team and writer (Fran Striker).  (Which begs the question whether anyone will try to adapt Challenge of the Yukon for film—or have they learned their lesson?)  Whereas TLR was the historical (but moral) Western for boys (mainly boys[1]) of a certain age, TGH was the modern equivalent with the cool car and gadgets—not that far removed, really, from Batman (bearing in mind, of course, that all these popular culture shticks got their start contemporaneously and probably all influenced each other).  My dad remembers listening to (and enjoying) TGH, more so than TLR, and particularly remembers Black Beauty, the car (the Lone Ranger has a horse named Silver; Britt Reid has a car named Black Beauty—if only Frederick Faust was around to comment).  To be honest, I’ve only heard a few episodes of TLR and fewer still of TGH.  I prefer their more grown-up OTR cousins (Gunsmoke, Frontier Gentleman, Dragnet). 

Still, I was determined to approach TGH film with an open mind.  I hadn’t ever seen a film with Seth Rogen before (to my knowledge), so my mind was a blank slate.  What I knew about TGH was pretty basic:  the newspaper empire as a cover (somewhat Batman-esque, somewhat Shadow-esque); the car; and Kato.  Britt Reid, of course, in canon, is supposed to be a descendent of the Lone Ranger.  (This incest of WXYZ’s shouldn’t surprise us given Jean Shepherd’s only slight exaggeration in A Christmas Story (1983) when “everybody knows” that the Lone Ranger’s nephew’s horse is named Victor.)  The costumes on the DVD cover kinda sold it to me—quite ‘30s retro and cool, but also weirdly modern, too.  I think this is somewhat important, given the ability of a radio-to-film incarnation to match or exceed the mind’s-eye expectations in terms of the visuals is an index of how well in might fare for an audience.  (This is a theory in development.) 

TGH is an anti-superhero film, which is not immediately apparent, which may be why it didn’t “do well,” critically or otherwise.  It plays with obvious superhero tropes—the moral, supportive father at the beginning of the film; the hero’s journey from indifferent to engaged; the love interest; the hero-sidekick relationship; a truly confident, egomaniacal, well-costumed supervillain—with varying degrees of success. The fact that it at least tries to play with these tropes should garner it a degree of praise.  Apparently, it was based more on a TV version of TGH[2] (at least, in the DVD extras, Rogen and Evan Goldberg never once mention the radio program)—but to me, the po-faced morality of TLR and TGH just doesn’t work for today’s audiences.  Hence, a somewhat parodic approach is as convincing as any. 

After the initial surprise wears off, it’s refreshing to see a would-be superhero who has no special skills.  Rogen’s Britt Reit has no martial arts skills, no rippling muscles, and not what you would exactly call sex appeal.  He’s loud and obnoxious, not particularly intelligent.  He is, however, rich (though it’s never satisfactorily explained how a family-owned newspaper—which somehow employs Edward James Olmos?!—has generated such a massive fortune) and has an aberrant moral compass that enables him to do the right things, not always for the right reasons, and not always very well (his saving grace is that he is, in his ineptitude, quite funny).  He is, in fact, an enabler for his much more talented “sidekick” Kato.  Kato is much more talented in every way[3]—from his coffee-making skills, to his artistic abilities (including musicianship, design, and engineering), to his martial arts abilities and weapons design, right down to his charm and ability to relate to the opposite sex.  Might one even say he is better-looking, too?  Perhaps the film is wryly aware that this should really be called The Kato Movie but is prevented from doing so because of racial norms in American movie-making? 

Kato in this TGH is Chinese[4].  In the radio program, Kato debuted in the 1930s as Japanese—then quietly switched nationalities during World War II to the much more acceptable Filipino[5].  As a Filipino, we got around the thorny issue of Kato being put into a detention camp.  He isn’t a valet in the film either[6]—though that doesn’t preclude him from making truly exceptional coffee—which, as absurd as it may seem, makes for some good character development throughout the film:  some time after Britt and Kato have begun their masquerade, to impress Lenore (who we’ll get to), Britt dismissively tells his “executive assistant” to make coffee, to which Kato reacts accordingly.  You can interpret this (perhaps over-generously) as a reference to the radio series; by suggesting Kato go make the coffee, it’s almost akin to suggesting Jay Chou scale down his virtuosity and adopt 1930s-era pidgin English.  Rogen and Goldberg seem potentially aware of the racial politics at play.  We as an audience may ask ourselves why Kato should, in fact, stay the sidekick, and Rogen as Britt here comes to the rescue; his self-absorbed arguments fall hilariously flat every time, and we realize that Kato is in fact responding to Britt’s helplessness and selfishness.  I hate the term bromance[7], but this may well be one.  Even if the centrality of their relationship dominates the film above all else[8], to the point where it marginalizes Lenore (I promise we’ll get to her), it doesn’t necessarily mean we should see TGH through queer-tinted glasses (though I’m sure there’s scope to do so, the “he-doth-protest-too-much”es notwithstanding). 

While all this is going on, we have to scratch our heads for awhile trying to determine what to make of Britt’s oddly composed reaction to his father’s death (i.e., is this bad filmmaking or more of the anti-superhero mashup?).  Once Britt and Kato do their first “ghetto” run as masked hoodlums (first a prank to defame Britt’s father’s statue, followed by altruistic helping mugging victims), they need guidance from a criminal mastermind—this is where Lenore comes in. Rogen and Goldberg, apparently helped by Cameron Diaz, made a concerted effort to complicate Lenore’s character, who was a “mere” secretary in the ‘60s show (and given that I can’t remember any female characters at all from the radio program, I’d say it was a step up from that).  No one “gets the girl” in TGH, and it’s a good thing, too.  It doesn’t stop either of the protagonists from trying, with variable results.  Nevertheless, Lenore is arguably more intelligent, and certainly more mature, than Britt or Kato.  She is older and wiser (a plot thread is picked up when Britt quite atrociously comments on her being older than your average film eye candy aka temping secretary, upon which she refuses to comment).  She also helps them out of tight spots when necessary, and finally becomes the only one to learn their real identity.

To give them credit, the film’s composition of the Green Hornet as hero-masquerading-as-common-criminal by way of media (over)exposure is reasonably natural.  (The chest-thumping moment at the end of The Dark Knight, where the hero becomes, in everyone’s eyes except Gordon’s and the audience’s, a villain, seems an incredible slow-burn in comparison.)  Although there is a sh*tload of damage, both in terms of lives and architecture, gleefully inflicted in TGH, the real villain is perhaps not Chudnovsky and his crime empire, but the media.  Harvey Dent, Gotham’s White Knight, couldn’t be corrupted, but his counterpart, the District Attorney, links the media and politics in a way that Britt reacts to with rather touching innocence.  It’s The Daily Sentinel’s coverage of the Green Hornet that drives Chudnovsky over the edge.  The attack-on-tropes in this instance is not quite as successful.  Somehow, creating a villain whose shtick is that he lacks charisma has made Christoph Waltz’s portrayal also lack charisma.  Yet, there are some quite funny moments with Chudnovsky (particularly the inability of all characters to pronounce his name).    
The Lenore spanner-in-the-trope-works is, then, arguably better than any other, and the film starts to turn around and actually make a success of itself from this point on.  As in TLR, the more insane and ridiculous the set pieces, the more maniacally enjoyable, until the whole confection reaches bombastic hilarious conclusion (though far more bloodily in TGH).  In that sense, Michel Gondry was the right person to direct this film, as there is a stylishness and sleekness (particularly in early scenes like Chudnovsky confronting the hip young James Franco gangster) that gives it a completely different tone than the admittedly-also-bombastic Verbinski.  (Sometimes there is a bit too much of this, as in scenes inside The Daily Sentinel building which look as though they are commercials for interior design firms.) 

I really like Black Beauty here[9]—though the nod to the 1930s style of car was appreciated, and as I said, the costumes—and the prolonged comedic plot point of the knock-out gas gun—also make a large contribution to the overall fun-factor.  And Rogen is funny.  As a role model in the old WXYZ sense, he doesn’t really work—except, perhaps as a counterpoint to Bale-as-Batman sidestepping the issue in The Dark Knight when the Batman-wannabe asks, “What makes you different to me?”[10]  Like most traditional superheroes, Britt Reid has a moneyed background.  Unlike them, however, he isn’t particularly skilled, but he, too, can make a useful contribution to society by subsidising his mechanic and contributing bravery, morality, and not much else. 
We aren’t looking at any sequels from TGH any time soon, but I have mixed feelings on that.  On the one hand, the inept, flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants quality to this Britt and Kato just about works; to see them later in their more polished career, as one supposes the TV series proposed, would be less fun and less convincing.  Nevertheless, the Britt-Kato-Lenore dynamic—far from being a love triangle—is enjoyable enough to want to follow through.

The Shadow (1994) is a totally different animal from TLR and TGH.  Superficially, it’s an older film and thus plays the whole thing more “straight.”  The Shadow as an entity is also symbiotically linked to the success of Orson Welles’ career—it made him a household name[11] and in turn, his Shadow/Lamont is a wonderful radio character.  I’ve listened to a lot more Shadow than I have TLR and TGH for the simple reason that I quite enjoy it.  Some of the episodes are more far-fetched than others, but as a concept, The Shadow has always really appealed to the radiogenic in me.  I wondered when I bought this DVD if the film could ever live up to the radio-centricism of the original.  Yes . . . and no.

We seem to love concepts that spill over into a variety of media and can continue spinning hyperdiegetic universes ad infinitum (or is it just me?).  The Shadow is more vertically integrated in that sense than most OTR properties, given that it flourishes brilliantly in graphic novel format—though, inevitably, the Shadow of the graphic novels is quite different from that of the radio series[12].  Firstly, the Shadow of the graphic novels looks pretty damn amazing fighting evil with his two handguns, but the whole point of the Shadow on radio was that he “clouded men’s minds” and didn’t need guns—or any other weapons (presaging Batman, although Batman of course was not exactly non-lethal in 1939).    Secondly, the Shadow of the graphic novels is a man with a past.
The film, usefully, takes liberally from all previous incarnations and, for the most part—to its credit—builds up a surprisingly devastating Shadow of its own.  I say surprisingly because I wouldn’t have personally cast Alec Baldwin in the film version—yet, having seem him now, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else (though in my mind’s eye, the Shadow still looks young Orson Welles-ish).  Like TGH (and come to think of it, TLR), it starts off shakily.  The man of mystery referenced by the pulp magazines and the later graphic novels is personified in an Anglo-American who has somehow become a brutal warlord in the East, who dispenses easily with other’s lives and has a dozen concubines in late 1920s dress.  A Tibetan mystic teaches him how to use his Jedi mind tricks for good rather than evil.  It’s hard not to think of Bale-as-Bruce-Wayne on his quest high up in the mountains of Bhutan during this sequence, but less cynically, and perhaps more relevantly, the whole evil-Lamont-in-Asia storyline (which I was familiar with to an extent from the graphic novels) reminded me of The Road to Samarkand, an excellent book by Patrick O’Brian which shares the setting (and presumably written from real life experience?). 

Superheroes don’t usually start out as evil warlords[13].  Some scrolling intertitles deposit us into New York in probably the best sequence of the entire film.  In terms of its visuals, I was quite impressed this movie (and if you’re going to film an OTR/graphic novel property, you’d better make sure the visuals look good).  Though I’m not 100% sure why it wasn’t filmed in black-and-white.  Some fantastically-lit shots of Baldwin would look even more incredible in black-and-white (but I digress).    Some evil gangsters are about to dump Dr. Tam (Sab Shimono) over the side of the Brooklyn Bridge with concrete boots on (no, really!  And they’ve got tommy guns!).  A voice—yes, a voice!—disrupts them.  On radio, a bodiless voice was a rich and, moreover, achievable device.  It was never quite clear whether the Shadow used telepathy, ventriloquism, hypnotism, or something else to appear “invisible” to his victims.  He was, in a sense, the voice of justice and the voice of the downtrodden. 

In the graphic novels, he was a bit more visual about it all—he had a big droopy hat, the guns, a long red scarf, and a long black coat—and a big nose (uncannily like a Toulouse-Lautrec poster, in fact).  I was really impressed that the film managed to “explain” the nose—a bonafide disguise to throw less suspicion on Lamont Cranston (and probably more believable than Clark Kent’s glasses)—which he could discard to, ahem, become hot once again as Lamont.  

But back to the Brooklyn Bridge.  The scene is filmed in a foggy mist, which allows the special effects to suggest a sort-of-invisible Shadow.  It’s still not clear whether this is a mental effect or a physical hallucinogen—it’s a bit like Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak, there and not there.  To me, it was a more than adequate visualization of the radio effect.  And then there was the laughter that was supposed to instil fear—“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”  It occurred to me how much this crazy laughter resembled the Phantom of the Opera’s in the stage show, and indeed, the silhouette of the Phantom in his fedora and the Shadow in his costume are not at all dissimilar[14].  Although the Phantom in the 2004 film lacked the hat, the line between vigilantism and murder was blurred in that depiction—much as it may seem when we’ve just seen Lamont as an evil warlord murdering people about 10 minutes previously.  The Shadow does know what evil lurks in the hearts of men.  He was it!         

This scene also establishes the Shadow’s “gang,” all of whom have been saved by the Shadow and now “work” for him.  This is quite a satisfactory explanation of how one man, with some advantages it’s true—mental powers, guns, a substantial fortune, experience abroad—can adequately police a city the size of New York without a Batcave, Alfred, Robin, Oracle, etc.  Lamont may have a cab driver (the cab is sponsored by Sunshine Radio) named Moe (Peter Boyle) for support, transportation, and comic relief, but he has no Alfred.  He seems to live alone in a cavernous palatial mansion without any hired help[15]—quite frankly, I kept thinking of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête.  Lamont does have an uncle, an inane police chief (Jonathan Winters) who bemoans the fact that his nephew is a rich playboy with no career prospects.  (Bruce Wayne at least has Wayne Enterprises and his philanthropy; Lamont is the ultimate Valentino-esque layabout playboy.)  Dr. Tam, who returns and actually is somewhat crucial to the plot, seems to represent a (welcome) revisionist version of history in the 1930s.  In fact, all the scientists in the film are foreign-born—a comment on the cosmopolitan nature of the 1930s, on New York, or what?

So far, so good.  Then in comes the villain and the plot, which are largely dispensable.  Shiwan Khan, Genghis Khan’s last descendent (at first I thought he was the reincarnation of Genghis Khan; anything seemed possible in the movie up to that point!), wants to rule the world.  He comes to New York for fashion advice from the Shadow (the comic moments between Baldwin and John Lone are actually little gems in the bombast) but mainly for an atom bomb, helpfully formulated by a criminally underused Ian McKellan under mind control and an oh-so-typical-I’m-British-therefore-I’m-the-villain Tim Curry.  There is some really apt stuff about buildings that magically appear from nowhere (I say no more so you’re not spoilered) and some more shoot-em-ups, though nothing quite reaches the level established in the Brooklyn Bridge sequence.

What about the Shadow’s “constant companion,” Margo Lane, the only person in the radio show to know his true identity?  I really like Margo in the radio series; she’s more than a match for Lamont verbally, in terms of ‘30s screwball wit, and she is as much his sidekick as the requisite female voice (although Walter Gibson was pressured into writing her into the series).  In the graphic novels that I’ve read, she somewhat resembles Marion from Raiders of the Lost Ark—able to take care of herself, in love with Lamont but also somewhat bitterly resigned to his bad behavior (and I don’t mean coming home late . . . he’s a bit of a jerk to her).  As with the Shadow, the film’s Margo is a mixture of all that has come before.  She gets to wear ravishing costumes, but for the first three-quarters of the film, that’s all she’s good for.  She really ramps up the sexual tension by slumming it at Chez Cranston and telling him all about her sensual dream of lying naked on a beach while wearing a filmy negligee.  Baldwin’s frantic looks at her coyness are priceless, as is his unsettling but hilarious rejoinder:  “I dreamed I tore all the skin off my face and was somebody else underneath.”
MARGO:  You have problems.
LAMONT: I'm aware of that.

Margo’s importance to the plot up to this point has been the fact she is Ian McKellan’s character’s daughter.  However, in what is actually a tremendously appropriate move, Margo is deemed to have psychically receptive powers to the point she can read Lamont’s mind.  At last, a REASON for them to be together—both in a working partnership and as a romantic relationship.  This is tested when Tim Curry’s character locks Lamont in an experimental chamber that floods with water, and Margo is able to rescue Lamont.  She doesn’t go into the rest of the adventure guns blazing—perhaps later—but becomes one of the Shadow’s “gang.”  Lamont has to learn to trust Margo, which is hard given she can see into his past.  The mini-flashbacks to warlord days are actually rather powerful, and given that, as I said, I didn’t have much confidence in Baldwin, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the poignancy of his performance. 

In the radio series, there was never a hint of more than a platonic relationship, though it was pretty clear they were dating.  Surprisingly, the platonic ideal is more or less maintained by the end of the film—there’s just the teasing, innuendo-heavy scenes and some kissing.  So, a promising start for the Margo/Lamont-Shadow partnership.  I did wonder by the end of the film whether it was possible for The Shadow could be updated in another film incarnation à la TGH attempted.        

[1] I haven’t run across much in the way of audience demographic figures for TLR or anything else of the period—besides a 1938 doctoral dissertation, though one suspects Lazarfield would have that kind of stuff.  Is this all a gender smoke-screen, in the way we don’t necessarily imagine little girls watching the first year of Doctor Who whereas contemporary testimony runs counter to our expectations?
[2] Though apparently it wasn’t nearly as popular as the 1960s Batman, only running for 2 seasons.
[3] In the radio program, he was a master chemist.
[4] The casting in TGH is interesting in contrast with that of TLR.  Kato and Tonto, the non-white sidekicks, were always played on radio by white men.  In the film TLR, Depp is apparently Native American “enough” to play Tonto without causing outcry (again, in the interests of full disclosure, I really like Johnny Depp). Bruce Lee, apparently, played Kato in the ‘60s TV show (again, though, shouldn’t it have really been The Kato Show??).  Furthermore, by Kato’s being Chinese, we potentially get around the issue of the name being pronounced incorrectly.      
[5] See Alexander Russo’s excellent article, “A Dark(ened) Figure on the Airwaves:  Race, Nation, and The Green Hornet.”  Radio Reader:  Essays on the Cultural History of Radio.   Ed. Michele Hilmes, Jason Loviglio.  London:  Routledge, 2002: 257-276.
[6] One wonders what Rochester (Eddie Anderson), Jack Benny’s Black butler, would have as his updated career if there was ever a remake of that radio show. 
[7] Although many of my favorite films are dominated by a central platonic male-male relationship—Master and Commander (2003), The Eagle (2011)—I still wouldn’t call them bromances.
[8] Contrast this with the shoe-horned-in romance of TLR, which, despite the best efforts of Armie Hammer and Ruth Wilson, remains unconvincing.  John Cawelti did, after all, call Tonto and the Lone Ranger “a pure marriage of males.” 
[9] And I am not really into cars.  At all.
[10] In the interests of full disclosure, once again, I really really love The Dark Knight. 
[11] And paid him enough to fund the Mercury Theater through the late 1930s before he left for Hollywood even though it seems he saw it as hack writing and a means to an end.
[12] To be fair, like many OTR serials, The Shadow actually began in print:  as a pulp magazine character written by Walter Gibson.  This Shadow was about as mysterious as a renegade Time Lord:  perhaps not even human.  His character standardized by the later ‘30s as an impersonator of rich playboy Lamont Cranston but continued to change and evolve.
[13] You can make an argument, I suppose, that this is in a sense what Tony Stark is at the beginning of Iron Man, though he does not at that point believe he is doing evil.  I’m pretty sure Lamont is revelling in his evil deeds.
[14] However, which influenced which?  The Phantom novel was published in English in 1911, which predates The Shadow pulp stories.  However, the pulp stories predate all film versions (except the Lon Chaney one) and the stage show.  The stage show predates The Shadow film by nearly 10 years.  
[15] Then again, Dracula seemed able to whip up dinner for Jonathan Harker in the absence of hired help.