Will Green Hornet’s Play to Car Guys Backfire

Product placement works both ways. For movies like the Transformers series automakers like GM have provided concepts and advanced vehicle designs to Hollywood filmmakers because they believe it helps sell cars. At the same time, those filmmakers have started tailoring their films in a manner that they think will appeal to car enthusiasts. In recent years movies like Gone In 60 Seconds (the remake, not the stunning H. B. Halicki original)  and The Fast And The Furious franchise show that film producers obviously think that movies about hot cars draw an audience. From the coverage automotive web sites give those films, those producers are probably correct. With the Seth Rogen version of the Green Hornet doing pretty well at the box office despite near universal critical disfavor, as car guys it’s interesting to note the considerable level that Rogen and other producers of the film went to gain favor with car enthusiasts. It’s possible, though, that while they certainly reached out to auto enthusiasts with their promotional efforts, their Hollywood-excess-as-usual film making may have ultimately turned off many of those enthusiasts they were trying to draw in.

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Now to begin with, Green Hornet is a major motion released in 3D that features a car as one of its lead characters, so since we’re a car site that more than dabbles in 3D I suppose we should comment on the film. We’re not film critics, but both critics and movie goers alike have criticized the film’s added on 3D effects as unrealistic and cheesy. Since the film is little more than a sequence of special effects, explosions and shoot ’em ups (as would be expected when the car that stars in the film has not one but two Gatling guns mounted on its hood) it shouldn’t surprise us that the producers decided to spend some of the estimated $120 million that they spent making the film on adding 3D, now that 3D is exploding. What’s one more post production special effect?

But it’s really the way the producers used the Black Beauty, or I should say, how they abused dozens of Black Beauties, that gets my goat.

With a paper thin plot literally out of the comics, from the outset the producers knew that the Green Hornet’s car, a customized and Bondified to a fare the well ’66 Chrysler Imperial would be a major character in the film. Rogen plays a superhero with no superpowers and Jay Chou plays Kato, the Green Hornet’s technically brilliant martial artist “sidekick”. With no special powers to use, when it comes to crime fighting the heavy lifting falls to the specially equipped Imperial.

“As far as I’m concerned,” said producer Neal H. Moritz, in production notes made available to the media by Sony Pictures, “the Black Beauty is the third of the threesome.  She is the superhero of the movie.”

Moritz claims that they “auditioned” a number of different cars, and were approached by a number of automakers seeking product placement, but I have a hard time believing that they ever seriously looked past the original Black Beauty that customizer Dean Jeffries created for the 1960’s era Green Hornet tv show. It’s a cultural touchstone for the baby boomers coming of age in the 1960s.

Apparently the story of the original Black Beauty has to do with what is likely the most famous tv car, the Batmobile. Batman producer William Dozier originally hired Jeffries to do the Batmobile, which was going to be based on a ’59 Cadillac (Batman/Bruce Wayne has driven a variety of cars over the years, but in the late 1950s the Batmobile was indeed based on a Caddy). When production was hurried up, and the car was needed in just three weeks, Jeffries backed out due to concerns over quality. Plan B was George Barris, who restyled the Lincoln Futura show car into what is now known and loved as the Batmobile. As popular as the car has turned out to be, Dozier wasn’t completely happy with Barris’ work (not surprising to anyone who’s seen the Barris shop’s work up close) and thought the Batmobile was a bit over the top. He wanted something more realistic for the Green Hornet and Jeffries came up with the very sinister looking Black Beauty.

In two seasons, the tv series used a total of two Black Beauties, but that was then and this is now.

The Green Hornet movie’s chief car wrangler, Dennis McCarthy, who has supplied cars and stunts for Death Race, Die Hard 4.0, and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift., says that the Imperial was his first choice and that was the vehicle they used to pitch the producers. The relative availability of 1964, ’65, and ’66 Imperials also was a factor. One stunt car and one show car might have been enough for tv in the ’60s but a $120 million film can’t do with just two cars. According to most reports, McCarthy used 29 cars in the making of the film, though I saw one interview where he quoted a figure of 55. That number was inflated by a plot line that had Kato continuously modifying the car, eventually adding suicide doors, so multiple versions of Black Beauty had to be created.

McCarthy outlined standard modifications for all the Imperial Crown Sedans used for action sequences:

GM Performance ZZ454 500hp crate motor; Race Trans Turbo 400 manual valve body transmission; Moser Ford 9-inch rear differential (w/4.56 gears & Detroit locker); 12-inch disc brakes (front & rear), twin calipers in rear for stunts; Speedway Engineering front & rear sway bars; Art Carr shifter; Hooker headers; Flowmaster mufflers; 12-Gallon Jaz fuel cell; Demon 750CFM carburetor; K&N air filter; MSD Distributor and 6AL Box; Be-Cool aluminum radiator; Optima batteries (x2); March accessory drive system; Earl’s transmission cooler; Coyes wheels (20×10 rear, 20×9 front); Goodyear tires; fun-flat inserts on wheels with Tire Pressure Defensive Regulation System; Off-Road Unlimited rear drop springs; traction bars; Rebuilt Factor Front Suspension, Dropped 3 Inches; 12-Gallon Jaz Fuel Cell.

Whether it was 29 or 55, only three of the Black Beauty Imperials remain intact. One was jettisoned through an office building window, others were damaged getting air doing jumps, one was chopped in half by an elevator, and still others were shot up.

While they indeed sold thousands of Imperials, enough to stock a film’s special effects department, they are still valued by collectors. Like most collectible Mopar cars, there are fewer Imperials than contemporary Continentals and Cadillacs. I asked Imperial Owners of Northern California activist Ken Lang how Imperial enthusiasts feel about the film. It sounds like he has mixed feelings:

I haven’t personally seen the new Green Hornet movie yet. We plan to go tomorrow with a few other Imperial owners in the area. From the previews I’ve seen, I expect to be disappointed in the overall plot and tone of the movie. I will look forward to seeing the Black Beauty on screen though. Even if they do have it powered by a Chevy engine. (why?)

For those of us that collect and restore old cars (Imperials in this case), it’s hard to watch when the movie studios intentionally destroy something that will never be made again. They destroyed several thousand 1969 Dodge Chargers during the Dukes of Hazzard TV series. Imperial owners also have to deal with demolition derby drivers as well. It seems that the Imperial is the car of choice for most demolition derby drivers due to its indestructible construction. In some derby circles the 64 to 66 Imperials have been banned due to an unfair advantage.

I think the modern day Green Hornet should have gone with modern day iron. There’s a lot you can do to a new Chrysler 300C. Plus, there are thousands of them available and more are being made. Leave the classics alone.

McCarthy may have anticipated some of the criticism.

“Most were in a horrible condition, rusting in farmyards and so on. We gathered them from all over North America.”

Though he’s obviously not ashamed of what he does for a living.

“We buy a lot of them sight unseen, because we don’t care. It can be a rotted-out piece of junk and we’ll fill it with Bondo and spray some paint on it, and, you know, wreck it within three hours of its completion time. Several cars were absolutely pristine.There’s one car out there, I think it had 60,000 miles on it. It was just perfect. It’s still alive, but we couldn’t leave it in its original state.”

In case you’re wondering just how Hollywood destroyed 26 Crown Imperials, the Montreal Gazette cataloged the mayhem:

-One car was kept in pristine stock condition before it was modified into Black Beauty. On another, a chassis was modified with a Chevrolet V8 and other items to show the car under construction.

-Two cars appear as stock Imperials before the transformation into Black Beauty, but they include roll cages and Chevy big-block V8s for stunts.

-One Black Beauty body was used to depict the car under construction.

-One Black Beauty shows the car in its perfect state.

-Some of the cars had to be strengthened for jumps and crashes. To test how much punishment the Imperial could take, one was dropped more than four metres from a crane. “We ran out of crane before we ran out of car,” Dennis McCarthy, the picture car co-ordinator, says about the Imperial, which is renowned for its toughness.

-One Black Beauty was equipped with a smaller Chevy V8, roll cage and modified suspension to perform the jumps, which included a scene of the car flying through a window. Another car was needed to complete that scene, which shows Black Beauty buried nose first in the ground like a lawn dart.

-One Black Beauty was also built with a reinforced side so it could be hit by a truck.

-One car had a driving pod mounted on its roof so a stunt driver could pilot during filming inside the car with the camera looking out. Two cars show different levels of bullet damage.

-One Black Beauty was built to be chopped in half on screen; one had the front-drive powertrain from an old Cadillac Eldorado so it could be driven after being cut in half; and another was a half car for a scene in which it was buried.

-One non-running Black Beauty was built to show off its exotic weapons, some of which include two hood-mounted machine guns and missile launchers.

-Four Black Beauties were built as non-running “process” cars — parts and pieces that could be assembled or disassembled for shooting against a green screen with backgrounds digitally added later.

-Seven Black Beauties were modified for stunt work with large Chevy V8s, racing brakes and roll cages.

-Finally, one car simply donated its parts to all the others.

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