It is said that the definition of sophistication is being able to listen to The William Tell Overture and not think of the Lone Ranger.
May I never be sophisticated.
There’s a new Lone Ranger film coming out on July 3rd.
As a public service announcement, I’d like to provide fair warning that there will likely be a very large amount of pissing and moaning about it around these parts.
Yes, I know Misters Bruckheimer, Verbinski, Zimmer and Depp resurrected and revitalized the Pirate movie, producing a string of entertaining blockbusters under the same Disney banner that this film will use.
Yes, I know the latter three of them also collaborated on Rango which showed enough of an intimate knowledge of how westerns work to produce that bizarrely awesome take on them.
However, after being grossly disappointed by every try to bring back That Masked Man in my lifetime, I ain’t holding my breath for this one. Before viewing yet another attempt to return the iconic character to the big screen, I will silently bow my head and recite this solemn prayer:
Please don’t let them screw it up again.
I don’t understand why it’s so difficult.
Radio station WXYZ owner George W. Trendle and head writer Fran Striker worked out the key points of the character pretty quickly when The Lone Ranger radio series first aired, starting on January 30, 1933.
Sure, it took some publicity stills for them to realize having both heroes ride the same horse looked a little…off.
A short while later they also figured out that that Tonto’s horse shouldn’t be “Whitefeller” if the lead horse was white too. The name “Paint Horse” was just as short lived, before “Get ‘Em Up Scout,” was proudly heard.
Once the little bumps were ironed out, (including replacing “a hearty laugh” with the “hearty Hi-Yo Silver!” we know and love) a variety of Rangers followed the formula and made it work for twenty one years until it ended September 3, 1954, coexisting with the TV series for six of those years.
I’m a Brace Beemer man myself, though Earl Graser was almost as good.
Due to the radio series, there’s one aspect of the new movie that I don’t anticipate complaining about: Johnny Depp, who only has a bit of Native American blood…somewhere, as Tonto.
For 2,946 episodes of the radio show (he was introduced in episode 11) Shakespearean actor John Todd established and played the character of Tonto. Depp may not be a full blooded Native American, but at least he isn’t an older, chubby Irishman with thinning hair. (They used stand-ins for publicity photos and appearances.) Not to mention, it is unlikely that Depp will fall asleep during lulls in performance, as Mr. Todd would do later in the show’s history.
There were two serials made in the late thirties, which deviated too far from the character established, (and spelled "Hi-Yo" wrong on the poster) causing Trendle to revoke Republic’s rights to make any more. Stewardship of the character was strong. There were also novels written over the duration of the radio and TV shows, all but one by Fran Striker himself, who also started the comic strip. Dell and Gold Key comic books managed to stay close to the core ideas, building from their beginning as reprints of the newspaper strip. If only that level of stewardship would have continued.
My introduction to the character, and the definitive version in several generation’s eyes, was the initially Trendle produced TV Series that originally aired (with five first run seasons mixed in with reruns) from 1949-1957, and the two films it spawned. We will not count the years 1952-1953 in the “definitive version.” The powers that be learned immediately that it was the man, not the mask, when they tried to replace Clayton Moore with John Hart. Sadly, others would forget this important lesson two decades later.
Long before my cartoon addiction was fed in that time slot by syndicated programming, my daily afternoons in front of the set consisted of the Adam West Batman, Planet of the Apes, and my favorite, The Lone Ranger. Clearly, to be the top pick among such auspicious company meant there was a great deal special about that western program.
While separate on screen, I would usually mix the toys of all three, plus any other superheroes that matched with the Mego Batman line. Don’t let anyone tell you watching TV dulls the imagination. The stories taking place on my living room floor were often far more creative than what was on screen. The only down side was battle damage, such as Silver suffering a broken leg after being casually tossed into the hallway by the Incredible Hulk who had been incited into an uncontrolled rage by gorilla General Urko.
The influence extended outside of our home as well. I started wearing cowboy boots at about age five. When I was a little older, I could often be seen riding my bike around the lake at top speed wearing a Lone Ranger mask, much to the confusion of friends and strangers alike. My bike was, alas, not silver, but a beat up blue and purple, banana seated thing. However, I still performed my two wheeled homage well before the fictional Stuttering Bill Denbrough existed.
I have replaced my damaged dolls, and still wear the (obviously larger pair of) boots. I have had a Ralph Marlin all over print Lone Ranger t-shirt for almost thirty years, which has only five seam molecules left in the entire garment, but I refuse to throw it away until I can find a replacement. While the cowboy hat I chose to cover my now bald head when it rains is black (allowing it to match the rest of my wardrobe), I have always had a pair of black leather “Lone Ranger gloves” in my jacket pockets for chilly days.
However, I no longer ride around wearing the mask …
Former trapeze and trampoline acrobat, and star of many serials (including a stint as Zorro), Clayton Moore was not just my Lone Ranger. He was, as far as I’m concerned, “THE” Lone Ranger. I’ve read several articles and interviews about him, along with his autobiography, I Was That Masked Man. He completely embodied the spirit of the role, and became nearly as awesome as the character he played. The belief is not held by me alone, but many others. Don’t only take my word for it, the list includes Leonard Maltin and he’s an expert in that sort of thing.
Jay Silverheels as Tonto was equally important, playing a best friend and partner more than a simple sidekick. (Though a full blooded Mowhawk, his real name was Harold Smith, perhaps he set the Lone Ranger up as the first agent of CURE, we may never know.) The word Kemo Sabe sums up their relationship. Listed variously as meaning “Trusty Scout” or “Faithful Friend” (or “A Horses Rear End” according to Gary Larson) the specific definition isn’t important. (Since Silverheels, Moore and radio series director James Jewell said the former, my money is on that one.) Perhaps there’s no direct English translation. Both possibilities use words like faith and trust, but it’s Silverheels’ delivery of the word that carries the meaning. His tone of voice highlights that the two men share a bond not only of trust and respect, but also of purpose and mission.
Nicholas Meyer, of the Seven Percent Solution, and good Star Trek movie fame, stated that “Art is in the restrictions.” I believe this strongly holds for the Lone Ranger, as Trendle and Striker set up a series of rules that clearly defined the “man whose presence brought fear to the lawless and hope to those who wanted to make this frontier land their home” that were followed in the radio show, and adapted (at least the character ones) for the TV show as well. I have seen several versions of this list, I picked the one on Wikipedia because I’m ambitious enough to write insanely long essays about nonexistent people, but lazy enough to not want to do excessive research outside of my home bookshelves and the warehouse of useless stuff in my own head.
Rules are important to the narrative. In another “out west” example, Chuck Jones had a set series of rules for his Road Runner cartoons. They were chase stories distilled to their simplest components and were brilliant examples of comic timing. Later cartoons by other animators deviated from the rules, and showed a substantial drop in quality. (Yes, they also had massive budget slashes, but there’s no time for logic in a rant about childhood favorites.)
Some radio Lone Ranger rules were obviously to stick within legal protections and restrictions of the times, and aren’t as important to the character himself:
Adversaries are never other than American to avoid criticism from minority groups. (Though there were couple exceptions.)
Names of unsympathetic characters are carefully chosen, never consisting of two names if it can be avoided, to avoid even further vicarious association—more often than not, a single nickname is selected.
Saloon scenes are usually interpreted as cafes, with waiters and food instead of bartenders and liquor
Criminals are never shown in enviable positions of wealth or power, and they never appear as successful or glamorous.
However, other rules defined how the Lone Ranger should act, and are key to the character:
The Lone Ranger is never seen without his mask or a disguise.
The Lone Ranger always uses perfect grammar and precise speech completely devoid of slang and colloquial phrases, at all times.
When he has to use guns, The Lone Ranger never shoots to kill, but rather only to disarm his opponent as painlessly as possible.
The Lone Ranger never drinks or smokes.
Even though The Lone Ranger offers his aid to individuals or small groups, the ultimate objective of his story never fails to imply that their benefit is only a by-product of a greater achievement—the development of the west or our country. His adversaries are usually groups whose power is such that large areas are at stake.
The inverse is also true as shown in the list Clayton Moore referenced in his autobiography (the TV rules, perhaps) as, “The Lone Ranger is a man who can fight great odds, yet takes time to treat a bird with a broken wing.”
There were also a couple of rules to bend the story, allowing the above character traits to be held in the sound only, limited length setting of the radio show:
With emphasis on logic, The Lone Ranger is never captured or held for any length of time by lawmen, avoiding his being unmasked.
Logically, too, The Lone Ranger never wins against hopeless odds; i.e., he is never seen escaping from a barrage of bullets merely by riding into the horizon.
The first can be addressed in newer formats by good writing, while the second is simply an aspect of good writing.
It’s the middle set of rules that specifically define the hero.
The “good example” rules (no smoking, drinking or poor grammar) strongly establish his personality at all times as the type of heroic role model he is.
The final rule establishes that the Lone Ranger has a human side, but is larger than life, not just a hero, but a super-hero.
This is further supported by his unwillingness to kill, which also highlights his abilities. He is that much better, both in his morals and in his skills, than his opponents that he doesn’t need to kill to stop them, even when similarly armed.
Note: this one doesn’t have to extend to Tonto. Just because they are best friends does not mean they have identical philosophies. There’s a great Tonto scene in 1958’s The Lone Ranger and the City of Gold where the faithful Indian companion finally gets fed up with being attacked on his reconnaissance missions to town and chucks his knife into the chest of a villain. He then looks down at the corpse with a powerful, “I’m not the other guy,” expression of disgust.
The other key rule defines the issue of identity. While “John Reid” is listed in some versions as his name, it isn’t canonical. The Lone Ranger is not part of the secret identity chain that branches to include Superman, and can trace a straight line from its origin in Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel up through Zorro, The Shadow, and Batman.
All of those secret identities existed to protect the loved ones that the normal man interacted with in his non heroic life. Although Zorro was one of the inspirations for him, The Lone Ranger by definition does not have a non heroic life. He’s either masked or in disguise as part of a plan to confuse, scout or infiltrate the evil doers. The mask isn’t protecting another identity from being discovered, it is protecting ANY identity form being discovered. In fact, the mask IS the true identity, hence the ending catch phrase, “Who was that Masked Man?”
Any interpretation where the Lone Ranger has a “secret identity” and a normal life interacting with people isn’t the Lone Ranger; it is a non-Hispanic Zorro, or Cowboy Batman.
The 1930’s serials fell into that trap, and the people with creative control stopped them from being made. Sadly, the quality of choices by those with creative control would later go downhill.
As a super-hero, there are iconic portions of his origin that must be preserved. The TV series was smart enough to use them in the first episodes, starting on September 15, 1949.
The Cavendish Gang ambush of the Texas Rangers led by Dan Reid
The rescue by Tonto, recounting their boyhood meeting
The extra, empty grave
The mask made of his brother’s vest
The hat bleached white by the sun
The taming of Silver
The reveal of the silver mine and the explanation of the silver bullets as a symbol to remind him that life is precious like they are, and not to be wasted or thrown away.
The show got extra points for never revealing the face of the man who would become the Lone Ranger, even before his origin. Whether covered by his arm, bandages, a wet bandana, or just looking in a different direction, Clayton Moore never fully faces the camera…until he’s wearing the mask.
With the amazing history and execution of my favorite character, it should have been easy to continue enjoying his adventures. But something went seriously amiss after I was born.
Will the Lone Ranger triumph over corporate chowder heads in the decades to come?