Saturday, June 29, 2013

"The Lone Ranger": A Primer

How do you murder a legend?

This may be the long-term fate of the Lone Ranger, the American cultural icon whose latest exploit was rounded panned by critics and avoided by discerning audiences everywhere. (After a month in theaters, The Lone Ranger [2013], directed by Gore Verbinski and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, made back only an approximate third of its $250,000,000 budget.)

Two widescreen, epic, expensive, and unsuccessful attempts to make the Masked Rider of the Plains a viable movie franchise have failed (more on 1981’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger below). Whether it’s the fading of the “square,” professed moral codes of mainstream 20th-century America or the impotence of the Western myth in general, this kind of hero no longer pertains. Let's take a gander at the foundation and substance of the Lone Ranger legend.

The Masked Rider of the Plains was the brainstorm of a desperate radio station manager in the depths of the Great Depression. George W. Trendle, part-owner of radio station WXYZ in Detroit, dropped his affiliation with CBS in late 1932 and took the incredible gamble, for the time, of running as an independent station. Trendle thought a cowboy hero would draw listeners. In conjunction with various staffers, and utilizing the prolific genius of pulp writer Fran Striker, the Lone Ranger was born. The show was intended as just another offering for kids, but it was soon discovered that over half of its rapidly growing audience were adults. Sponsors gathered. WXYZ was saved!

In time, the incredible popularity of the show gave birth to other standout WXYZ shows such as "The Green Hornet" and "Challenge of the Yukon" (aka "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon," featuring Yukon King, mightiest, smartest, and most morally discerning of all crime-fighting sled dogs), and led to the foundation of the Mutual Broadcasting System, the "fourth network," which persisted until 1999.

Striker could crank out copy at a near-psychotic pace, at one point churning out 60,000 words a week (the average self-respecting writer is lucky to get about 5,000 usable words a week out). Working under Trendle for a pittance (as did everyone who worked for him), Striker constructed the narrative and added the character details that made the Lone Ranger unique.

The Lone Ranger did not drink, or smoke, or swear, or chase women. He never cracked a smile, let alone a joke. He spoke correct English at all times. He never killed (save once -- see below). Deeply principled, he was a modern Crusader, a "champion of justice" without any modern angst, or seemingly any inner life at all. He was a square . . . an extremely driven square.

Striker's origin story explains his intensity. The Lone Ranger was initially John Reid, who served in the Texas Rangers under the command of his brother, Dan. Both had made a rich silver strike before volunteering for lawman duty. The brothers and four other Texas Rangers pursued an outlaw chief named Butch Cavendish and his gang, but were bushwhacked at Bryant's Gap, where the bad men shot down the six lawmen who pursued them, leaving them for dead.

John Reid, however, survived, and was found and nursed back to health by Tonto, a Native American of unknown tribe who, it turned out, Reid had saved years earlier. Reid swore not only to seek vengeance against Cavendish, but to don a new identity and right wrongs wherever they were found. Reid and Tonto dug six graves, to conceal his survival, and he donned a mask, becoming the Lone Ranger. (The Ranger did eventually catch up with Cavendish and dispatched him, fair and square, avenging his brother's death.)

Using the resources of his secret silver mine, the Ranger supported his ethical-vigilante efforts — and crafted and used silver bullets as a distinctive calling card. Later, he captured and tamed a wild white stallion, which he named Silver as well (and shod with silver shoes). The Lone Ranger had no special powers, save the ability to shoot guns out of other men's hands, a trick that presumably can be learned with diligent practice. He was simply heroic.

Soon the show was heard nationally, with its famous opening lines:

“A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty ‘Hi-yo, Silver’ . . . The Lone Ranger! With his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains led the fight for law and order in the early Western United States. Nowhere in the pages of history can one find a greater champion of justice. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. From out of the past come the thundering hoof-beats of the great horse Silver. The Lone Ranger rides again!”

Now, you may ask, why did the end of an opera overture become the Ranger’s theme? Trendle was too cheap to commission someone to write music for him, so he used classical pieces in the public domain as theme, background, and transition music on his radio shows. The final section of Rossini’s “William Tell” overture fits the bill just fine — so much so that, worldwide, the odds are that the Lone Ranger and not William Tell comes to mind first when it is played.

From late January, 1933, to September 3, 1954, the Lone Ranger rode the airwaves for a stunning 2,956 episodes. He was portrayed first by George Stenius (who later changed his name to George Seaton and moved to Hollywood, eventually winning Oscars as writer and director of Miracle on 34th Street [1947] and The Country Girl [1954]), then by Earle W. Graser, then, and most memorably, Brace Beemer.

Former Shakespearean actor John Todd played Tonto for the entre run. The most memorable “Ranger” announcer was Fred Foy, who would later announce Dick Cavett’s TV interview show and would run over the famous opening n request during any given broadcast.

Of course, the wild success of the show spawned a host of premiums, and novels for juniors, and movie serials, comic books, a daily comic strip, toys, and action figures. Kids loved the rip-roaring adventures, and parents admired the Ranger’s sterling personal qualities. Eventually, Striker would add a juvenile companion to the series, Reid’s nephew Dan . . . . Whose son Britt would become the Green Hornet

Initially there was no visual representation of the Ranger, but the issuance of premiums and products on other media necessitated the eventual iconic picture of him in powder-blue clothes, white hat, and lack domino mask.

From 1949 to 1957, an equally memorable live-action Ranger TV series ran, starring former stuntman and bit player Clayton Moore as the Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto.

Though Silverheels continued the monosyllabic, present-tense simplicity of Tonto’s speech, it should be noted that the character was never disrespected or treated condescendingly on radio or TV. The Ranger and Tonto were equals; to each other they were always “kemosabe” — an invented word meaning “faithful friend.” Additionally, in marked contrast to other juvenile actions series of the day, there were no comic Negroes, Hispanics, or Asians portrayed.

After the TV series ended, the Ranger's popularity waned. More complex and troubled protagonists began to take over the popular imagination. A Saturday-morning cartoon series followed (1966-1969).

Then, in 1981, The Legend of the Lone Ranger a horrible feature film adaptation, flopped. The approach was hyperbolic: Jason Robards appears as President Grant, and Wild Bill Hickock, Buffalo Bill, and Custer all have walk-ons. The Ranger’s nemesis Butch Cavendish is not simply an outlaw. He is written, and played by Christopher Lloyd, as a humorless supervillain with a plan to carve out his own country from the U.S., straight out of TV’s “Wild, Wild West” playbook.

Then in 2006, things began to look up for our hero. Writer Brett Matthews revitalized the character for Dynamite Entertainment, crafting a highly successful series of comics. Matthews' TV work with wunderkind Joss Whedon got things going, and undoubtedly led Hollywood back to the possibility of dusting off the concept again.

So, why is the Lone Ranger so compelling? The very stiffness that was later mocked by comedians of the day such as Lenny Bruce and Bill Cosby, the obsessive seriousness, loaded behind a mysterious mask, made him an equivalent to other secret-identity heroes such as the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, the Shadow, Superman, and all their descendants. 

Word didn't get out much about him in the Old West, evidently -- many times, he would be taken initially for an outlaw and nabbed (briefly) by the very people he was trying to help. "This mask is on the side of law and justice," he would intone, setting everyone straight. In fact, the Ranger was never unmasked, and was a self-imposed outcast -- he always took off before he could be thanked properly, or integrated into frontier society. "Say, who was that masked man?" someone would ask at the end of an episode, and the reply would come, "Why, that's the Lone Ranger!" as he galloped away, shouting "Hi-yo, Silver! Awaaaaaaaaaaaay!"

The Lone Ranger was thoughtful as well, sometimes breaking into meditative monologues on the theme of justice, progress, kindness, and right thinking. During many episodes, the Ranger would not ride into a problem and solve it — the characters in the conflict would have their say, and frequently solve their own problems, with the subtle assistance of the Masked Man.

Above all, the Ranger insisted on good behavior from his fans, a holdover from the "muscular Christianity" movement of virility and piety that pervaded the Victorian era. His "Creed" reads as follows:

“I believe . . .
That to have a friend, a man must be one.
That all men are created equal and that everyone has within himself the power to make this a better world.”
That God put the firewood there, but that every man must gather and light it himself.
In being prepared physically, mentally, and morally to fight when necessary for that which is right.
That a man should make the most of what equipment he has.
That ‘this government of the people, by the people, and for the people’ shall live always.
That men should live by the rule of what is for the best of the greatest number.
That sooner or later . . . somewhere . . . somehow . . . we must settle with the world and make payment for what we have taken.
That all things change but truth, and that truth alone, lives on forever.
In my creator, my country, my fellow man.”

In the chaos of the 20th century, when it seemed that life was cheap, God was dead, and all meaning was subjective, it was valuable to grow up believing, as I did, that there was such a thing as moral rigor, that one person could make a difference, and that each of us is obligated to do what is right. The Lone Ranger symbolized this, and in my cheesy, never-grown-up heart, still does. And that's not a bad thing, not bad at all. Thank you, masked man!