Episodic: The Lone Ranger (1949)

I am watching select episodes of beloved and/or significant shows from every era in an attempt to break my current mindset of needing to watch a TV program from beginning to end, and to learn about and appreciate some things I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. You can read more about it here.

The Lone Ranger is maybe a strange choice to start off this project. When I first thought of watching scattered episodes of various TV shows, I wanted to challenge the current trend of approaching every show as something to watch in full, from beginning to end (or whenever you give up on it), and I wanted to use it as an excuse to try out a lot of different types of shows I’d never seen before, but The Lone Ranger is obviously not something people are expected to watch in entirety these days (though it is largely serial), and it’s something I have technically seen before, albeit when I was in single digits. But once I started making episode lists, I realized it was an obvious opportunity to root through TV history. With that in mind, I’m going to be going mostly chronological (with considerable flexibility), and The Lone Ranger is arguably the first major narrative TV series that functions like we expect a TV series to function. There were a few prototype genre shows before it, but nothing that loomed quite as large and certainly nothing else that’s still a household name today.  I can only imagine how massive it must have been in its heyday; I watched repeats regularly in the ’80s and it felt like a big deal even then. Of course, I don’t remember any specific episodes so I came up with five to watch from scratch.

I watched the pilot, “Enter the Lone Ranger,” and was surprised at how fully-formed the show seemed on arrival. I assumed that it maybe borrowed its visual language from the Lone Ranger film serials that preceded it, but Wikipedia tells me that the serials were not well received and that producer and co-creator George W. Trendle was not a fan of them. The series ignored other adaptations and took its lead solely from Trendle and writer Fran Striker’s hugely popular radio series, and truthfully most of the show’s most iconic ingredients were already in place from those broadcasts: the William Tell Overture, “Hi-yo, Silver,” “kemosabe,” the Ranger’s silver bullets and multi-tiered moral code, and the crisp and clean, airwave-ready delivery that still sounds like the only way for any gentleman vigilante to speak. But the whole thing is translated to the screen without a hitch. The script for the pilot holds over a lot of radio trappings, with a lot of stiff exposition and telling over showing, but the black-and-white location photography is just fantastic, and a perfectly cast and perfectly wardrobed Clayton Moore looks just right on camera before the title sequence is even over.

The Lone Ranger’s origin, fully laid out here, is a plain but poetically simple one that will surely be spiced up for the upcoming Gore Verbinski film. A Texas ranger is left for dead following an ambush that kills his brother and four other rangers. He quickly teams up with his rescuer, a passing Native American named Tonto, to defeat his attackers, ultimately deciding to stick with his faked death in order to gain an advantage over the rampant criminals of the Wild West. There’s a lot of awesome in the Lone Ranger’s genesis, and you can feel the machinations of the masked-hero genre clicking into place as he dons a mask made of his felled brother’s vest, asks Tonto to dig an extra grave to bury his old identity, and vows to bring 100 men to justice for every dead ranger, and to do it without taking any life. The episode is occasionally sleepy, mostly from its heavy narration, but it’s engaging, and successfully sets up Lone Ranger, Tonto, and Silver as three forces primed for adventure and pose-striking, leaving them in a literal cliffhanger for a follow-up skirmish with the murderous Cavendish Gang that I will probably never see.

I don’t think I realized how much the 1960s Batman, the other show I remember most fondly from my childhood, is a direct parody of the TV version of Lone Ranger.  The franchise’s dominant influence on the superhero genre, along with the Shadow and its literal descendent The Green Hornet (the Ranger’s nephew), is pretty common knowledge, but the firm, matter-of-fact way Moore plays his character, along with the “tune in next week” attitude and even the way Tonto and Ranger physically balance each other on screen obviously served as prime winking material for Adam West and Burt Ward twenty years later. It’s funny that kids are still drawn to that style, as amusingly stodgy as it can seem at a glance, but all five episodes I watched present a clear, heartening morality that’s easy to get swept up in.

Speaking of morality, the other lasting legacy of the series is the still-ongoing conversation about its approach to race. Tonto always seems caught up in a tug-of-war between people who see him as a groundbreaking mascot for civil right progress and those who see him as another subservient stereotype.  It’s a topic for more learned pop culture scholars or someone who’s seen more than five episodes as an adult, but I’ll say that I never saw his broken English played for laughs, and that even in technically a sidekick role he feels completely equal to the Ranger, who would quite obviously take a bullet for him. Race came up again and again in what I watched, and I in no way specifically selected episodes with that content, so I’m guessing it was an important cause to someone near the top of the show. Having said that, a lot of it has the clumsy, ignorant stereotyping of a lot of well-meaning but not-quite-there media of its day. The second episode I watched, “Pete and Pedro,” features L.R. requesting the help of the titular slackers, despite their being drunken idiots whose competence is overshadowed by their dangerous comic-relief shenanigans, to stop some jerks from taking over a young couple’s ranch. Both men are played pretty broadly (a noticeable style change from the pilot), but which would you guess is a horrifyingly offensive cartoon character, Pete or Pedro? (It’s Pedro.) Later, in the final season’s “The Letter Bride,” a Chinese laundry worker is assisted by the Ranger in finding his kidnapped mail-order bride, who was taken by a team of bandana-belt proto-Klansmen as a warning against outsiders laying down roots by starting families. It’s sort of incredible that the couple’s story is so sincerely tragic, and the town’s racism painted as so nakedly obscene, when the setup itself is packed with eyebrow-raising choices like aggressively playing up the character as a “ching-chong-Chinaman” (their words). The Ranger finds the perpetrators and the missing girl through a weird and complex scheme that finds him disguising himself as a Swede taking over the local laundry business for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Moore’s performance in full-tilt Sven mode is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen, and it just feels strange to have two wildly over-the-top caricatures in a story with a message that is otherwise painstakingly clear. It’s possible the Ranger is pointing out the locals’ inherent hypocrisy, since they preach against outsiders but don’t take offense to a white but overwhelmingly foreign newcomer, but he never points it out to them. What he does do is spin a hard line against intolerance, one that seems shockingly direct for 1956, the same year Giant caused a lot of controversy without being any more blatant than the Ranger’s heartfelt soapboxing throughout this story.  “You can’t run from intolerance. You have to fight it. It’s the American way… There’s no room in this country for prejudice. It just doesn’t belong.”

The most common fan favorite from the series seems to be “Matter of Courage,” which finds the Ranger and Tonto squaring off against a pair of wanted outlaws headed for the border. Both sides end up using the local barber shop as a fort, which tests the mettle of the arrogant hotshot deputy and the deceptively neurotic Mexican owner inside (in another, far subtler stab at the show’s recurring themes). I liked the episode, but it represents a move away from the show’s location shooting to a lower production value and a more limited framing. It’s essentially an early bottle episode, though it does move around a little in the first half. It seems like there were a lot more limited-scope episodes following this one, probably due to budgetary concerns. They did spring for color in the final season, though “The Letter Bride,” the only episode I saw from that year, doesn’t particularly benefit from it besides the costumes looking nice.

It’s definitely a solid and notably formative show overall, and I enjoyed each episode while being a little grateful that they are only about 23 minutes each. I really like Moore as the Ranger a lot, maybe because he’s a bit of a nostalgia trip for me, but there’s a real confidence in the way he stands and speaks that’s easy to parody only because it’s so iconic. Audiences must have agreed too, since an attempt to replace him with John Hart for the 1952-1953 season did not go over well, and ABC returned to Moore for another four years. (I only watched one of the Hart episodes, and he does an acceptable impression, but it is definitely the dullest I watched despite a nice villain turned in by guest Lee Van Cleef, who’s the reason it made the list.) The scripts are obviously aimed at a full spectrum of family members, and are occasionally a little dopey in their broad humor (which only shows up in random clusters) and some undercooked contrivances; the famous “Who was that masked man?” tag feels ridiculous every time, along with L.R. constantly having to remind people who he is (it takes Pete and Pedro about five minutes to remember that they had worked with the West’s only masked vigilante on an earlier adventure). Still, these five stories never seemed pandering, and there’s a definite intelligence in the way most of the show’s villains are handled. There’s always a little bit of tragedy under the surface, which ties in well to the every-life-is-precious creed that propels the show’s conscience, but they do get surprisingly vicious at times, and the show’s noisy action shoot-outs are signature, making a good model for future shows of both Western and superhero heritage.

Would I watch more?: More episodes could definitely factor into my retirement plan. It’s fun and easy to watch, it marathons well, and I’m sure there’s more gems in its 200+ episodes, but I’ve probably had my share for a few years.


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