For a young boy growing up in the Midwest of the early 1960s, there was no more exiting sound than this:
Yes, that’s the opening theme of The Lone Ranger TV series, starring Clayton Moore. The music is “March of the Swiss Soldiers,” the finale of Rossini’s William Tell Overture, written in 1829. (It is said that the definition of an intellectual is someone who can listen to this music and not think of the Lone Ranger.)
The other night, those thrilling sounds came back as I watched the 1981 movie, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, a big-budget production that bombed in theaters, although I saw it then and liked it and still enjoyed the film, 34 years later. My generation remembers the Ranger through the TV series. My parents’ generation first heard his adventures on the radio, and my kids’ generation—well, that’s a sad tale, which we’ll get to later.
Return with us now, to those thrilling days of yesteryear.
In America of the early 1930s, with the Great Depression tightening its noose around the country’s collective throat, radio was one of the few ways people could escape the increasing desperation of their daily lives. Radio provided music, news and sports, just like today, but also game shows, variety programs, and dramas. Unlike many parts of the economy, radio was thriving. In Detroit, radio station mogul George W. Trendle wanted to create a new hero to star in a drama to be produced by his flagship station, WXYZ. He wanted somebody like Robin Hood or Zorro, so he came up with the concept of an Old West lawman, a former Texas Ranger who wore a mask and rode a white horse. He gave the idea to one of his writers, Fran Striker, to flesh out. The Lone Ranger premiered on WXYZ and several other stations in Michigan in January 1933, and was an immediate hit. Within months, the stations would be overwhelmed with the response. A year later, Trendle took his show national over the fledgling Mutual network and started counting the money.
Trendle and his writers developed a back story for the Ranger that has been used virtually unaltered in every succeeding version. Around 1870, a platoon of Texas Rangers, including two brothers named Reid, are in pursuit of the Butch Cavendish gang. The Rangers are ambushed in a narrow canyon and left for dead. A day later, a wandering Indian named Tonto comes onto the scene, discovering that one Ranger, who turns out to be the younger Reid brother, is still alive. Nursed back to health by Tonto, Reid vows to avenge the deaths of his brother and the other Rangers by tracking down Cavendish and bringing him and his gang to justice. But he realizes that to succeed, he must allow the outlaws to think they killed all of the Rangers; thus, Reid dons a mask, made from the bullet-riddled vest of his brother, and becomes the Lone Ranger.
Like most hit radio dramas of the day, The Lone Ranger was optioned to the movies. Republic Studios bought the rights for a radio serial in 1937, filming a 15-episode series over the span of 19 days late in the year. Each episode was about 17 minutes long, but unlike most serials of the era, this one had relatively high production values, acting and writing. It was a big hit when released early in 1938, and a sequel came out a year later. In the first one, with the Ranger wearing a full-face mask, two different actors, plus a stuntman, actually provided the voice of the Ranger. In the second, actor Robert Livingston played the hero; Livingston was from Illinois and appeared in 135 movies. Tonto was played in both serials by the stuntman and actor known as Chief Thundercloud, who was billed as a University of Arizona-educated Cherokee; his real name was Victor Daniels, who may or may not have been a full-blooded Native American, and no record of his enrollment at UA could ever be confirmed. Trendle was not happy with Republic’s handling of the character; the studio had shown Livingston unmasked through most of the second serial, for example, so after that one Trendle terminated the contract and ordered the prints destroyed. Decades later, versions released in Spain with Spanish subtitles were found and painstakingly restored, so they’re available to Ranger aficionados today.
Meanwhile, The Lone Ranger kept riding hard on the radio, with nearly 3000 episodes airing from 1933-54. Several actors voiced the lead role on the radio series, but the two most memorable were Earle Graser (1933-41) and Brace Beemer, who had been the show’s narrator but took over the lead role when Graser died of injuries sustained in a car crash; as Graser lingered on his deathbed, the show went on, with the voice of a wounded Ranger reduced to a whisper and Tonto carrying the action. Beemer held the role until the radio series ended in 1954. To maintain the mystery of the character, Graser had never been allowed to do any other radio work, and he had to keep his involvement in the show secret. He wasn’t even allowed to make public appearances to promote the show, as many radio stars of the day did; short and pudgy, never on a horse in his life, Graser had to yield the public persona of the character to the taller, more athletic Beemer, who was also an expert horseman. It was said that one time Graser was at a night club with his wife when there was a contest to see who could shout “Hi-yo, Silver!” like the Lone Ranger. Graser entered but didn’t win. But he was dedicated, doing three live performances of each show, three times a week, and he never missed a show in his eight years as the voice of the Ranger. Like Graser, Beemer was restricted from doing any other radio work while he voiced the character. Throughout the series, Tonto was voiced by John Todd, a white man of Irish descent; at one time a genuine Native American was considered for the role, but the actor, a college-educated man, refused to recite the simplistic, “me Tonto”-style dialogue for the character, and Todd kept the job to the end.
What most Lone Ranger fans then and now don’t know is that the Ranger is connected to another masked avenger who debuted on radio in the 1930s and later made his way to movie serials and TV. The young son of the elder Reid brother later sires a son named Britt, who becomes a newspaper publisher by day…and at night, with his faithful Japanese sidekick Kato, rides the streets in the Black Beauty automobile, fighting crime as the Green Hornet.
The masked man rides to the small screen.
When the Lone Ranger came to the infant medium of television in 1949, Beemer was not considered for the role because he had no on-screen acting experience. The role instead went to Clayton Moore, a 35-year-old, Chicago-born trapeze artist and model who had served in the Army Air Corps in World War II and appeared in various B-list movies and serials, including such gems as Radar Men from the Moon and The Crimson Ghost. Moore modeled his interpretation of the character after Beemer’s radio version, and after two seasons of year-round work, making 52 episodes a year, he left the series in a contract dispute. The producers hired John Hart to replace Moore, but the public never really accepted Hart in the role, and Moore was rehired in 1954. He stayed with the role for the rest of his life, often appearing as the Ranger in public after the show ceased production in 1957. Tonto was played by Jay Silverheels, a full-blooded Canadian Mohawk who excelled in lacrosse, wrestling and boxing as a young man before getting into acting. Moore and Silverheels reprised their famous roles in two full-length movies, filmed in color and on location.
The last of the Moore-Silverheels pictures, The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold, was released in 1958, and after that the character could only be seen on TV reruns. By the late ’70s the rights to the character had been sold to producer Jack Wrather, who had produced many of the episodes in the TV series. Wrather was planning a big-screen version of the story and wanted Moore to stop appearing in public as the Lone Ranger, filing a lawsuit to that effect in 1979. It was one of the biggest public relations gaffes in Hollywood history, and probably had a big effect on the failure of the movie to lure decent box office numbers. Although the film was well-written and had beautiful location cinematography, the movie also was hurt by the casting of unknown Klinton Spilsbury as the Lone Ranger. Not only was Spilsbury inexperienced and not as physically-imposing as Moore had been, his voice was so weak that every line of his dialogue in the picture was re-dubbed with the voice of veteran actor James Keach, who didn’t even receive credit for his work. As for Spilsbury, he never appeared in another movie.
Yet, when I saw the movie back in 1981 out in the wild Western town of Missoula, Montana, the theater was packed and many of the men who emerged were misty-eyed. Watching it again the other night, I got past the voice dubbing and Spilsbury and appreciated the story. It re-creates the origin of the Ranger, only this time the younger Reid, named John, is not a Texas Ranger but a lawyer, just back from law school in the East, joining older brother Dan in the posse to hunt for Cavendish. The villain is not a run-of-the-mill outlaw, but a former Union Army major who was court-martialed in the Civil War and now has designs on creating his own dominion in west Texas. To that end, Cavendish (played by Christopher Lloyd, four years before his signature turn as Doc Brown in Back to the Future) is going to kidnap President Ulysses S. Grant, who is heading through the region on a buffalo hunt, and force Congress to cede the land to him in exchange for the president’s life.
Rescued by Tonto, well-played by authentic Apache Michael Horse, Reid learns to shoot, finds the wild silver stallion and tames him, dons the mask and with Tonto at his side they ride off to find Cavendish. Merle Haggard provides narration in the picture and a couple songs. Grant is played by Jason Robards, and is accompanied on his train by renowned Old West heroes Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody and General George A. Custer. I thought that part was certainly a stretch, but what the heck, it’s a movie. Hickok and Custer both died in 1876, the last year of Grant’s administration, and Cody was only 30 that year, although he had already started his stage career. So, I suppose it could’ve happened.
Without giving away the ending, I will say that it was well-done and exciting. But the movie sank like a stone at the box office and today is regarded as the worst adaptation of the Lone Ranger ever to appear, with Spilsbury taking the heat for its failure. It was so bad that nobody would touch the property for another 20 years. Then came the publication of a series of graphic novels that were noted for their adherence to Lone Ranger canon and tradition but questioned because of the level of violence. But again, the Old West was a violent place and if there really had been a Lone Ranger, he couldn’t have survived long just by trying to shoot the guns out of the bad guys’ hands.
Recovering from the flop.
Twenty-two years after the Spilsbury disaster the Ranger made it back to the screen, this time the small version. TNT produced a TV-movie titled The Lone Ranger and starring Chad Michael Murray as young Boston law student Luke Hartman. Although the character’s name was changed for some reason, the origin story remained the same, although this time the man who would be the Ranger becomes smitten with Tonto’s sister. The film aired on the infant WB network in February 2003, but reviews were mediocre and a planned spin-off series never developed.
Finally, a big-budget Ranger movie hit the cinemas in 2013. Starring Johnny Depp as an elderly Tonto in the 1930s recounting the tales of the Ranger some sixty years before, it featured Armie Hammer as the masked lawman. The film had a huge budget of $215 million but was a box-office flop, recouping less than half its cost. Critics gave it fair-to-middling reviews, many of them commenting on Depp’s sometimes comical performance and his costume, featuring a crow on his head. Others clucked at the historical incongruities, such as having the transcontinental railroad going through Texas, and a band playing a Sousa march that wasn’t composed until 20 years after the time of the film (1869).
I found the film difficult to watch. Maybe it was the Tonto character, so different than how he was played by Silverheels and then Horse. The climactic action sequence was well-done but certainly over the top; perhaps the producers felt something like this was necessary to lure in today’s younger moviegoers, who are said to demand spectacular special effects at the expense of story. Hammer was okay as the Ranger, certainly better than Spilsbury, but he was no Clayton Moore, that’s for sure. Fortunately, Moore wasn’t around to see this version; he died in 1999 at age 85.
Maybe the film tanked because today’s audiences don’t appreciate Westerns. Young kids sure don’t, not like they did in my generation. Several years ago, when my son Jim was about 12, I happened to find a video of The Lone Ranger, the 1956 Clayton Moore feature film. I had never seen it and thought this would be one of those precious moments when the father passes down a family tradition to his son. The movie was great, and during an exciting scene when the Ranger is duking it out on top of a rugged plateau with a renegade Apache, I was on the edge of my seat. I glanced over at Jim…and he was fast asleep. So much for tradition.
The legacy of the hero.
What was it about the Lone Ranger that captivated me and my generation so? There were untold numbers of Westerns in those days, in the movies and on TV, all of them with handsome heroes, damsels in distress, snarling bad guys, mighty horses. There was gunplay and fisticuffs aplenty. But the Lone Ranger was different. Was it the mask? Was it the silver bullet, the Ranger’s calling card as well as his ammo of choice? Was it his magnificent horse, Silver? His loyal partner Tonto? The Ranger always treated Tonto as an equal, which was a lesson for all of us kids in race relations, even if we didn’t realize it, and Tonto was portrayed with great dignity by Silverheels, dispelling many a stereotype that showed the Indian of the Old West as an uncouth savage.
It was all that, I think, but also this: the Lone Ranger was truly a good guy. He sacrificed everything he could’ve had in order to pursue the cause of justice. He risked his life to save the innocent. He lived by a code of honor that would’ve resonated with us even if it hadn’t been strictly spelled out for us—but it was:
That to have a friend, a man must be one.
That all men are created equal, and everyone has within himself
the power to make this a better world.
That God put the firewood there, but every man must gather it
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’s best for 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, and my fellow man.
After seeing the 1981 movie, I found this clip on YouTube, put together from the film and set to the classic theme music. If you don’t find this stirring, well, then I don’t know what will do the trick:
Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…The Lone Ranger rides again!