Random Musings: From out of the past come thundering hoof beats, part 3

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As I noted in the first installment in this series, a major part of Americana— The Lone Ranger— began on Detroit-based radio station WXYZ in 1933.

According to Dave Holland in From Out of the Past: The Pictorial History of the Lone Ranger, (page 108), WXYZ not only was a part of the Michigan Radio Network, but was also a founding station of the Mutual Network. It officially formed Sept. 15, 1934. The other Mutual stations were WGN in Chicago, WOR in New York and WLW in Cincinnati.

By the way, not only did station owner George W. Trendle break free of CBS, but he also changed the call letters from WGHP (named for original owner George Harrison Phelps) to WXYZ. According to From Out of the Past (pages 48-49), Trendle wanted the call letters WYXZ, since he was going to make the station “the last word in radio.” However, he had to convince both the Army and Navy— which held those call letters in reserve— to release them. It took some effort, but he succeeded.

Decades later, when the station switched to a talk radio format, it changed its call letters to “WXYT”, with the T standing for “talk.” Not nearly as imaginative as fast talking the Army and Navy into giving up a set of call letters kept in reserve.

But let’s get back to The Lone Ranger.

People who never listened to the program, or who haven’t listened in years, might think the stories are simplistic, with two-dimensional characters. Not so. Yes, the 30 minute time slot (including commercials) meant Fran Striker and other writers couldn’t give the characters as much depth as they’d have had in an hour-long program; but even so, the bad guys weren’t melodramatic villains. True, some robbed and/or killed because they could and didn’t give a damn about anyone else; but some believed they were in the right. As they say, every villain thinks he’s the hero.

Sometimes the conflict revolved around a man’s stubborn pride getting the better of him; something a bad guy (who might be a fellow rancher, farmer, Army officer, Indian, lawman, stage line owner or prospector, etc.) would try to exploit.

The Lone Ranger was also a relatively enlightened program, given the era in which it aired. Yes, pretty much every member of non-WASP ethnic groups tended to use “me” instead of “I’m” (as in “me Tonto”) or refer to himself or herself in the third person (as in “José will get you for this”); and yes, there are several instances where the narrator refers to Indians in the story as “savages.”

But-

There wasn’t a “cowboys vs. Indians” mentality in The Lone Ranger (with the cowboys as the good guys). Indians described as “savages” were the villains of a particular story; but in several episodes, a tribe was minding its own business and/or living up to the terms of a treaty, only to be wronged by renegade Army officers, duplicitous ranchers, corrupt government officials or others. The narrator didn’t describe them as “savages.” Bad guys might, but they were also shown to be ignorant.

It’s also interesting how often the bad guys’ prejudices were used against them. They often assumed Indians (and/or members of other minority groups) were ignorant, so they weren’t concerned if, say, Tonto should happen to overhear something.

Good guy characters, by contrast, had more positive attitudes. If “Smith” was injured or ill and hesitant about Tonto treating him, “Jones” would “endorse” Tonto by saying something like “some Indians know a lot about medicine.”

And the Ranger himself was respectful of other cultures and belief systems.

By the way, in the 2013 Lone Ranger film, there’s a scene where the Ranger asks Tonto, “you know what ‘Tonto’ means in Spanish?”

The word means “foolish” or “stupid”, but since Tonto as depicted in both the radio and TV series was neither, I think it likely that Fran Striker, et al. either didn’t know Spanish or assumed most of the listening audience wouldn’t. And that they felt the word just sounded right.

The biggest shortcoming of the radio and TV series (and a reflection of the times) was having Tonto speak as he did. He was depicted as intelligent, so even if he started out not knowing much English, he should have gotten better. It might have made sense for him to fake poor English around bad guys, but with the Ranger and allies, he should have demonstrated a better command of the language.

That whole using “me” to identify oneself thing wasn’t limited to minority groups in radio. In some Silver Age comics (and even some published as recently as the 1980s) concerning Superman as a toddler (AKA Superbaby), the toddler Clark Kent and his friends all talked that way. If the story concerned an Easter egg hunt, young Clark or Lana Lang or Pete Ross might say, “me find shiny blue egg.”

No child talks like that. What on Earth were those writers thinking?

Anyway—

Some comments about last year’s Lone Ranger movie, starring Armie Hammer as the Ranger and Johnny Depp as Tonto. I knew it would make some changes to the mythos. That’s fine. As I noted last time, the Ranger had a convoluted origin story. My primary hope was that the movie would treat the characters and the source material with respect. The much-maligned The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) actually told a good story. My biggest complaint was the Balladeer. Get rid of him and the film improves a thousand-fold.

One thing I didn’t want was for the Ranger to be unrealistically “perfect.” Which he never was on radio. He made the occasional mistake. Some nearly proved fatal. In the Lone Ranger and Tonto Graphic Album, written by Joe R. Lansdale (and with an afterward by Dave Holland), the Ranger makes some huge mistakes which leads to a split with Tonto. But that’s realistic. He’s still human, however fast with his guns and however idealistic his goals.

Anyhow, I liked that the movie opened in 1933; and that the “Wild West Exhibition” tent had a banner reading “thrilling days of yesteryear”, referencing a line from the opening narration.

The Lone Ranger is no longer a man of mystery. Everyone in Colby, Texas assumed he was Dan Reid, Sr. However, Dan’s widow, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson) and son, Danny (Bryant Prince), knew that the Ranger was the incorrectly-named John Reid.

These were significant changes from the source material. Not only did people— even in 1933— know the Ranger’s last name, but his sister-in-law was still alive when he began Lone Rangering.

In the radio show, Linda— not Rebecca— Reid was killed en route to Texas to join her husband when her wagon train was attacked. For many years, the Ranger believed his nephew had also been killed, until finding the boy as a teenager.

“John Reid” is a lawyer, as in The Legend of the Lone Ranger. But he’s somewhat ineffectual. I didn’t care for that. Couldn’t the filmmakers have depicted him as hamstrung by legal red tape, which became one of the factors in his decision to fight for justice from behind a mask?

I did like the scene where the Ranger, after telling Tonto he hasn’t fired a gun in nine years, pulls the trigger and gets off a really lucky shot that ricochets here and there and ends by blasting the gun out of a bad guy’s hand.

Why? Because one-in-a-million chance scenarios like that are probably close to the truth behind various legends.

Whatever the judgment of history regarding the 2013 movie, The Lone Ranger will remain a key part of Americana. I’ve no doubt that in the decades and centuries to come, future generations will tell new tales of the masked rider of the plains.

Copyright 2014 Patrick Keating

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