Saturday, September 15, 2012

Enter the Lone Ranger (Apex Films, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Enter the Lone Ranger, a 1949 production that was created as a pilot for the Lone Ranger TV series but was also shot to run as long as a feature film (albeit a “B” feature), which I presume was so that if the producers couldn’t sell the series to television they could still get some of their money back by releasing it theatrically. (Apparently the film was cut up and used as the first three episodes of the TV series.) It’s a perfectly workmanlike “B” Western, directed effectively by George B. Seitz, Jr. from his own script based on the character created by George W. Trendle and Fran Striker. (He was the producer of the radio show and she was the actual creator of the character, though her only credit here is as “editor” of the script.) As the title suggests, the show tells the origin story of the Lone Ranger: he was one of a company of six Texas Rangers and his real name was John Reid (Clayton Moore). His unit was commanded by his brother, Captain Dan Reid (Tristram Coffin), and when the show opens they are after the gang led by outlaw Butch Cavendish (former Frankenstein Monster Glenn Strange). They’re visited by Collins (George Lewis), a half-breed who shows up with a wound in his arm he got from the Cavendish gang, and he offers to lead them to the Cavendish hideout — only it’s a trap: he’s been assigned to ambush the Rangers and lead them into a closed-off valley where the Cavendishes can pick them off. The trap works, only Collins gets shot in the back by one of the gang members on the ground that if he could betray the Rangers he could betray them just as easily, though he survives — and so does one Lone Ranger, John Reid, who’s desperately wounded but still alive as he makes his way to a spring of water (the location appears to be the same one that was used as the good guys’ hideout in the film Flame of Araby — indeed just about all the locations here are mind-numbingly familiar from innumerable previous “B” Westerns) and is then discovered and rescued by his old friend Tonto (Jay Silverheels), whose life he saved when they were both boys and who nicknamed him “Kemo Sabe,” which — just in case you were wondering all those years — means “Trusty Scout.” (Apparently the names of “Tonto” and “Kemo Sabe” came from one of the other writers on the original radio show, William Jewell; “Kemo Sabe” was the name of a summer camp in upstate Michigan and “Tonto” meant “wild one” in the language of the Native tribes in Michigan, though many people have assumed that “Tonto” was named after the Spanish word for “fool.”)

Once he’s nursed back to health, the Lone Ranger decides to stay in the crime-fighting business but always to wear a mask (he wants people to think John Reid is dead and, indeed, he goes so far as to dig himself a false grave next to the ones of the five Rangers in his original party who were killed by the Cavendishes) and always shoot to wound or incapacitate, not kill. Meanwhile, Butch Cavendish decides to take over the nearby town of Colby (Charles joked that afterwards they were going to go after the towns of Mozzarella and Limburger) by assassinating all the civic leaders and bringing in his own gang members to take their places. The Lone Ranger figures out the plot and tries to alert the sheriff, “Two-Gun” Taylor (Walter Sande), to it by sending Tonto (which couldn’t help but remind me of Bill Cosby’s old joke about how the Lone Ranger would always send Tonto to town and Tonto would have the crap beaten out of him — Cosby fantasized that at one point, Tonto would say, “No, Tonto no go to town,” and when the Lone Ranger would say, “But Tonto, I need you to go to town to get the information,” Tonto would say, “Information say Tonto no go to town”) to get the sheriff to raise a posse, but the sheriff — influenced by his deputy, who unbeknownst to him is one of Butch Cavendish’s plants — refuses. Eventually the Lone Ranger and Tonto repair to the silver mine the Lone Ranger owned and operated before he joined the Texas Rangers in the first place (he had to have somewhere he could get the silver metal for all those bullets! Mad magazine’s early parody had him frantically searching the ground wherever he’d been involved in a shoot-out and recovering his spent ammunition because “it’s plumb hard to come by them silver bullets!”) and they hook up with the Ranger’s old friend Jim Blaine (Ralph Littlefield), who’s being framed for the murder of Collins (ya remember Collins?).

Eventually, of course, it ends with the good guys winning and the Lone Ranger deciding to keep going as a crimefighter — and to keep wearing his mask, shooting silver bullets, avoiding killing whenever possible (on the ground that the law, not one man, should decide whether a particular person should die for his crimes) and playing a fortissimo rendition of the William Tell Overture by Rossini behind his opening and closing credits. (I’ve been to concerts where people have been told the William Tell Overture is the source of the Lone Ranger theme but not that the Lone Ranger music doesn’t appear until the final three minutes of the piece — and they usually fidget through the preceding 10 minutes waiting for it with growing impatience. I also loved the way Mad satirized the ubiquity of the theme music: their Lone Ranger carried around a portable record player so he could blast the William Tell Overture wherever he went.) Enter the Lone Ranger isn’t much as a movie but it’s certainly a great salute to a myth — the Lone Ranger had originated as a local radio program in 1933 and was already a popular character and even a legendary one by the time it hit TV via this program — and there’s a reason why Clayton Moore (as disappointing as his previous career has been — watching him as an FBI agent in Black Dragons, one of Bela Lugosi’s muddled Monogram vehicles, he looks about six inches shorter and considerably nerdier than he does as the Lone Ranger) and Jay Silverheels have become so iconic in these roles that attempts to do more recent Lone Ranger filmizations with other actors have routinely flopped. From out of the past … the Lone Ranger rides again!