06 July 2013

Clayton Moore’s The Lone Ranger (1956)

The Lone Ranger (1956)
Directed by Stuart Heisler. Starring Clayton Moore, Jay Silverheels, Lyle Bettger, Robert J. Wilke, Bonita Granville, Perry Lopez, Charles Meredith, Michael Ansara, Frank DeKova, Lane Chandler.

The horrible 2013 The Lone Ranger has come—and will soon be gone. Let us begin the healing process.

The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Western refers to the 1956 big screen extension of the Lone Ranger television show as “a masterpiece of children’s cinema.” Which indeed it is, but “children’s cinema” was a different creature in the 1950s. It wasn’t The Chipmunks or The Smurfs is what I’m getting at. The Lone Ranger ’56 is a straightforward adventure film devoid of kiddie pandering. It didn’t need to make obeisance to appeal to young viewers because the Ranger was always a hero marketed toward pre-teen boys, starting in 1933 with the radio program. What marks the film as for children is its simple moral structure and hero who goes above and beyond to be the best man he can.

Arriving after four seasons of the enormously popular show, which was ABC’s first hit program, The Lone Ranger Cinematic Experience must have been a raucous treat for the children who until then could only see their favorite masked hero on miniature blurry black and white TV sets. Here were the Lone Ranger and Tonto flying across a huge movie screen in glorious WarnerColor with the sound of the “The William Tell Overture” thundering from a giant speaker. It’s a thrill we can’t grasp today, but the film still holds up as a solid piece of Old West amusement.

The appeal of the Ranger on the big screen is the only part of the movie that marks it as an “event.” There’s no attempt to deepen the character’s mythology or show his origin story aside from the hero offering a short verbal re-cap of how he survived an ambush as a Texas Ranger and put on the mask made from his dead brother’s vest to fight injustice. The screen story by Have Gun—Will Travel co-creator Herb Meadow isn’t particularly more epic than most of the television episodes, and it resembles the plotlines of many adventure Westerns of the era. Greedy rancher Reese Kilgore (Lyle Bettger) wants the Indians off the nearby land so he can grab the silver there. He tries to ignite a war with the tribe of Chief Red Hawk (Frank DeKova, future F Troop regular) using the dirty tricks of his unscrupulous foreman Cassidy (Robert J. Wilke, one of the killers waiting at the station in High Noon). The governor of the unnamed territory (Charles Meredith) summons the Masked Man and Tonto to look into the brewing violence and try to avert a full-out conflict that could delay statehood. The Ranger uses a combination of his detective skills and his sharp-shooting and fancy fistwork to save the day.

It’s simple. It’s nothing spectacular. It’s pretty hokey in spots. But The Lone Ranger ’56 shows the overall effectiveness of a basic story well told, crisply photographed, sincerely performed, and stuffed with sequences of stuntmen doing crazy things. The movie provides an enormous amount of fun and clear-eyed innocence that nobody will even attempt today. Plus, dynamite! Dynamite makes everything better.

Clayton Moore wasn’t just the Lone Ranger for a generation. He appears to have a permanent lock on the character. Nobody remembers Klinton Spilsbury from the flop The Legend of the Lone Ranger. People will remember actor Armie Hammer, but not as the Lone Ranger. Moore projects a perfect woodeness for the Ranger: a performance with no irony from an actor who truly wants to uphold the character as the paragon of good.

Because the Ranger is a static character who can’t change, the drama of the movie falls to the supporting cast, which is bursting with recognizable character actors doing what they do best. The central figure is semi-villain Reese Kilgore. Initially, we see Kilgore as a standard avaricious rancher. Indians on good land? Move ‘em out, and damn the treaties! Kilgore also has family issues. His wife Welcome Kilgore (Bonita Granville, married to producer Jack Wrather) is unhappy with the way her husband has tried to fashion their only child, Lila, into the son he never had. The subplot with Lila turns into a way to soften Kilgore during the finale, when the blame for all the underhanded and frequently murderous tactics used to frame Red Hawk’s tribe get put on the sneering Cassidy. Robert J. Wilke uses all his considerable skill at playing brutes to make Cassidy the real villain. It doesn’t quite resolve Kilgore’s culpability—his eleventh hour declaration that he didn’t want anybody hurt simply rings false—but for the climax the Lone Ranger needs a despicable figure to take out in a chase and fight. Cassidy fills the bill nicely.

(The Ranger vs. Cassidy finale is where the stunts really made my jaw drop. The performers hurl themselves hundreds of feet down steep dirt hills, rolling around slugging each other with no regard for safety—at least, none that I could see. You rarely feel this physical concern over characters in action scenes today.)

There’s an Indian scapegoat character as well: Angry Horse, played by Michael Ansara, an actor famous as the Klingon leader from the Star Trek episode “The Day of the Dove” and the voice of Mr. Freeze in Batman: The Animated Series. The character shoulders the aggressive role the same way Cassidy takes on all the White Man’s guilt, and gives the Lone Ranger a second adversary he can slug (another spectacularly staged fight) without looking like he is anti-Native American. The shift of blame to Cassidy and Angry Horse is in line with the simple moral code of the Lone Ranger and the protocols of the TV and radio series: the villains are never large groups, but individuals, and the Ranger fights to support the law and order of the greater community. The lone rogues are guilty, so neither the U.S. government nor the Indians look bad. This was typical of how Hollywood Westerns at the time painted frontier history: the “problems” between white settlers and Native Americans are shown as the fault of a few bad apples. Although a myth, it was progress from the earlier one-sided racist views of Native Americans. (Unfortunately, we still have a lot more progress to go.)

On the topic of the depiction of Native Americans: Jay Silverheels… I love this guy. Although the Canadian Mohawk actor was stuck with Tonto’s pidgin-speak English, he makes the character an intelligent presence and the Ranger’s equal. Silverheels objected to the dialogue style throughout his tenure as Tonto, but it is marvelous watching him work through it to make the character dignified. At no point in the movie does Tonto come across as merely a sidekick; he and the Ranger are partners and close friends, and the ease of how Silverheels and Moore work together means the screenplay never needs to lay their camaraderie on thick with silly dialogue. The hundred-plus television episodes they did together makes this on-screen duo effortless.

The Lone Ranger was produced on a tight budget, but the outdoor location photography that bursts beyond the soundstage confines that hobbled the TV show during its later seasons makes the movie feel far more expensive. Lasting eighty-one minutes, about twenty minutes longer than most “B” features, also gives it a feeling of a big picture. It was a substantial success, leading to a second movie with Moore and Silverheels in 1958, The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold. (I’ll have to check that out now.) The television program had one more season broadcast between the two films, which was shot in color even though few people owned sets that could take advantage of it. This marked the end of the Clayton Moore incarnation of the Ranger, and also the end of the character’s mainstream popularity. Considering the fiasco of the new Lone Ranger, it doesn’t look like this will change.

The end of the TV show/movie series wasn’t the end of Clayton Moore. The actor lived into his eighties, and continued to identify himself with the Lone Ranger through guest spots, commercials, and public appearances until his death in 1999. Producer Jack Wrather lived long enough to become an actual Lone Ranger villain, when he stupidly hit Moore with a lawsuit in 1979 to stop him from making appearances as the Masked Man. Wrather was trying to clear the way for a new Lone Ranger movie, but suing a beloved old actor trying to make his way in the world backfired horribly and contributed to The Legend of the Lone Ranger flopping at the box-office in 1981. (Also contributing: it’s a terrible movie.) Fourteen years after his death, Clayton Moore is in no danger of getting replaced as the Ranger people remember.

This film is part of my “Ultimate Western Challenge” list of essential movie Westerns. Give The Lone Ranger a watch and in only eighty-one minutes you can bump up your score by a point.