When I was a little kid and we came home from school, we turned on the television to watch our two favorites shows: The Lone Ranger and Superman. Batman too (the television series starring Adam West). Over the years I have never lost my affection for the Ranger show. And recently when Cozi, an over the air broadcast station, began operating in the San Francisco Bay Area, it began showing The Lone Ranger along with a lot of older classic television shows. And amazingly that show still holds an appeal today and many can easily identify its distinctive musical theme.
The Lone Ranger originated as a popular radio show that successfully made the transition to television. It ran from 1949-1957 on ABC and was one of the most watched shows on the network. For most of the series, Clayton Moore played the titular character while Jay Silverheels played Tonto. However due to dispute either over wages (the studio claim) or creative differences (Moore’s claim), John Hart played the role from 1952-1953(52 episodes). However Hart was never accepted by fans and Moore was brought back. He stayed with the series till its end. Two theatrical movies were produced with this cast: The Lone Ranger (1956) and The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (1958).
The show followed the basic story of the radio version. A group of Texas Rangers is pursuing the Cavindish Gang when they are betrayed by their guide, ambushed, and left for dead. Tonto comes along and finds one still alive. Tonto recognizes him from his childhood and nurses him back to health. In the radio version his name is John Reid though on television it is not mentioned (except by last name by an old friend who mines the silver) although the fake grave marker does list a name. Since his brother was killed in the ambush, he decides to track down the gang and bring them to justice. However he decides to hide his face so that no one knows he is alive (and presumably to protect family and friends who know him). Tonto accompanies him on his mission calling him Kemo Sabe. He acquires a white horse named Silver and uses silver bullets as his unique calling card. After tracking down the Cavindish Gang and its leader, he continues the mission to track and capture outlaws to make the West safe for people to settle and live in.
Since he is masked all the time, the Ranger often runs into many who doubt him at first. However because his actions are always on the side of the law (even when using a disguise) he ultimately wins their trust. Unlike a vigilante who might track down and impose arbitrary punishment, the Ranger preferred capturing criminals and turning them over to the law for punishment. It would be foolish to mistake this as softness. The Ranger was a crack shot who shot to disarm first, kill only as a last resort. Sometimes the criminal might do something that led to their death. Often characters did die on the show, sometimes killed by the outlaw. Criminals came in all varieties from rustlers, gangs that robbed banks or swindlers, or sometimes clever gangs run by lawyers, ranchers, or important townspeople. The Ranger often helped unmask or uncover the true conspirators behind the schemes.
Tonto, his faithful companion, provided important support. An expert tracker, he could also go into towns and learn things as people would rarely suspect him of anything (though he did face hostility at times). He aided the Ranger in apprehending the criminals, sometimes getting captured before revealing important information to Kemo Sabe. The Ranger trusted Tonto implicitly and never questioned his judgment. Sometimes he often pointed out things that Ranger did not know. Occasionally his nephew Dan Reid would join them for a while (usually between college;this was also part of the radio series as well).
Music for both the radio and television versions came from classical sources. The famous Lone Ranger theme comes from the finale of Gioachino Rossini’s opera Guillaume Tell (William Tell). The theme would become so associated with Lone Ranger that mentioning the show invariably makes one think of that music. In many ways a tribute to Rossini. If you pay attention, you sometimes hear other classical themes as well like Ride of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto operated on a strict moral code. They fought on the side of justice to help people and the country, in particularly the West, find peace. They never accepted any gifts, gratuities, or awards for their works. Being thanked and knowing the criminals were behind bars was their reward. If there was reward money for a capture, they turned it over to someone else or donated it to a cause. And then they left to continue their mission. Aside from a moral code, The Lone Ranger had a specific code of conduct. They included:
The Lone Ranger would never be unmasked except by disguise;
That he would use logic to prevent capture or held hostage for any length of time;
That he never shot to kill but disarm;
That he always spoke proper English and never used slang;
That villains and criminals are never shown in any positive light, never shown to be glamorous or successful;
The Lone Ranger never drinks or smokes (on television they made sure what obviously would be saloons and bartenders were shown as cafes that served food).
When the series ended, both Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels would spend (aside from acting) time in numerous public appearances, guest spots on shows, and commercials. And he would always appear as The Lone Ranger (and would never drink or smoke in public either). But in 1979 Jack Wrather, who owned the Ranger character, decided to make a new film version. It began a sad spectacle of having to force Clayton Moore to stop wearing the mask because it would undercut the value of the new version. And also they did not want people confused that Moore, then 65, would be getting back in the saddle again. Wrather obtained a court order that forced Moore to take off the mask, which he did, and then wore a brand of wrap-around sunglasses that nearly gave the same effect.
For many who watched the old show, Clayton Moore was The Lone Ranger. No substitutes needed! His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame reads Clayton Moore–The Lone Ranger, which indicates how identified with the character he had become. The 1981 movie, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, was a complete bust at the box office. It is a terrible movie and the lead actor is totally forgotten now. You can look up the details and IMDB. Clayton Moore countersued Wrather and ultimately won allowing him to put the mask back on. Moore continued to do public appearances and even was associated with the baseball team Texas Rangers. Moore passed away in 1999 from a heart attack. Jay Silverheels passed away in 1979.
Attempts at reviving the Ranger franchise have not been promising. The 1981 movie was a flop, an attempted WB show got such negative reviews it never went into development. The most recent Ranger movie, The Lone Ranger (2013) with Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer as Ranger also failed at the box office. It generated mostly negative reviews from critics and movie goers. Metacritic.com gave it an overall rating of 37 out of 100 based on critic and user reviews.
So what has gone wrong? A combination of things from poor scripts to rebranding The Lone Ranger into something different from the original series. If you remake a series, and make it totally different from a previous version you have to make it both hearken back and yet be something different. You can reimagine like what was done with Battlestar Galactica and create wholly different series that was successful. Star Trek took a darker tone with Deep Space Nine. It was a very different show than other Trek shows yet managed to fit in the Trek universe. Sometimes though it just does not work out. They tried Buck Rogers (based on a successful comic and movie series) and it was marginally okay until they totally rebranded in the second season (and then was quickly cancelled). Zorro returned as a successful series in 1990 (following the basic story from books and the previous Disney series) and did well. In that case, the writers kept the essential story and updated it with different actors.
Perhaps it is The Lone Ranger was something that really needs little updating in terms of its basic premise. Sure you can make movies that flesh out more of the character or better portray his take down of the Cavindish gang, fooling around with the basic premise and mashing up who both Ranger and Tonto were tends to turn people off. They want to see the Ranger do what he does best: track down criminals to restore law and order to the old West. He was not someone conflicted about who he was or having to use a gun. He was about supporting the law, not acting as a vigilante. The show was not afraid to show that bad men do bad things (like killing people) and it did not glamorize them either. There was a clear distinction between good and bad people. And yet sometimes a bad person in the past could also become a good one in the present, something the Ranger believed in (and showed on numerous occasions). The Ranger was an optimist who believed what the country stood for and that good people could stand up against bad people and win. It might not be easy, and sometimes came at a price, but in the end the bad guy was brought to heel.
Hi-yo Silver! Away!