“Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…”
The Lone Ranger has had a long and mainly noble history on both the big and small screen. The character actually originated on radio in the early 1930s, but was first filmed as a 15-chapter serial The Lone Ranger in 1938 by Republic. As this proved to be very popular, and rightly so as it was an above average serial in both script and action, Republic soon followed up with another 15-chapter effort The Lone Ranger Rides Again in 1939. In 1940, Republic decided to capitalize further on the first serial’s success by preparing a condensed feature-length version of it, called Hi-Yo-Silver!.
In 1949, the character was first brought to television with Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto. The program continued as a first run series until 1957 totaling 169 episodes, although John Hart replaced Clayton Moore for a short period in the early 1950s due to a contract dispute. In 1952, the first three episodes of the 1949 television series (which told the story of the Lone Ranger’s origins) were edited into a feature-length film entitled The Legend of the Lone Ranger. The television series also spawned two theatrical features with Moore and Silverheels, the first in 1956, The Lone Ranger (WB), and the second in 1958, The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (UA). Then in 1981, an effort was made to return the character to the big screen with the rather ill-fated Legend of the Lone Ranger — a bust because the actor playing the Lone Ranger apparently couldn’t act.
Some of the Lone Ranger material is available on VHS and several of the television episodes were released on laserdisc. Now VCI Home Video has released an interesting Lone Ranger combination on DVD. Included on The Lone Ranger Classic Western Double-Feature are the 1940 serial condensation Hi-Yo-Silver! and the 1952 television episode combination The Legend of the Lone Ranger.
Hi-Yo-Silver! — During a period of extreme lawlessness following the end of the Civil War, five Texans including one who is the Lone Ranger (and whose identity is unknown to us) team up along with Tonto to fight a ruthless outlaw gang headed by a Mr. Jeffries. Jeffries has managed, illegally, to get control of the collection of taxes across Texas and is planning to bilk the government out of its money. During their efforts to deal with Jeffries, the five Texans are gradually killed off and when Jeffries is finally brought to account, only one, who proves to be the Lone Ranger, is left.
The Legend of the Lone Ranger — Five Texas Rangers are led into an ambush where they are all shot down by members of the Butch Cavendish gang. One manages to survive and is found by an Indian named Tonto. Nursed back to health by Tonto, the remaining ranger decides to call himself the Lone Ranger and dedicate himself to dealing with lawlessness wherever he’s needed throughout the west. The Lone Ranger and Tonto’s first three acts are to secure a horse for the Lone Ranger (the white horse Silver), to establish a supply of silver bullets from a mine that the Lone Ranger had previously found, and to bring Butch Cavendish and his gang to justice.
I suspect most people know who the Lone Ranger character is, even though he’s been off first-run television for nearly half a century. Certainly the television programs continued to be broadcast in syndication virtually continuously since the late 1950s. At present they are shown nationally in the U.S. on the Encore Westerns channel. Part of what kept the character alive was its most recognizable player, Clayton Moore, who continued to portray the Lone Ranger in public appearances for many years and even had to survive a legal challenge to his right to do so. Moore unfortunately died in 1999, severing one of the last living connections to the character’s heyday. Jay Silverheels who portrayed Tonto on all the television episodes was a Mohawk who was raised on the Six Nations Indian Reservation in Ontario, Canada. In addition to his work as Tonto, he had a fairly successful acting career spanning the years from 1947 until he suffered a stroke in 1974, dying in 1980.
It’s very interesting to see together the 1940 and 1952 features that VCI has placed on their new DVD, for the basis of both films is their depiction of the origins of the Lone Ranger character. The 1952 version is the one that most people are familiar with — the killing of the rangers by the Cavendish gang, Tonto’s discovery of and care for one survivor, and the subsequent naming of that survivor as the Lone Ranger. There’s distinct pleasure in seeing our old favourites, Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, go through their paces recreating the events, even if the dialogue is a little stilted and the acting occasionally wooden. It’s also interesting to see Glenn Strange as Butch Cavendish. Strange had had a small part in the second Lone Ranger serial and would become a familiar television figure playing Sam the Bartender on “Gunsmoke.”
The 1940 condensation of the 1938 serial, which is achieved by editing the serial material and using new connecting footage of an old cowboy (played by Raymond Hatton) recalling the events of the story for a young boy (played by Dickie Jones), has value and interest for two reasons. It too gives an interpretation of the Lone Ranger’s origins, but one that embellishes the more traditional story by making the Lone Ranger a mystery figure who may be one of five Texans fighting tyranny in their state. Apparently in negotiating the contract with Republic to make the serial, no requirement was ever placed on Republic to follow the radio origins so viewers of the serial found that their favourite radio character wasn’t portrayed quite as they were expecting. The five Texans were all played by well-known western or serial players of the time — Lane Chandler, Hal Taliaferro (AKA Wally Wales), George Letz (AKA George Montgomery), Herman Brix (AKA Bruce Bennett), and Lee Powell. Chief Thunder-cloud played Tonto. Republic also did a nice job in editing the serial’s 15 chapters down to a quite coherent story of 68 minutes. More importantly, however, is the fact that the feature-length version is the only way that any of the serial survives in decent condition. The serial, along with the 1939 follow-up, was actually believed to have been completely lost for a time. Fortunately, versions were found, but they are very washed-out dupes and although the English dialogue remains, all titling has been replaced with Spanish and Spanish sub-titles have been added. The existing VHS versions of both serials, based on these Spanish versions, are quite poor.
VCI’s DVD is a two-sided disc with each feature on a separate side and possessed of its own menu. The 1952 Legend of the Lone Ranger is the better looking of the two features. Although a little soft at times, the image is in quite good condition with little evidence of speckling or scratching. Some edge enhancement is noticeable from time to time, but all in all, this is a reasonable-looking presentation. The 1940 Hi-Yo-Silver! shows more wear than the 1952 film. Scratches and speckles are fairly constant, although the image remains reasonably sharp throughout. There is little discernible difference between the original serial footage and the slightly newer connecting scenes. Sound on both features is acceptable — fairly clear with little hiss that is really distracting. Each feature is accompanied by several pages of notes on the main players and has twelve chapter selections. There are also trailers for two other VCI DVDs And Then There Were None (1945, Fox) and The Southerner (1945, UA), both repeated on each side of the disc.
Given the age of the source material and its limited audience that presumably will preclude any restoration of the existing source material, I don’t have too much to complain about. But just so I have something to write about here…
I really wish VCI wouldn’t subject us to a one-minute forced introduction to their logo. There’s no way you can avoid it and in preparing this review, I saw it so often that I got to the point where I could count the number of seats in their digital theatre. Now that Disney is promising to allow us to avoid their forced trailers in future, VCI should ensure it does likewise with its intro. Five or ten seconds is okay, but a minute?
VCI has done a real service to lovers of the old westerns with its Lone Ranger Classic Western Double-Feature. If you have any B-western or serial blood in your body, you won’t be disappointed with this release. In addition to the enjoyment factor, the value of having the 1938 serial in a nice feature-length form given the bad shape of the existing full serial elements is a worthwhile consideration as is the merit of having two different takes on the Lone Ranger origins. The film transfers are not pristine, but they are quite acceptable and you’re unlikely to see them looking any better considering the economics of this sort of material. Supplementary material is a little meager, but you do get some interesting notes on the major players as well as a couple of trailers (albeit for other non-western films).