Republic, 15 Chapters, 1938. Starring ? as the Lone Ranger, Chief Thundercloud, Silver Chief, Lynn Roberts, Stanley Andrews, Hal Taliaferro, Herman Brix, Lane Chandler, Lee Powell, George Letz, George Cleveland, John Merton, William Farnum.
At the close of the Civil War, a deserter named Captain Smith (Stanley Andrews) leads a band of outlaws and renegade soldiers in mercenary raids–until he captures, murders, and assumes the identity of a newly-appointed Federal finance commissioner named Colonel Marcus Jeffries. Posing as Jeffries, with his henchmen serving as his army, the ex-outlaw assumes despotic control of Texas, mercilessly taxing the war-ravaged citizens and forcing Federal administrator Blanchard (George Cleveland) to conceal his abuses of power by threatening Blanchard’s daughter Joan (Lynn Roberts). To protect his power, “Jeffries” has a contingent of Texas Rangers–returning from wartime service–wiped out before they can move against him; one man, however, survives the massacre of the Rangers and is nursed back to health by an Indian named Tonto (Chief Thundercloud). Donning a black mask, this Lone Ranger leads the settlers in a desperate fight against Jeffries’ tyranny, with the aid of Tonto and of four valiant Texans who are aware of his true identity. The Ranger sometimes rides unmasked among this quartet, leaving the villains (and the audience) to wonder which of five heroes–Bert Rogers (Herman Brix), Dick Forrest (Lane Chandler), Bob Stuart (Hal Taliaferro), Allan King (Lee Powell), or Jim Clark (George Letz)–is also the Lone Ranger.
The Lone Ranger was Republic Pictures’ most expensive serial production at the time of its release; the popularity of the character’s radio incarnation warranted special treatment from the studio. The serial’s cast and production crew did such a splendid job with their unusually large resources that the serial proved a phenomenal hit for the studio–and remained one of their most beloved serials ever afterward, despite being available only in poor-quality Spanish-subtitled prints for over fifty years after its release; even today, DVD editions of Ranger–while definite upgrades over earlier prints–have many aural and visual rough spots. That the serial’s popularity has endured among buffs, despite the often wretched conditions it has been viewed under, speaks volumes for its high quality.
The plot of Lone Ranger is, in outline, nothing special, revolving as it does around the Lone Ranger’s Robin-Hood-like thwarting of Jeffries (by recovering extorted tax money, blocking the villain’s plans to expand his political power, and protecting holdout settlers from Jeffries’ army) and Jeffries’ repeated attempts to destroy the Ranger (by recruiting different badmen to track him down, setting the Indians against him, or laying various traps for him). However, writers Barry Shipman, Ronald Davidson, Franklin Adreon, George Yates, and Lois Eby (and an uncredited Oliver Drake) embellish this ordinary storyline so skillfully that the potentially repetitive narrative becomes continually urgent and suspenseful.
The serial’s high budget, which permitted an unusually large supporting cast, definitely assists the writers in the urgency department; while many serials’ hero-villain duels seem to take place in a sort of vacuum where noncombatants are scarce, in Lone Ranger we’re given several glimpses of local settlers victimized by Jeffries–Jim Clark’s parents, Bob Stuart’s uncle and nephew, mission priest Father McKim, the Rangers in the first chapter, and others. The appearances by these minor characters illustrate what the heroes are fighting for, demonstrate the evil effects of the villain’s actions–and give the struggle between the two sides a much more high-stakes feel than the standard serial conflict.
The serial’s urgency is additionally heightened by the deaths of the various Ranger “suspects,” which, spread throughout the serial, give the chapterplay some truly touching and dramatic moments, and lend additional tension to the action scenes: in this chapterplay, co-hero status is no guarantee of survival till the closing credits. The serial’s supporting heavies also bite the dust with regularity, the screen Ranger and his allies ignoring the radio Ranger’s tiresome no-killing policy. This is as it should be; a life-and-death struggle for control of Texas would seem utterly phony were it not accompanied by casualties on both sides.
This depiction of a lethal Ranger irritated the character’s owner George Trendle–but even he was impressed by the dramatic origin assigned to the character by Republic’s writers; the mythic “sole survivor of an ambush” idea introduced in the serial was so powerful that it was carried over to the radio show and became firmly wedded to the Ranger character. Wonderful though the ambush origin is, one must admit that the continuing presence of the Ranger in the chapterplay is more dramatic than logical; it makes no sense for him to continue wearing his mask once his alter-ego becomes an outlaw as well, or for him to conceal his identity from characters like the Blanchards. However, repeated sequences like the shadowy shots of the Ranger taking down his special gun belt, or the masked man’s rides to the rescue atop his white horse (accompanied by the legendary cry “Hi-Yo, Silver!”) are so rousing that it’s hard to carp about the illogicality of the hero’s masquerade.
Most of the aforementioned gallops on Silver, along with many other action sequences, are filmed against the canyons and cliffs of Lone Pine, with cinematographer William Nobles and directors William Witney and John English showing off that region’s rugged majesty to excellent effect. The smoke-filled, stalactite-laden volcanic cavern that serves as the hideout of the Lone Ranger’s band also provides some memorable visuals, while the hills of Iverson’s Ranch, the ranch house at Kernville, Republic’s Spanish fort, and their decidedly Southwestern-looking town street are likewise used to good advantage.
The serial’s action scenes are excellent and varied, with fistfights, horseback chases, and gunfights being neatly balanced by directors Witney and English. Yakima Canutt doubles the Lone Ranger throughout the serial and brings his knack for throwing and taking convincing punches to the fight scenes, giving them a more focused look than the wild arm-swinging brawls led by George DeNormand or Eddie Parker in other Republics of the period. The Ranger’s cabin fight with outlaw Black Taggart and a couple of Jeffries’ troopers in Chapter Four is a highlight, as are the Chapter Seven fight atop a team of running horses (which also incorporates Canutt’s famous fall-beneath-the-team stunt), the energetic Chapter Twelve stable brawl, and the fight in the jail in Chapter Fourteen, in which one of Canutt’s opponents is ace stuntman Duke Green; Canutt’s other collaborators in the serial include Kenny Cooper, Bill and Joe Yrigoyen, and Loren Riebe.
Canutt also contributes some very impressive leaps (from roofs, walls, and rocks) throughout the serial, and brings his rodeo-honed skills to many horseback sequences. The Chapter Three horseback chase, with the Ranger riding furiously to stop the heroine from running her own horse into a pitfall, is especially memorable, being shot at angles that emphasize the distance between the two riders. The Ranger’s cross-country gallop (with pursuing Indians hot on his trail) to save Tonto from death at the hands of angry Comanches is another standout, as is the climactic chase sequence that has the two surviving heroes making an apparently doomed ride for help and Silver intervening to save the day at the last minute.
Additional action highlights include the Chapter Five siege of the mill, the Chapter Eight shootout in town (with two of the heroes taking cover in a well), the dramatic Chapter Eleven cantina showdown between Hal Taliaferro and a group of henchmen, the rooftop escape and accompanying gun battle in the following chapter, and Lane Chandler’s standoff with the troopers in the cave in Chapter Fourteen. Tonto’s rescue of the five heroes from a firing squad in Chapter One–and their subsequent escape via stagecoach–is also terrific, and–like many of the serial’s other action scenes–is augmented by composer Alberto Colombo’s stirring musical score, which makes very effective use of the Lone Ranger’s famed radio theme music, the finale to Rossini’s William Tell Overture.
The serial’s chapter endings are excellent, with the Chapter Two avalanche cliffhanger, the Chapter Three pitfall peril, the Chapter Five fire-pit sequence, the Chapter Seven powder-wagon explosion, the Chapter Eight well collapse, the burning barn sequence in Chapter Ten, and the falling-stalactites scene in Chapter Fourteen topping the list. There are also some less spectacular but still interesting “situational” cliffhangers–in fact, far more than usual in a Republic outing. The Ranger’s imminent unmasking in Chapter Four is good, but the well-shot and cleverly-resolved “missing spur” sequence at the end of Chapter Nine is definitely the best of the situational chapter endings.
The serial’s large and excellent cast is full of interesting (and varied) performances. Billy Bletcher, his deep, booming tones ideally suited to resounding cries of “Hi-Yo, SILVER, Awayyy,” provides the voice of the Lone Ranger; he’s memorably imposing in confrontations with villains, but a little too theatrically stentorian in interchanges with his comrades. However, most of his dialogue is properly limited to barked orders or shouted commands, leaving Tonto and the quintet of Ranger “suspects” to handle other lines in more natural and low-key fashion.
Of the suspects, the cheerfully easygoing Hal Taliaferro and the affable but authoritative Lane Chandler (both former Western leads) receive the most screen time, excelling in their final heroic turns before shifting permanently into character parts. Up-and-coming serial heroes Herman Brix and Lee Powell have fewer lines, but are still given several good scenes–in which the former’s calmly thoughtful manner and the latter’s energetic earnestness are both much in evidence. The inexperienced George Letz plays the fifth suspect and has about as much to do as a fifth wheel, although he handles his few lines competently; the gruff and slightly swaggering screen persona that he developed later (as A-western star George Montgomery) is not displayed here–except in the wide grin he flashes during the stagecoach escape and in his growling defiance of henchman Raphael Bennett.
Chief Thundercloud is perfect as Tonto, conveying admiring respect for the Ranger, considerable shrewdness, and rock-solid toughness through facial expressions and body language as much as through his laconic dialogue. The Ranger’s other legendary sidekick, Silver, is played by an impressive horse named Silver Chief, who is spotlighted far more often than other animal co-stars in Republic’s serials, intimidatingly tackling badmen on his own and galloping furiously to the rescue of the unhorsed hero.
Lynn Roberts makes a very appealing heroine, despite having little to do beyond stand up to Jeffries’ threats and send messages to the heroes; her fresh-faced good looks and her air of put-upon dignity and heartfelt but controlled concern make for a very winning combination. Venerable character actor George Cleveland is excellent as her father–soberly genteel when conducting state affairs, continually worried over threats to his daughter, but fiercely energetic and defiant in his angry confrontations with Jeffries.
Stanley Andrews, usually a dignified official of some sort, is cast against type as Jeffries but does a very good job with the role, giving the villain formidable slyness, impatient arrogance, and bullying menace, but also lending a slightly comic awkwardness to the part–which serves as a subtle reminder of the impostor’s true past as an uncultivated outlaw. John Merton is perfectly cast as Andrews’ henchman Captain Kester, his ramrod bearing and growling voice fitting well with his militaristic assaults on the heroes and the Texas citizenry.
Tom London is shifty as Merton’s second-in-command, while the sly Ted Adams and the phlegmatic Charles King are also prominent as corrupt troopers; Jerry Frank, Curley Dresden, and Jack Ingram have much smaller roles as other members of the villains’ army. Devilish-looking Raphael Bennett is very sinister in his turn as the crafty killer Black Taggart (conditionally pardoned by Jeffries and assigned to bring in the Ranger), and Maston Williams is terrific as the villainous Snead–a grubby, folksy, and exceedingly wily local opportunist who alerts Captain Smith of the genuine Jeffries’ identity, engineers the ambush of the Rangers, and performs other memorable acts of villainy before being killed off at the end of the first chapter.
William Farnum, as upright mission priest Father McKim, is frequently hammy but always energetically sincere, reacting to the heavies’ outrages with eloquently-expressed disgust and pop-eyed disapproval. Sammy McKim, on the other hand, is utterly unaffected in his turn as a spunky orphaned youngster; his angry, half-ashamedly tearful reaction to the murder of his grandfather is a convincing and moving piece of acting.
Jack Perrin, Bud Osborne, Jack Kirk, Frank Ellis, Slim Whitaker, and Jack Rockwell appear as outlaws, while Allan Cavan and Reed Howes are honest cavalry officers distrustful of Jeffries’ “army.” Murdock McQuarrie and Jane Keckley play the parents of George Montgomery’s character, while William James is Hal Taliaferro’s tough blacksmith uncle and Tex Cooper, Griff Barnett, and Fred Burns are other beleaguered settlers. Edmund Cobb has a brief but good role as the captain of the ambushed Rangers in the first chapter, and Forbes Murray appears as the genuine Jeffries. Edna Lawrence is the heroine’s sympathizing maid, Bob Kortman pops up (via stock footage from a Republic B-western) as a nasty soldier, George Armenta is a Comanche chieftain, and the ubiquitous Iron Eyes Cody plays a Comanche warrior. Frank McGlynn Sr. appears as Abraham Lincoln, giving Blanchard his orders in a scene that was cut from the serial but used in the chapterplay’s feature version; it has been re-inserted into most current prints of the serial.
The Lone Ranger was the first big serial success turned out by the Witney-English directorial team, and while the duo would continue to refine and improve the acting, stuntwork, and camerawork in their ensuing Republic serials, few of those later efforts ever quite duplicated The Lone Ranger’s powerful combination of stunning locations, vivid performances, robust action, and involving scripting. It remains one of Republic’s best, and despite the frequently shaky quality of extant prints, is simply too good for any serial fan to skip.