The San Ramon Valley of New Mexico has been dominated for years by powerful rancher Craig Dolan (J. Farrell MacDonald), who grazes his herds on the free range–but the government has now declared the Valley open to homesteading, bringing families of farmers west to settle on the ranchland. These farmers are soon terrorized by an outlaw band known as the Black Raiders, who seem intent on driving the new settlers from their homesteads; Dolan, who makes no secret of his hostility to the “nesters” that have invaded his realm, is strongly suspected of being the man behind the Raiders, but denies the charge. The Raiders are initially led by a bogus Lone Ranger–which quickly brings the real Lone Ranger (Bob Livingston) to the Valley to investigate; he soon takes care of his impersonator with the help of nester Juan Vasquez (Duncan Renaldo)–whose brother was murdered by the impostor–and stays around to protect the homesteaders, battle the Raiders, and discover the man behind the Raiders’ reign of terror, aided by Vasquez and the trusty Tonto (Chief Thundercloud).
Although not without its good points, The Lone Ranger Rides Again is the weakest of Republic’s Golden Age serials, due to some poor casting and a mishandled screenplay better-suited to a B-western than to a serial. Writers Barry Shipman, Sol Shor, Franklin Adreon, and Ronald Davidson give the serial several interesting character-driven subplots (Juan Vasquez’s misguided vendetta against the Lone Ranger, the Dolan family’s conflicted attitude towards the nesters) that could have been developed to excellent effect in the more deliberately-paced B-western format; unfortunately, these subplots quickly get lost in the continual action demanded by Republic’s serial-making formula, and leave some pointless or irksome traces behind them. The quick first-chapter resolution of Vasquez’s feud with the Ranger leaves the former character with nothing to do but serve as an unneeded additional sidekick for the Ranger, while the sympathetic depiction of Dolan’s niece Sue and the semi-sympathetic depiction of Dolan himself make us feel less favorably towards the nesters that are invading the Dolans’ range—even though the nesters are the ones we’re supposed to be rooting for.
Above: J. Farrell MacDonald’s Dolan (far right) tells Bob Livingston’s Lone Ranger that “cattle country is cattle country;” Ralph Dunn and Jinx Falkenburg (as Dolan’s niece and nephew) are in the background.
The writers also stumble by deciding to keep the audience guessing as to whether the Black Raiders’ supreme leader is Dolan or Dolan’s rotten nephew Bart (who’s revealed as the immediate boss of the Raiders early on). This is another idea that would also have worked admirably in an hour-long western feature, but is poorly suited to a fifteen-chapter serial; in order to maintain uncertainty as to the identity of the Raider leader, the writers are forced severely limit Bart’s villainous activities, depriving the chapterplay of a strong central heavy for far too much of its running time. In fairness to the writers, however, this approach might have worked somewhat better had a different actor been cast as Bart (see below). This lack of a formidable villain is accompanied by a lack of interesting victims-of-villainy; the nesters are an interchangeable and sketchily-drawn lot, save for their leader Jed Scott–who is, unfortunately, played by a decidedly uncharismatic actor, making it hard for the audience to get very involved in the group’s plight.
There is one popular complaint against Rides Again’s script that I can’t agree with: the criticism that the Ranger’s whole “Bill Andrews” persona is completely inappropriate for the character, and makes him seem too much like Zorro. It appears to me that the writers make it clear that the Andrews name is a temporary pseudonym adopted by the Ranger to allow him to operate undercover in the San Ramon Valley; the occasionally ungrammatical sound of Andrews’ dialogue (in contrast to the Ranger’s ultra-correct English) also seems to be intended to indicate that the whole Andrews identity is a pose of the Ranger’s–similar to the prospector or trapper disguises he’d assume from time to time on the radio (and, later, on television). I do agree, however, that having the Ranger reveal his identity to Vasquez early in the proceedings seems decidedly unnecessary.
The serial’s narrative, as weak as it is in many respects, does move at a fast pace and keep repetition to a minimum–the screenwriters providing a varied and deftly drawn-out succession of plot devices to keep the storyline from turning into a tedious series of Black Raider attacks on homesteads. The framing of nester leader Jed Scott on a murder charge, the faked kidnapping Bart engineers to clear himself of suspicion, a struggle over government land forms, and a sheriff’s election are all used to fill two or three chapters apiece, instead of being wrapped up in a single episode in the fashion common to later Republic outings. The serial’s climax is also protracted to good effect; the Black Raiders’ leader is dramatically unmasked in Chapter Thirteen, and then launches an all-out war against the Ranger and the nesters that makes Chapters Fourteen and Fifteen highly exciting.
Although the framework they’re set in is flawed, the action scenes of Lone Ranger Rides Again are on the same high level as those of other Golden Age Republic serials. Directors William Witney and John English provide a terrific array of fistfights, chases, and shootouts–with the assistance of a stunt team that includes Yakima Canutt, George DeNormand (both of whom double for the Lone Ranger in different scenes), Ted Mapes, Dave Sharpe, Bill and Joe Yrigoyen, Bud Wolfe, and Eddie Parker. The cave fights in Chapters Two and Four are particularly strong, as are the barn fight in Chapter Six and the fight inside the shack in Chapter Eleven. These brawls–and several others–are well-balanced combinations of leaps, flips, convincing punches, prop-swinging, and furniture-smashing, and are far less mechanical-looking than the fisticuffs-heavy fights that would come to dominate Republic’s serials during the 1940s.
Other action highlights include the attack on the nester wagon and the big shootout in town in Chapter One, the gun battle at the Daniels homestead in Chapter Three, the Ranger’s horseback pursuit of the nesters’ runaway seed wagon in Chapter Five, the excellent shootout in the rocks in Chapter Nine, the cross-country chase in Chapter Eleven, the shootout later in the same episode, the Chapter Thirteen mine shootout, the Lone Ranger’s desperate ride for help in Chapter Fourteen, and the mass attack on the fort in the final episode. As in most of Witney and English’s Western chapterplays, the shootouts here are less unconvincingly bloodless than the gunfights featured in many other 1930s cowboy serials; the Ranger, Tonto, and Vasquez efficiently plug Black Raiders on multiple occasions, despite the radio Lone Ranger’s rigid no-killing code.
Rides Again’s chase and outdoor gun battles benefit greatly from an impressive assortment of filming locations, which lend the serial a visual variety lacking in some of Republic’s Western outings–many of which were shot almost entirely at Iverson’s Ranch. Iverson’s serves as the backdrop for several scenes, of course–but these scenes are accompanied by others shot at Kernville, stark-looking Red Rock Canyon, imposing Vasquez Rocks, and the Bronson Canyon area. Witney, English, and their editors (Edward Todd and Helene Turner) skillfully avoid letting this collection of impressive locations jostle each other; Rides Again features none of the jarring switches between obviously different locales that plagued some of Universal’s Western chapterplays.
The cliffhangers in Rides Again range from well-executed but drab (several apparent shootings of the hero and a pair of wagon crashes) to spectacular (the Chapter One jail fire and the Chapter Twelve barn blaze) to memorably inventive (the booby-trapped safe in Chapter Six, the disastrous cliff-climb in Chapter Eleven, and the Ranger’s strikingly-shot flight from a pursuing mine car in Chapter Thirteen). Many of these sequences are also resolved in entertainingly creative fashion (particularly the shooting of the Lone Ranger at the end of Chapter Two, which would have simply been shrugged off in a Universal serial but which is cleverly explained away here).
The serial’s chapter endings, along with its in-chapter action scenes, are enhanced by William Lava’s accompanying music–which, with the exception of a few new flourishes (like the use of Suppe’s Light Cavalry Overture in some sequences), is little more than a duplicate of Alberto Colombo’s score for the first Lone Ranger serial. Though unoriginal, the music is just as effective here as it was in the earlier outing, with the magnificent William Tell Overture serving as an irresistibly rousing central theme.
As indicated above, the cast of Rides Again is uneven in places–but it does feature many first-rate players. Bob Livingston spends about half his screen time with his face masked and his voice dubbed, but makes a strong lead in his unmasked scenes–cheerful, dashing, shrewd, and coolly self-assured. Billy Bletcher–who, as in the first Lone Ranger serial, provides the masked hero’s voice–is less boomingly theatrical than in his earlier stint as the Ranger; he still bellows out his lines in resounding fashion when the situation calls for it (as when he’s uttering the classic “Hi-Yo, Silver” cry), but manages to sound less stentorian–though still very commanding–in quieter dialogue scenes.
Chief Thundercloud–like Bletcher, a returnee from the first Lone Ranger outing–is again very good as Tonto, making the character seem cagy, stern but good-natured, and indomitably tough; his function as the Ranger’s sounding-board in dialogue scenes is frequently usurped by the new Juan Vasquez character, but he participates in more action than the newcomer does. As Vasquez, Duncan Renaldo is likably lively and enthusiastic, and often makes us willing to overlook the fact that he has no business being in the serial; his presence here seems to have been largely motivated by Republic’s plan to turn him and Bob Livingston into a B-western hero duo (the two actors do show excellent chemistry, particularly in their faked fight in Chapter Seven). Silver (played by “Silver Chief,” yet another returnee from the first serial) is given less to do than in his previous screen appearance, but still gets to perform more heroics than the typical serial horse (his rescue of the Ranger and Tonto at the beginning of Chapter Five is especially memorable).
The gorgeous Jinx Falkenburg–a model and athlete who would later become a prominent radio interviewer–is sadly underused as Sue Dolan, but does receive a few good opportunities to display both spiritedness (when the nesters refuse her help) and appealing warmth (when she’s worrying over the conflict between her uncle and the nesters or over her brother Bart’s suspicious behavior). Husky Ralph Dunn, who typically played mean but dull-witted thugs, tries hard to seem cunning and sinister as Bart, but just can’t pull it off, and seems more like an boorish bully than the Machiavellian schemer he’s supposed to be. A suave and crafty-looking player like Trevor Bardette or Carleton Young (who’s wasted here in a small role) would have much better in the part, and would have done much to bring menace to the character despite his limited villainy (mentioned above).
Venerable character actor J. Farrell MacDonald does an excellent job as cattle baron Craig Dolan–gruffly and fiercely reminding the “nesters” of his status as the San Ramon Valley’s original inhabitant, and lending genuine pathos to his regretful laments over his inability to realize his dream of leaving the entire Valley to his niece and nephew. William Gould is much more stolid and dull as nester leader Jed Scott, his dour and slightly self-important manner contrasting unfavorably with MacDonald’s combination of energy and dignity. It would have been a far better idea to make Duncan Renaldo’s Vasquez the leader of the nesters; this move would have given Renaldo more to do and would have provided a homesteader-in-chief fully as charismatic as cattle-baron Dolan. As it is, the huge difference in screen presence between MacDonald and Gould makes us far too sympathetic to the cattleman and far too indifferent to the nester.
Henry Otho is pleasantly genial and easygoing, albeit rather bland, as another nester named Pa Daniels–who’s briefly spotlighted in Chapter Eight when he becomes the nesters’ candidate for sheriff. Betty Roadman is Otho’s wife, Nelson McDowell his brother, and Robert McClung his son, while veteran B-western utility-man Rex Lease, stuntman Ted Mapes, and perennial background henchman George Burton all have fairly noticeable background roles as various nesters (two of these players die a surprisingly heroic death in a good Chapter Fourteen scene that would have had more impact if they had been given more to do in earlier episodes). Singer and future B-western star Eddie Dean can be seen in several scenes as yet another of the nesters.
The Black Raiders are led for most of the serial by the hulking and intimidatingly ugly Glenn Strange, who is quite good but is not given enough screen time to qualify as a full-fledged action heavy; other prominent Black Raiders include slick John Beach, snarling Stanley Blystone, and the weasel-like Al Taylor. Stuntman Eddie Parker turns in a creditable acting job as another leading member of the gang, while Carleton Young plays the phony Lone Ranger in the first chapter; Lew Meehan, Art Mix, Frank Ellis, Slim Whitaker, Buddy Roosevelt, and Monte Montague pop up as other heavies. Wheeler Oakman steals the second half of Chapter Nine as a resourceful crook who’s hired to steal a ballot box, adopting a hilarious pose as a drunk in the process.
Above: Glenn Strange signals to his Black Raider cohorts (Strange, of course, would clash with another Lone Ranger in ten years’ time, appearing as the notorious Butch Cavendish in the three-part introductory episode of the Lone Ranger TV show).
Ernie Adams, like Oakman, manages to steal a few scenes in the role of shifty “Doc” Grover, who fakes his death to help the Raiders frame Jed Scott; his gradual change in expression when he realizes his Raider friends are planning to make his feigned demise into a real one is priceless. Forrest Taylor is characteristically suave and dignified as a upright judge, while Howard Chase is good as a fearlessly honest land commissioner, and Roger Williams is given an annoyingly inconsistent role as the San Ramon Sheriff–who sometimes seems to be untrustworthy, but at other times comes off as scrupulously honest. Jack Kirk is a deputy, and Lafe McKee and Cactus Mack townsmen; Joe Perez makes an extremely brief appearance as Duncan Renaldo’s slain brother in the first chapter. Griff Barnett, who went on to play many A-film character parts in the 1940s and 1950s, has a good showcase as a slightly timid but dependable land clerk.
The Lone Ranger Rides Again makes for worthwhile viewing due to its score, its action scenes, its location work, and its other solid production aspects–but could have been an immeasurably better serial with just a few script alterations and casting switches. If it had been made by another studio, or if it had been released by Republic before or after their golden 1937-1942 period, it would seem less disappointing and probably be more highly regarded–but, as part of a litter that includes most of the serial genre’s greatest specimens, it will always be something a runt in the eyes of most chapterplay buffs.
A note on prints: The Lone Ranger Rides Again, like The Lone Ranger, has never become available in a high-quality version; the only existing copy seems to be a very dark and grainy Mexican print with Spanish subtitles–which apparently had its cliffhangers smoothed out to make it into a single lengthy feature; various collectors and DVD-producers have edited this print back to its original episodic form, with uneven results. Eric Stedman’s Serial Squadron print (the source of this review’s images) does the best job of recreating the lost chapter endings that I’ve seen, but is marred by the method used to remove the subtitles–constant cropping and repeated freezing of the bottom of the picture, which is even more distracting than the subtitles. However, the Squadron print is cleaner and less dark than any other extant copies.