There were plenty of two-legged heroes, of course, though they too relied heavily on four-footed stalwarts and tended to live their lives on the fringes of human society. The Lone Ranger got into my soul and my cells very early, on records made from the old radio shows, that my brother and I played over and over and over. When he came to full life on TV, he looked just about exactly like the mental image I’d formed from the records.
There were other cowboy heroes, but the Lone Ranger was different from all of them. Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and the rest of those guys were okay, but they were all modeled pretty much on the cheerful swashbucklers of the old movies. They went around righting wrongs, but with a hearty laugh and a flashing smile.
Not the Lone Ranger. He had a tragic past, and this gave great depth to his appeal to us kids. His was a truly poignant tale—of surviving an ambush, being left for dead, burying his own brother alongside the other murdered Texas Rangers, being nursed back to health by a friendly Indian. Even his horse had a sad story of mistreatment at the hands of cruel humans. I remember the episode on one of our records where the Lone Ranger, with the boundless gentleness and patience born of one who knows the treachery of life, coaxes the stallion to come to him. You could hear, in the animal’s eloquent snorts and whinnies, his betrayal and disillusionment, his reluctance to once more give his trust to any man, and at the same time his longing to love again.
I don’t remember Tonto’s horse, Scout, having a particular tragic past, but he belonged to an Indian, and that was enough for us. He was an Indian horse. For our generation, Indians were not the bad guys. Sure, they fought and killed the white guys, but we knew they did it because of the extreme raw deal handed to them. We were on their side. For Tonto to rise above it all, Buddha-like, and make friends with a white man and not blame him for bad things done by other white men made a serious impression on us.
So here was this guy who survived an ambush and saw his brother and fellow-rangers murdered all around him. Here was his “Indian companion,” whose people had suffered all kinds of terrible injustice. Outcasts, both of them. Were they angry, vengeful, looking for retribution? They were not. They were perhaps somewhat wounded; they were loners, men of few words, a little solemn, but they didn’t let their pasts get the better of them and make them bitter. Instead, they took the path of selflessness and defended the defenseless.
The Lone Ranger had quite a set-up. He had his own trust fund in the form of a secret silver mine, and a faithful elderly retainer who worked it for him. He used just enough of the proceeds from the mine to sustain himself, and to make his trademark silver bullets, all of it so that he could dedicate his life to going after bad guys. Not only did he eschew the wealth and life of ease which could have been his, but he shunned recognition for his deeds to the point where he wore a mask. Was this noblesse oblige, or what? Can you think of a better way to teach it to children? We’ll never know how he washed and ironed his shirts on the trail, shaved or kept his white hat so immaculate, or even where he and/or Tonto slept at night, but it didn’t matter. Tonto and the Lone Ranger were the original nonconformists before any of us had ever heard the word. They were “good” outlaws, marched to a different drummer, rejected “the establishment,” and…well...not to put too fine a point on it…one of them had long hair, wore a headband, beads and a fringed jacket. I don’t remember seeing him smoke a “peace pipe,” but we certainly saw other TV Indians do it.
The other “deep” Old West TV guy from our childhoods was, of course, James Arness as Marshall Matt Dillon. “Gunsmoke” had, I believe, the longest run of any TV show in history, and when you think of the eras it spanned—1955 to 1974—the length of that run is even more extraordinary. Those almost twenty years saw more complex and intensely compressed societal change than even, say, the years from 1900 to 1920. Many good TV shows of the 50s, great as they were in their time, simply became obsolete. Not this show. The 70s were just about a different planet from the 50s, but “Gunsmoke” stayed comfortably with us through Krushchev, the death of JFK, the advent of the Beatles, Lenny Bruce, men on the moon, love-ins, LSD, Vietnam, Roe v. Wade, the rise and fall of Nixon. “Gunsmoke” inhabited some kind of timeless place. What, aside from great stories and a terrific cast, was the secret of its incredible longevity? Well, what makes us remember Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Robin Hood and Maid Marion? That’s right. It was the powerful subtext, the thing the other cowboy shows utterly lacked. We filled in the blanks ourselves in the completely unspoken love story between Matt and Miss Kitty, who, along with Doc, Chester and Festus (and Ruth, his mule) will forever inhabit the dusty wooden Dodge City of our memories. Like Queen Elizabeth, Gunsmoke was always there.
If Superman hadn’t come from Krypton, you might make a case for him being the Lone Ranger’s long-lost brother. Certainly he was fashioned from the same stuff—he had a tragic past that he’d overcome and which set him apart from the humanity he made a conscious decision to serve and protect. The 50s TV Superman and the DC comic book Superman were very different from one another, but between the two of them they eventually comprised the complete Superman known especially to—perhaps exclusively by—our generation.
George Reeves famously played Superman on TV when we were children, from 1952 to 1957. He brought us the cheerful, witty Superman and the casual, relaxed, slightly bemused Clark Kent who sometimes tipped his hat back on his head. The special effects were laughably primitive by today’s standards, but they worked just fine for us. Flight was achieved by Reeves lying on a board on his stomach with scenery and clouds rushing by in the background and his cape flapping behind him, to the accompaniment of the heroic “Superman Flying” theme (all together now): Dunt-ta-DA! Dunt-ta-da-dunt-ta-DA! Then a WHOOSH! and he’d land feet-first through a window. We knew perfectly well that George Reeves was jumping through that window from up on a ladder or something, but it mattered not. And the opening shots depicting Superman standing on an asteroid in outer space, while the voiceover fills us in on how he came to earth from Krypton, also showed his cape flapping. Young though we were, we knew there was no wind in outer space. But we didn’t care. This was willing suspension of disbelief at its most glorious. “And who, disguised as a mild-mannered reporter....” He’d morph into Clark Kent, standing on the same asteroid in his suit, tie, hat and glasses, hands in his pockets, then back into Superman, who fought for “…truth, justice and the American way!” And there’d be Old Glory, standing proud behind Superman on that rock in outer space, rippling in the non-existent and impossible-according-to-the-laws-of-physics breeze.
Hokey? Perhaps. But we took it very, very seriously. In its way, this show was sneakily seditious and laid some profoundly important groundwork. “Truth, justice and the American way” was a ringing, poetically powerful phrase. We were inculcated with it at the beginning of every show, every week. Then we’d watch Superman go after not just bank robbers and gangsters, but very often corrupt authority figures—politicians, police chiefs and the like. We learned that those in positions of power were not always serving our best interests, and we learned that the powers that be did not necessarily own the patent on the “American way,” and that “truth” and “justice” were not relative, but absolutes, and that both required constant vigilance, because inevitably they’d be misused and usurped. We learned to question authority. Superman was ours.
Rumors swirled around the 1959 death of George Reeves. He had an affecting sincerity about his depiction of Superman, which no doubt fed the urban legend that he’d become delusional, believed he could fly, and jumped off a tall building. In fact he was shot to death in his bedroom after a drunken party at his Hollywood house. It’s been called a suicide, but there was a messy, tangled love web that included Reeves’ jealous fiancée and the wife of a gangsterish studio head. There were forensic reports involving powder burns and bullet trajectories which, if true, pretty much rule out suicide. Probably he was murdered. Luckily for his juvenile fans, it happened two years after the series ended, so Superman himself was not tarnished or sullied for us. In the meantime, we’d switched our attention to the DC comics Man of Steel and his far more complex and multi-dimensional world, and he is truly another story. Stay tuned for that.
Eleanor Thanks for your trip down memory lane. I remember the TV shows you write about. I’m not a boomer and am uncertain what generation you belong to. I watched The Lone Ranger in Jamaica in the West Indies with an audience of Jamaicans and they all laughed. The show was comedy to them and I laughed too. The Lone Ranger and Tonto were/are ridiculous figures. I had a similar experience in Belgium where the Belgian audience was watching The Terminator with Schwarzenegger and laughing all the way through the film. I wish I could agree that The Lone Ranger and Gunsmoke were subversive as you suggest. I think they romanticized men with guns. Edward R. Murrow’s TV shows on Senator McCarthy were subversive. I think that Minnow was spot on when he called TV a “vast wasteland.” It’s not for nothing that it was called “The Idiot Box.” I did have a favorite TV show – Kukla, Fran and Ollie which was satire and completely ad lib. There was no script and so it went against the grain in terms of form as well as content. James Thurber said of Tillstrom who created the show that he was “helping to save the sanity of the nation and to improve if not even to reinvent the quality of television.” The only aspect of the Lone Ranger that I liked was his mask. He was a rip off of Zorro, who first appeared in 1919.