Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Overlooked Films: THE LONE RANGER Serial (1938)

The 1938 Republic Serial The Lone Ranger, marking the Ranger’s first appearance on the movie screen, is officially a lost film. No complete version of it (at least in English) is known to exist.

Our heroes. Johnny Depp, er, I mean Chief Thunder-Cloud, and ??

But you hard-core Ranger fans have a couple of options. For a very few bucks, you can track down a copy of Republic’s 69-minute abridged version, released in 1940 as Hi-Yo Silver. For $24.95 plus postage, you can order a brand-new, nearly complete version of the 15-chapter serial on DVD from The Serial Squadron (that's HERE). Or for some indeterminate number of dollars inbetween you could probably acquire a less complete and less desirable serial recreation released ten or more years ago on VHS.

I’ve seen two of the three, and thought both were pretty dang good. The one I haven’t seen is the new DVD, because at $24.95 it’s about $20 over my DVD budget.

So why is this serial so rare? For some goofy reason, Republic was compelled to destroy their existing prints after their license on the character expired. For the same goofy reason, their follow-up serial The Lone Ranger Rides Again is also “lost.” Fortunately, a few mostly complete foreign language editions survived.

A 1938 gum card recreating a scene from the serial.

If that’s not crazy enough, the short version known as Hi-Yo Silver not only survived, but has since fallen into the public domain, and turns up on all sorts of cheapie collections. I found mine on Volume 37 of the Echo Bridge “Great American Western” series.

Fighting crime and injustice until they're blue in the face.

Though I can’t locate it at the moment, somewhere around here I have that almost-sorta-complete but kinda-funky VHS version, which I remember fondly. The main drawback to that one, as I recall, was that many scenes had to be cropped and enlarged to hide the foreign language subtitles. There were also some sound issues, with portions of the music recreated with a tinny-sounding synthesizer, and several scenes redubbed using amateur “actors” because the original soundtrack was missing. This version, I hear, has since been repackaged as a cheapie Mill Creek DVD, though I’ve never seen it for sale. BUT, despite those drawbacks, the story was there - and the action - and seeing the first Lone Ranger on screen was very, very cool.

Unable to re-view that VHS version, I popped Hi-Yo Silver into the DVD player and got a pleasant surprise. It, too, is a pretty good movie. The story is somewhat choppy, as you’d expect when nearly five hours of story is crammed into 69 minutes, but most of the really important stuff is there, and the sound and picture quality is great. Several of the cliffhanger sequences made the cut, so you get a lot more thrills than in the average feature-length oater. And the central story from the serial comes through pretty well.

Another 1938 gum card.

The story takes place in Texas just after the Civil War, as the federal government sends a man to head up the reclamation of lands. Despite being a carpetbagger, he’s a good man. Trouble is, he is promptly murdered and an outlaw takes his place. When a troop of Texas Rangers ride to investigate, they’re ambushed (substituting here for the Cavendish gang), and all but one die - one who just happens to be discovered by Tonto - and you know the rest.

The maybe-Rangers. 
Top to bottom: George Letz, Lee Powell, Herman Brix, Hal Taliaferro, Lane Chandler. 

The big idea behind the serial, and Hi-Yo too, was to present viewers with five possible Rangers. These five guys wear identical shirts, hats and scarves, keeping the bad guys (and the audience) guessing as to which one actually donned the mask and went galloping around on Silver. It was a good gimmick, adding an extra element of mystery to an otherwise ordinary serial adventure. As the derring-do rolls on, the maybe-Rangers perish one-by-one, in dramatic fashion, until only the true Ranger is left. And in the final scene, just before riding off into the sunset with Tonto, he unmasks. It's all nicely done, and great fun. If the new Depp-Hammer version is as good as this, I'll be satisfied.

More Overlooked Films, as usual, at SWEET FREEDOM.

1 comment:

Charles Gramlich said...

I saw the first TV preview for the new movie last night.