The Man Beneath the Feather

I have a great fondness for "The Lone Ranger."  The TV show was never my absolute favorite, but when I was seven or eight years old, runaway horses could not drag me away from the wonderful opening shot where Silver rears on his hind legs and paws the air with his front hooves.  Years later I learned that Clayton Moore, who was a superb stuntman, insisted on doing the shot himself, because he knew that the rider would be paid a small stunt fee every time the footage aired.  Besides being a straight-shooter, that Lone Ranger was a shrewd businessman.

The Lone Ranger radio show had faded into radio static before I was old enough to catch it, but one of my professors at Kansas State University was part of its stable of writers for a time.  The character she remembered most vividly from those days of desperate, last-minute script collaborations and frenzied live broadcasts, was the actor who played Tonto, John Todd.  The inevitable sidekick who was added to give the hero someone to talk to, Tonto needed little dialog, but, according to my professor, seemed to pipe up more often than the script demanded. 

Todd, a former Shakespearean actor, was a short, bald Irishman who sat by himself before airtime, going over the lines in silence.  When the on-air light came on, the Lone Ranger's speeches would be punctuated by impromptu guttural responses from his faithful companion, most of them brief phrases of agreement, uttered in Tonto's distinctive pidgin.  They may have added little to the narrative, but they did at least serve as reminders for the audience that Tonto was there, that the Lone Ranger was not talking to himself.  If the writers sometimes forgot to include the necessary lines, after so many years of playing the part, Todd understood when a response was called for and knew exactly what Tonto would have said.

In looking up the actor's name on Wikipedia for this blog, I found that the entry for "Lone Ranger" includes the production bible, a checklist of do's and don'ts prepared for the radio show by its creators, Fran Striker and George W. Trendle.  For anyone contemplating buying or renting the recent Disney version of the story when it comes out at Christmas (And it really deserves a viewing), that radio bible might be considered required reading.

When I viewed the film over the 4th of July holiday at the Pittsburg Cinema 8, the audience seemed to enjoy themselves, even applauding at the end, a rare occasion these days.  Many critics were unimpressed, except for a number in Britain who found it alternately subtle, thrilling, and strangely un-American.  It might seem subversive, but only because Striker and Trendle insisted that the Ranger should battle powerful and corrupt home-grown villains, not foreign agents or immigrants.  The pair were especially careful to avoid offending the radio show's target audience, the foreign-born and their children.  Much of the film's humor is subtle, born of the screenwriters' creative struggle to find logical reasons for a sometimes-absurd code of behavior laid down by Striker and Trendle.  Viewers who are not familiar with the code, might not get the joke.  Rule number one, by the way, involves never taking off the mask.  "Never take off the mask," are practically the first words spoken in the film.

Anyone who thought Tonto got short shrift in previous incarnations should be pleased, however.  While he still speaks pared-down English, he is hardly a sidekick this time.  In fact, he's in charge.  He is not only the man who virtually invents the legendary masked rider of the Plains, but also serves as the narrator who tells the story to a little boy in San Francisco many decades later.  Yet, weeks before the film's premiere, there was talk of a boycott by protest groups who found the purity of Johnny Depp's native ancestry suspect.  After the film's release there were the inevitable complaints about Tonto's halting English.  So much for Striker and Trendle's reluctance to offend minority groups.  There was at least one minority group that the radio show's creators may have overlooked.

Tonto's handling of English never bothered me when Jay Silverheels did the honors, and still doesn't with Johnny Depp in the role.  Their speech patterns sound about right, based on accounts I've read of 19th century settlers who had dealings with friendly Indians along the frontier.  It should be pointed out that English would not have been the scout's second language, but something closer to his sixth or seventh.  Besides several Indian dialects, he would have picked up some Spanish, perhaps even a smattering of French acquired from hunters and trappers.  However, there are also some reported instances of young Indians who took to colloquial English with startling ease.

When a famous newspaper editor took the Leavenworth and Pikes Peak Express stage to Denver in 1859, at one stop a young Indian girl with a blanket wrapped around her stood on tiptoe to peer inside the coach.  Surprised by what she saw, the star-struck young lady turned and alerted passersby.  She did not announce her discovery in the monosyllabic pidgin we might imagine her using.  She did not say, for instance, "Big chief of white man's words come here by stage."  

No, what she blurted out was something like "Hey!  That's old Horace Greeley sitting in that stagecoach right over there!"

Tonto might have used shorter words, but he would have uttered them with greater dignity.  

© Dale Switzer 2023