The Western Hero Rides Again – And Rides Again!

The Old West, “history” that instantly appealed to our hearts and imaginations, has been incredibly influential, particularly in view of its short life (the second half of the nineteenth century).  The first Western movie, The Great Train Robbery, arrived in 1903 and was eleven minutes long.  In Old Arizona (1929) was the first major sound Western.  The Buffalo Nickel “reigned” 1913-1938.  It was designed by James Earle Fraser, sculptor of the Indian statue “End of the Trail.”  The buffalo was modeled after Black Diamond, a bison in Bronx Park Zoo.  The Indian head was a composite from photographs of three visitors to President Theodore Roosevelt:  Iron Tail, a Sioux; Big Tree, a Kiowa; and Two Moons, a Cheyenne.  As the editor says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “This is the West, sir.  When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

As a child in North Carolina, I saw some four movies a week and have never gotten over my cowgirl outfit (brown fringed skirt and vest with red hearts for pockets, boots, hat, gun and holster) or Jeff Chandler as Cochise (Broken Arrow, 1950).  [By the way, Cochise was the name of Little Joe’s horse in Bonanza.]  In 1994, my husband Emory and I chaired Western Night at Carolina Trace Country Club (Sanford, NC).  In the midst of my sharing that palm reader Lee Bain, the sister of Lash [Al] La Rue, lived in Sanford, our compadres on the committee shot from the hip that they’d never heard of him and allowed as how he must have been purely Southern, but Tim Morrissey, Artistic Director of The Temple Theater in Sanford, later drygulched this Southern-only rumor by sharing that he saw Lash crack his whip in Kenosha, Wisconsin!  My ultimate response to such ignorance was a 4 x 8-foot Western collage displayed at and The Kemo Sabe (thirteen ten-point pages) distributed at the dance.  Later came the poem [Laurels, 7.1 (Spring 2003):  46]:

“A-Gnash, A-Rue for Alfred ‘Lash’ La Rue” ––  

The man in black is dead.  His whip is still.
He lashed the stereotype:   black means bad.
His weapon:  bullwhip long, Whip-Wilson-like.
But only Lash the stereotype cracked.
(De Vega Zorroed as persona bold.)
Unknowing stares when Lash La Rue is named
do not deter.  Kenosha friend can well
recall his B-grade movies, whip, and “pard”:
St. John, plain “Fuzzy,” sidekick better known.
(He played some roles in movies with John Wayne.)
Now oddly, both were also known as “Al.”
No Champ or Trigger had our Lash La Rue.
He fought with naught but whip and black attire.
And only Lash the stereotype cracked.
To code still true, he went to die alone.
That trek has failed to keep telltales in check:
his wives galore; his brushes with the Law;
his marijuana stash; his mean, hard look;
his prideful Cadillac; how women swooned.
His climb from bottle seems of small account.
When I on Lash do think, I’ll hold to fact:
he lashed his body learning how to whip
because he’d said he knew that art and now
would prove it true.  He wore a rakish smile,
a Stetson rakishly.  Now hang them up
with most of childhood’s dreams.  The man in black
is dead.  Alas, the man in black is dead.
Through oaters, fairs, and stage appearances,
the comics, television, pulpits last,
he stood, though his detractors lashed away.
Pop culture idol now is he for me,
for only Lash the stereotype cracked.

I have continued to write about the Old West, including a play/screenplay, Lillie Langtry’s “Lash La Rue Sweet Potatoes” World Crusade, Or, Why You Can’t Buy Quintussential Western Wear Boots.  It’s about a girl named for Miss Lillie, the singer who was the beloved of Judge Roy Bean, the “Law West of the Pecos.”  The best retort I’ve ever received resulted from it.

Color THE WRITER Blocked

The fifth-graders had rather ask questions
than hear THE WRITER pontificate.
The plump young man on the front row
has waited his chance,
can wait no more:
“What is the name of your latest play?”
My tongue is a whirling dervish:
Lillie Langtry’s Lash La Rue Sweet Potatoes
World Crusade, Or,
Why You Can’t Buy
Quintussential Western Wear Boots!”

He fires back from the lip:
“Bet you can’t say that three times!”
Color THE WRITER blocked.

My father and I used to listen to The Lone Ranger on the radio.  I was a member of The Lone Ranger Club and had a mask and a brown corduroy jacket with the Masked Man’s insignia.  Its zipper stuck when I was in the first grade, and my teacher, “Miss Maggie,” assigned my first boyfriend, Litchfield Patterson Huie (who died in Vietnam) to deal with it.  We sold Merita bread, the sponsor, in our grocery store, and it placed collectible pictures of scenes from The Lone Ranger and other “pop lit” in the loaves.

You probably know much of the earlier Lone Ranger lore.  At Bryant’s Gap, John Reid; his brother, Captain Daniel Reid; and four other Texas Rangers were ambushed by Butch Cavendish and the Hole-in-the-Wall gang.  Nursed back to health by Tonto, his faithful Indian companion, he became “the Lone Ranger.”  Tonto, played by Jack Todd (radio), Jay Silverheels (TV), and Chief Thundercloud (movies), called him Kemo Sabe (“faithful friend”).  My memories are principally of Clayton Moore as the “hero” and Jay Silverheels as Tonto.  “Who was that masked man?” was asked at the end of Lone Ranger television episodes.  The hero became known especially for his silver bullets and “Come on, Silver!  Let’s go, big fellow!  Hi-yo, Silver!  Awa-a-ay!”  The satirical humor of the new movie with Johnny Depp has Tonto hoping he never hears that again.  Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” is the theme song of the Lone Ranger.  [It’s also known as “The Mickey Mouse Overture” from Mickey’s having conducted it in a Disney cartoon.]  You may not know that Britt Reid, The Green Hornet, is the grand-nephew of the Lone Ranger and that his horse Victor is a descendant of Silver.  Family is important in Westerns—just think of all those brothers (e.g., the Earps; the Daltons, who are cousins to the James Brothers and Younger Brothers).

I am apparently the only person in America who loves the recent version, though I lament the absence of Tonto’s horse Scout (earlier called White Feller and Paint, incidentally).  I also question Silver’s pink eyes and the weird rabbits.  After Emory and I saw the movie in the afternoon, I sent an e-mail to my half-sister, sixteen years younger and a lawyer in Charlotte.  She read it on her I-phone while sitting in the movie with her husband waiting for it to start!  She used to watch it on television with our grandmother, who had to play Tonto to her Lone Ranger.

I don’t always like “high camp” and “send-ups,” even Johnny Depp’s.  But this movie drew on the past in ways that I haven’t seen critics crediting.  But they don’t often credit Westerns with very much generally and seem to forget “learning curves.”  Despite the claim that “oaters” (a name I detest!) are always White Hat vs. Black Hat, I don’t find them so.  See Gregory Peck in Duel in the Sun and John Wayne in The Searchers, in which his “infraction” is far more serious than his “man stand” in The Shootist:  “I won’t be wronged.  I won’t be insulted.  And I won’t be laid a hand on.”  Yes, they could have boo-boos, as in Stagecoach, when tire tracks can be seen during the Indian chase across the salt flats.  Yes, they could be moralistic, as in the “sweet” rules of the Roy Rogers Club and Gene Autry’s “Cowboy Code” (though the latter’s “A cowboy must never shoot first, shoot at a smaller man . . .” is a hoot [and not a Hoot Gibson!].

Diversity was not absent, as we might suspect, in the Western tradition bequeathed us.  The Mexicans are there and include a woman, Lupe Velez, known as the “Mexican Spitfire,” though Rodolfo Acosta, the Mexican-American character actor, frequently played villains.  The Cisco Kid may not always have been “authentic” and may have been created by North Carolina’s O. Henry (William Sydney Porter), but he brought us Mexican culture, as did Zorro, who, among others, was played by Reed Hadley and Clayton Moore, both of whom were cast as the Lone Ranger.  But I dare not forget that we did enjoy also Mexican mouse Speedy Gonzales of the movie cartoon.  Real-world relevance can be found, too.  Zapatista leader Subcommandante Marcos (1957-1994) wore a black ski mask, black military uniform, and bandoleers with red cartridges crossing his chest and was a mixture of Zorro, the Lone Ranger, and Batman.

Nor are Indians always the bad guys.  Quite a few silent films[1] were sympathetic to them.  Broken Arrow was the first after the silents to be so, but Pro-Indian movies[2] have persisted.  On television, Hawk was about an Indian cop in New York, and F Troop had comic Indians.  Most of us know Kaw-Liga, the cigar-store wooden Indian in the Hank Williams song.  Enos Edward (“Yakima”) Canutt was a famous half-Indian stunt man of Westerns for fifty years and provided second unit direction for sixties epics.  Elvis Presley played an Indian in Stay Away Joe and Flaming Arrow.  But we also had Little Beaver, played, among others, by Robert (“Bobby”) Blake, of “You betchum, Red Ryder” fame, and Papoose, his horse.  Cherokee Iron-Eyes Cody’s “one tear” ecology spot on television will never be forgotten.

African-Americans?  Washington (“Wash”) Jefferson Lincoln Lee was Tom Mix’s Black cook on the radio.  The thirties provided a series of Westerns with all-Black casts (e.g., Harlem on the Prairie).  Sergeant Rutledge (1960) had a Black as the central character.

The Depp Lone Ranger movie offers a young boy fascinated by the Old West as seen through the eyes of Tonto.  Imagine in the day of political correctness daring to have a White play an Indian, but the Indians, so far as I am aware, have not exploded in anger and, indeed, get to offer, through this movie, humorous comments on Whites.  Indians have apparently always respected those mentally touched, as Tonto is in the movie.

Westerns have generally relegated their humor to the sidekick, e.g., George Gabby Hayes (1885-1969), who rode alongside Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy (as Windy Halliday), Roy Rogers, John Wayne, Bill Elliott, and Randolph Scott; Pat Aloysius Brady and his jeep Nellybelle in the TV series Roy Rogers; Smiley Burnette, Gene Autry’s sidekick, as was Pat Buttram; Al (“Fuzzy”) St. John, pard of Lash LaRue; and Andy Devine as Jingles, who provided comic relief for Wild Bill Hickok.  I prefer such animal companions as Bullet, Roy Rogers’ wonder dog, and the wonderful horses, e.g., Dale Evans’ Buttermilk; Roy Rogers’ Trigger; Gene Autry’s “World’s Wonder Horse” Champion, who starred in The Adventures of Champion on television; Red Ryder’s Thunder; and Tom Mix’s Tony, “The Wonder Horse.”

Tom Mix, like his horse Tony, was a wonder—a US Marshal who turned actor and appeared in over 400 low-budget Westerns.  Another “can’t resist” is Murania, the underground scientific city visited by Gene Autry in the movie serial The Phantom Empire (called, as a feature picture, Men with Steel Faces).  It was ruled by Queen Tika, and its Thunder Riders were evil residents who sometimes came above ground.  Wonder what would happen if the Thunder Riders faced off against the Ghost Riders in the Sky?

I continue to learn (and revel in learning) the lore.  At a recent lunch with two other couples, I brought up the Depp opus and my take on it, and the conversation “triggered” memories.  One woman at the table, Mary Sawyer, a former Army nurse, suddenly burst forth with “Scratch gravel, White Wind!”  Not even I recognized that, and she didn’t remember who used it.  Google later gave me “Golden Arrow,” whom I remember, though not his general background and horse, and reminded me of my love of comic books, Whiz included.

I remain a bit leery of plump cowboys (e.g., Whip Wilson) and the “Singing Cowboys” (e.g., Gene Autry; Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and the “Sons of the Pioneers”; Tex Ritter, though he did sing the theme song of High Noon; and Jimmy Wakely).  “Happy Trails” was a good theme song for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, but I liked Gene Autry, who made Westerns 1934-1954, better singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”  Patsy Montana became his acting partner and wrote Western songs, including “I Want To Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.”  Audie Murphy, the most decorated World War II hero and a star of many Westerns, wrote “Shutters and Boards.”  Ken Maynard began as the star of silent movies but is credited with introducing song into Westerns.  Sheb Wooley was in Rawhide on TV but is best known for singing “The Purple People Eater.”

The names are legion and include William S. Hart; Johnny Mack Brown (a former football star); Canadian Rod Cameron (Nathan Cox); “Wild Bill” Elliott and Wild Bill Hickok (James Butler Hickok); Buffalo Bill (William Frederick Cody), who killed 4,280 buffaloes and had a Wild West Show that included real Indians and starred Annie Oakley; Calamity Jane (Martha Jane Canary Burke, married twelve times with eight movies made about her; Belle Starr (Myra Belle Shirley), the West’s most notorious female outlaw; Doc Holliday; Tim Holt; Bat Masterson (William Barclay Masterson), a U. S. marshal and later a sports writer; Australian Chips Rafferty (John Goffage); Randolph Scott (Randolph Crane), who started on the stage; Charles Starrett, known as the Durango Kid and another professional football player; and Bob Steele (Robert Bradbury), who began acting at age two and was in over 400 second features.  On the radio, the series about Bobby Benson included cowboy Windy Wales, played by Don Knotts.  One of the hosts of television’s Death Valley Days was Ronald Reagan.

When I spoke on this topic to my Rotary Club recently, the Assistant District Governor, Dr. Mark Zeringue, happened to be visiting.  He came up afterwards to ask if I knew anything about Milo Holt.  “Tim,” I responded, “but not Milo.”  Then, before he could reply, I remembered that he was from Chatham County, North Carolina, where we recently moved, and that Siler City, his home, hosted the “Milo Holt Western Film Festival.”  I had heard of it, never attended.  I later found the newspaper clipping I had saved—to my chagrin, I missed, in May 2013, its opportunity to see the “son of Tonto,” Chief Steve Silverheels.

Great Spirits have been among us.  These two quotations sum up, for me, the Old West (and the new Lone Ranger):

a voice-over at the end of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon—“The dog-faced soldiers . . . the regulars . . . the fifty-cents-a-day professionals, riding the outposts of a nation . . . .  Wherever they rode, and whatever they fought for, that place became the United States.”

William S. Hart, farewell/prologue to the audience, 1939 reissue of Tumbleweeds—“The rush of the wind that cuts your face . . . the pounding hooves of the pursuing posse.  Out there in front, a fallen tree trunk that spawns a yawning chasm, with a noble animal under you that takes it in the same low, ground-eating gallop . . . .  Oh, the thrill of it all!”

     [1]E.g., An Indian Wife’s Devotion, A Squaw’s Love, Red-Wing’s Gratitude, Ramona, Heart of an Indian, The Squaw Man, In the Days of Buffalo Bill, The Vanishing American, Redskin.

      [2]E.g., Devil’s Doorway, Across the Wide Missouri, The Savage, Arrowhead, The Big Sky, Apache, Taza—Son of Cochise, Chief Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, White Feather, Navajo, Hiawatha, The Outsider, Jim Thorpe—All American, Flaming Star, Cheyenne Autumn, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, A Man Called Horse, Flap, Little Big Man, The Stalking Moon.