I’m working on a new book this weekend and reading and relaxing, not watching TV or movies. In the course of reading, though, I came across an article in the July/August 2013 issue of Smithsonian. The issue features significant historical objects that the Smithsonian Natural Museum of American History has in its collection; one of these is the Lone Ranger’s mask.
From “Behind the Mask”: “The original mask was purple felt, a color that showed up better on the black-and-white screens of the day and was annoyingly hot to wear on location under the desert sun.”
“The character Tonto is a noble figure, even as a sidekick, brave and loyal and resourceful. The actor Jay Silverheels played him with remarkable dignity….In the pilot episode, Tonto rescues the Texas Ranger, who is the lone survivor of an ambush by an outlaw gang. Tonto makes the mask, to conceal the man’s identity from the bandits who think he’s dead, and gives him a name: Lone Ranger.”
With its rousing bumper music (from William Tell’s Overture by Rossini—I could have sworn this was by Tchaikovsky, but it’s not), iconic rearing white horse, and hoof-pounding plots, the TV series was a huge hit in the war-weary 1950s.
In his “Story” seminar for screenwriters these days, Robert McKee advises writers to study old TV series like this (and others like the World War II drama, “Combat”) for the economy with which they unspool coherent action-packed stories in under thirty minutes.
As “Behind the Mask” notes, “’Tonto,’ which has no known meaning in any Native American language, means ‘stupid’ in Spanish.” The “Me go now” sententious dialogue of 60 years ago is now known as “Tonto-speak,” an ugly caricature.
So there you have it, my friends. Cultural values change, as they must. I wonder how critics 60 years from now will dissect our culture.
Years ago, Karen Joy Fowler published “The Faithful Companion at Forty” in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, a hilarious where-are-they-now riff on the long-suffering sidekick given the dirty work and none of the glory while the “hero” rides off into the sunset with the babe in (if memory serves) a white Saab with the vanity license plate, “Kemo.” (You have to know the “Lone Ranger” to get the joke.)
Another late fifties TV series I looked up on DVD is “Have Gun, Will Travel.” Here it’s Palladin, a dapper gent in 1890s San Francisco who, holster on his hip, ventures out into the wilderness on justice-serving missions. He, too, has a semi-sidekick, a Chinese man who doesn’t accompany him but mostly takes care of business at the luxury San Francisco hotel where Palladin lives. This character’s name is ”Heyboy.” Of course, in this precursor to the early 1970s equally sexist series, “The Wild, Wild West,” the women seldom do more than unlace their corsets. Equal opportunity ugly caricature strikes again.
Are there any old TV series worth looking into?
“The Twilight Zone” is, of course, a classic of science fiction suspense and probably an influence on every F&SF writer born in the 1950s and onward. The spooky and equally excellent “The Outer Limits” had some classic episodes, too. Both are well worth looking into on DVD.
The one old TV series that stands head-and-shoulders above them all, for my money, is “The Avengers,” a classy, hugely original British import. But you must see the episodes, any episode really, starring the brilliant, ever-stylish, butt-kicking Emma Peel as inimitably played by Diana Rigg. She is a joy to watch, beginning with the very early black-and-white episodes and proceeding into the in-color episodes. She usually figures things out, goes undercover and places herself in harm’s way, and flips men with guns around (she’s an expert martial artist) as if they’re dolls.
“The Avengers” won awards for the Sixties-mod clothing, wonderful sets, and episodes that often combined science-fictional elements with suspense, hilarious wit and action. Highly recommended! Emma Peel is one of my all-time favorite heroines!
So there you have it, my friends: as an aperitif on movie nights, you can’t go wrong with a Mrs. Peel episode.
From the author of Summer Of Love, A Time Travel (a Philip K. Dick Award Finalist and San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, Kobo, and Sony;
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