Judge Bill Gibron is always home on the range. The driving range.
A Saturday Afternoon Western Round-up
As kids in the '50s and '60s we all played "cowboys and Indians" (apologies in advance for the non-PC approach to much of this article). Having been force fed an entertainment regime which painted the Western savages as a red-skinned (see, I told you) threat to America's pioneering birthright, we grabbed our cap guns, our dime store headdresses, and half-remembered mythology, and ran around our backyards playing genocide for fun. No one ever thought about the notion of mass slaughter, or the ownership issues of killing someone for their land, but, what the heck, we were the good guys and those lousy, so-and-so "injuns" weren't. Of course, nowadays, any parent seeing their child imitate such a specious history lesson would immediately have the kid or kids in therapy, reconstructing their morality to better fit our supposedly enlightened New Age approach to the "Native American issue."
But back then, before Wounded Knee and the casinos, before movies like Dances with Wolves re-envisioned their meaning all over again, cowboys and Indians were the go-to move for most of the 20th century's media. Radio and films filled our heads with stories of lone rangers and defiant desperadoes (that is, when they weren't wasting warriors and seducing squaws). But it was TV that really went overboard in the Wild Wild Wicked West department. In 1959 alone, there were 26 primetime shows based in and around horse opera themes. With increased costs and changing tastes, however, many an oater ended up as part of a Saturday afternoon (or afterschool) syndication package. As a result, we have the intriguing DVD collection from Shout! Factory focusing on these forgotten "classics." Aimed at the Boomer but instructional for even the most clueless youngster, when given the proper context (outside the discs offered, mind you), there's a lot to enjoy here.
Spread out over three discs, we get prime examples of the precept (The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, The Rifleman), a few middle of the road entries (The Roy Rogers Show, Fury, The Adventures of Kit Carson), and more than a few forgotten relics (The Adventures of Rick O'Shay, Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill Jr.). In fact, when you thrown in The Adventures of Champion, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, Sky King, and Red Ryder, you have quite the broadcast overview. Granted, many of these shows are so dated and their amusement value so limited that you may not be able to take more than a snippet here and there, but when you see how far some studios would go to make the wee ones happy, when you see the level of violence and gunplay aimed directly at the ankle biter, it gives you an entirely new perspective on such material.
Before it became too expensive to produce, the Western was like the sitcom in the '70s or the scripted drama in the '80s—meaning, it drove the industry, sometimes to distraction. There is no denying the old fashioned values and nobility of a character like The Lone Ranger (even with an ethically questionable pal like Tonto by his side), but there are moments here that cause a contemporary mind to bristle, if just a bit. Sure, we all know it's a bit of ridiculous retro nostalgia, but the lessons here can be disturbing. Violence solves almost all problems, the shoot-out or the "draw" bringing about that storytelling standard (frontier justice) while comic asides come from drunks, dames, and dullards. The heroes are almost all white males (except for Cisco and his pal Pancho) and they play by a set of rules mostly absent from today's action adventures. Sure, we are dealing with lawless times, supposedly, but the rate of vigilantism and sugar-coated brutality are distracting.
Still, one can remove themselves from political correctness long enough to pass some manner of critical judgment, and in that regard, Howdy Kids!! is pretty impressive. Digging up some of the more obscure offerings means we aren't stuck watching nothing but Chuck Connors, Johnny Crawford, Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels for 10-plus hours. Instead, Oakley has an intriguing lead (Gale Davis) and a nice proto-feminism spin while Sky King is still one of the weirdest "Westerns" ever (it involves a twin engine Cessna after all). Peter Graves makes Fury more or less watchable while Rick O'Shay benefits from being a true unknown quantity. Of the collection, Roy Rogers is a chore, especially with that cowgirl church lady Dale Evans hanging around, and Champion the "Wonder" Horse could have stayed lost in the annals of TV land for all anyone cares.
In the end, we get an engaging summary, some decent tech specs (decent Mono sound and a 1.33:1 full screen image that, while not remastered, looks pretty darn good) and a real lack of additional information. Indeed, instead of cramming 24 episodes across three discs, Shout! Factory would be better served with a bit of bonus context. It would be nice to hear how Sky King came about, or why Annie Oakley was one of the few shows with a female lead. Also MIA is any discussion of Disney, who did their own horse opera thing (to great success) with shows like Zorro and Davy Crockett, as well as the kiddie-oriented Adventures of Spin and Marty. In fact, someone could earn a PhD determining the rise and fall of the Western as part of our popular culture. Many have, to be sure. Still, it's interesting to sit down with something like Howdy Kids!! and see things for yourself. Back when we played cowboy and Indians, it was just as naive as these shows. Today, all innocence is lost in a lot of hard lessons learned.
Not guilty, but definitely needs some explanation.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• IMDb: The Lone Ranger
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