Legends of Myself 20

Posted on July 11, 2011


Continued from Legends of Myself 19

21.2.  Mission, 1956-57, Part 2

Superman, Mighty Mouse, and Newton’s Laws.  Mission was the first time I recall encountering television.  I don’t remember watching it all that much.  It was just this pale flickering thing, black and white, in the corner of the living room, not always on because there wasn’t always anything to watch.  I recall an ad featuring a train and a mountain goat.  Since the Great Northern Railway is a US company, the television channel I was watching must have originated there too.

I vaguely recall Superman leaping out a window.  George Reeves always got a little boost from a hidden springboard as he was leaping through, which I guess qualifies as a special effect.  My father liked to point out that by the law of equal and opposite reaction, Superman ought to have demolished every building he ever leaped out of, but that’s much too logical.

In his original conception Superman leaped from place to place, presumably leaving great holes in the ground where he landed like the Incredible Hulk.  That’s what “leaping tall buildings with a single bound” was all about.  But the original conception changed when they began making animated cartoons in the 1940s.  The animators complained that it was too much work having Big Blue leapfrogging all over the place, and, please, could they just give him the ability to fly.  So it has been ever since.

And it’s obvious how he does it too, as anybody knows who has ever levitated in dreams.  Nothing to do with Newton’s laws there.  Superman is powered by dreams and wish fulfillment and flies by virtue of Karl Jung’s and Little Nemo’s and Salvador Dali’s law.  Your architecture is safe from Superman and Isaac Newton.

Anyway, in 1956 I myself much preferred Supes rival, the redoubtable Mighty Mouse.  The Mouse had begun long before as a parody of the Man of Steel—the resemblance was still quite clear—but he had since become his own Mouse, superior to the original as far as my six-year-old judgement was concerned.  For one thing, the mouse always fought a larger opponent and he also left a quite satisfactory trail in the sky when he flew, which Superman omitted to do.

I mean, looking like a comet in the sky:  why would you leave that part out?

Tonto, inarticulate.  The urgent trumpets of Rossini’s William Tell Overture, the rumbling of hooves, the cry of “Hi-Yo Silver, Awaaaaaaaaaaay” followed by six pistol shots in the sky, thus began every episode of the Lone Ranger radio show.  Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels had already brought the iconic franchise to television by then, but whether I ever saw that version, I don’t remember.  It was as it was originally introduced, as a radio show, that I remember it.  The galloping classical intro, the clopping horses, popping guns, Tonto with his friend Kemo Sabe, and the eternal question, “Who was that masked man?”—All classic Lone Ranger, an American chapter of our collective unconscious.

The William Tell Overture is so much a part of the legend that it’s easy to forget why it was there.  Classical music was in the public domain, and the producers of the show were simply too cheap to pay royalties to living composers.  They pulled the same trick with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”, the utterly perfect theme song for the Green Hornet radio show.  The Green Hornet was in fact the Lone Ranger, the Next Generation.

The original Lone Ranger’s civilian identity was Reid, with an indefinite and inconsistent first name which might be John and might be Dan.  In the Green Hornet’s civilian identity, he was journalist Britt Reid, the grandson of the Lone Ranger’s brother.  The Lone Ranger had a place in the family portrait gallery on Britt Reid’s wall—still wearing a mask.  The Green Hornet radio show was self-consciously intended to adapt the Lone Ranger’s crime-fighting masked man franchise, ethnic sidekick and all, to the hip modernity of pre-Pearl Harbour America. (Before Pearl Harbor the Green Hornet’s sidekick was Japanese.  After Pearl Harbor, he was Phillipino.)

At six years old, my main problem with the Lone Ranger radio show, as I recall it, was arranging to be listening to it at the same time every week.  I’ve penciled in a few objections since.

In a school book which I’ve already mentioned from my father’s day, there’s a chapter entitled “Tales of John Bull’s Family” which gives a kind of racist rundown of the British Empire.  Seven men from different parts of the empire come together and talk about themselves, and of the seven, as the text makes clear,

The natural leader was, to judge by his accent, an Englishman.

When racism is taught in schoolbooks, that’s what it sounds like.

When it is taught on radio shows, programs like the Green Hornet and Kato, like the Lone Ranger and Tonto, are what it sounds like.

Radio-show racism, like the schoolbook-racism of my father’s day—and these eras do share some overlap—kept the basic story consistent.  Northern European males were natural leaders; ethnic sidekicks were natural followers.

In Shakespeare’s plays, upholding the social propaganda of the day, the nobility spoke in verse, commoners in prose.  In the mythic world of the radio western, the Lone Ranger spoke without colloquialism in always perfect sentences, and Tonto, his Aboriginal companion, already more than twenty years by the Lone Ranger’s side by the time I encountered him, still couldn’t get his pronouns straight.  Never, in more than twenty years of scripts had he spoken an “I” when a “me” would do.  The apes who raised Tarzan could have given Tonto grammar lessons.

“Me should go into town, need-um night school, maybe, Kemo Sabe.”

Teddy, fortunately, had better role models in his life than the Lone Ranger’s almost aphasic sidekick, better role models than those hundreds of other pop culture “Indians” he was going to encounter along the way.  But not everybody had such role models, Aboriginal or not.  Not everybody had their stereotypes corrected.

How many times was Teddy to hear in his lifetime, “You speak good English—for an Indian”?

What’s the correct response to that statement, masked man?

And then, remembering forward to another century, strolling along Las Ramblas in Barcelona, encountering a human statue posed, painted brown, in feathers and loincloth, lifting his arm periodically and saying, “Ugh!”

“Oh, look, Buffy, an Indian!  Come take my picture with him.”

 Continued at Legends of Myself 21

Posted in: autobiography