Ranger Danger

14 Jul

This piece was originally posted on Sunday, July 14, 2013. I began writing it that day–right after I saw the dreadful second weekend box office dip for the already disastrous Lone Ranger movie on Box Office Mojo.  Imagine my surprise when I came home today and found an issue of Entertainment Weekly in my mailbox. Why is that surprising? Well, I received an issue of the magazine, dated July 26, this past Friday (the 19th, to clarify), which means that for some reason last week’s issue arrived a week late. When I didn’t get an issue a week ago, I just figured that EW, as is often the case, was still on hiatus following a special double issue that likely came out around July 4th. Seemed plausible to me.  At any rate, when I opened my week-old issue today, I was stunned to find a huge story about The Lone Ranger‘s dud debut and the possible impact that so many gimmicky roles has had–and might continue to have on Johnny Depp’s career. The writer even zeroed in on one of Depp’s best non-gimmicky roles in 1997’s Donnie Brasco–just as I also point out in my post. 

Here is my point. In the two years that I have been writing this blog, I have committed a few boo-boos, and I usually try to clean those up just as soon as possible. When I use the word “boo-boo,” I mean factual glitches that I should have double-checked before I hit the “Publish”  button; sometimes, my typing skills fail me, and I have typos rather than outright spelling errors. To me, those are different things. At the same time, I want to be clear that one thing I have never done is plagiarize another writer’s work. (The EW article is by Owen Gleiberman, btw.) Anyone who has read this blog with any regularity has no doubt noticed the abundance of links I include with my articles: The New York Times, the Internet Movie Database, Box Office Mojo, Variety, Entertainment Weekly, and various books–mainly Alternate Oscars by Danny Peary and Inside Oscar by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona. I have also quoted other websites and books, especially biographies and autobiographies.

I was a journalism geek in high school, I majored in English in college, and I have successfully completed an “Information Literacy Certification” program at the college where I now teach. Believe me, I do understand the peril of plagiarism, and I know how to cite sources. Even for a mere blog piece. I have actually dealt with plagiarism among students in my job as a teacher, and I have delivered bad news, in the form of an “F,” to my students who have been caught.  Furthermore, I had already told some of my friends that I was planning on writing an article entitled “Remember When Johnny Depp Didn’t Suck?” if and when The Lone Ranger proved to be the turkey that I had a hunch it would be. Plus, as noted, in the original article,  I wanted to go back and spotlight the original Lone Ranger TV series’ use of The William Tell Overture; likewise, I wanted to write a little something about Jay Silverheels, the actor who made the Tonto character famous back in the day. Oh, and I thought it would be fun to mention Rango, 2011’s Oscar winning animated feature–which I had not seen at the time of its victory. 

Gleiberman’s article was written right after The Lone Ranger opened, and the issue likely shipped just as the movie was headed into its second weekend–keep in mind that journals are often dated a week ahead so that the date actually reflects the last day the periodical should be on the stands before the new issue hits–this is, as I understand it, a tool to help vendors when they’re stocking. If I had received the July 19 issue as scheduled, it probably would have arrived on Friday, July 12 or Saturday, July 13; I  probably would have also referred to Gleiberman’s article anyway, but I would have cited it. That’s how I roll. Looking at this from my perspective, knowing now that my article actually appeared on the heels of Gleiberman’s, I feel creeped-out.  I know my blog is not necessarily important writing, and it doesn’t have a huge audience. Plus, I’m guessing that a lot of my readers probably don’t think too much about Entertainment Weekly anyway–though I have been a subscriber since the first issue, early in 1990, with k.d. lang on the cover. Still, I value my integrity as much as anybody else values his/her own. I  also guess it’s fair to say that both Gleiberman and I share some of the same concerns when it comes to Depp, and we both think the actor did some of his finest work in Donnie Brasco. Of course, Gleiberman and I differ in that he actually had to sit through Depp’s turn as the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland while I took one look at the overwrought makeup and knew the film wasn’t for me. I didn’t mention Alice in my article for the very reason that I had not seen the film, nor do I plan to do so (plus, that one, unlike The Lone Ranger and even Dark Shadows, was a huge, huge, hit) ; likewise, I have often written skeptically of Depp in the past as when I wrote about his interest in playing Nick Charles in a new Thin Man movie–just as his and director Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows reboot was about to flop hard in the spring of 2012. I also had some commentary about his over-generously Oscar nominated performance in Sweeney Todd (2007) in a 2011 piece I wrote about Ryan Gossling in the same year’s Lars and the Real Girl. Anyway, that’s all. I feel the need to clear the air. 

Here is a link to Gleiberman’s article:


Here is my original article:

Well, by now I’m sure that most of you know Disney’s attempt to refashion the old-school  The Lone Ranger TV and radio series as a souped-up big bucks franchise has failed miserably. With a reported budget of $215 million (per Box Office Mojo), the movie grossed a relatively meager 48 million in its first five days, which, don’t forget, fell into what is generally considered a long holiday weekend,  traditionally a strong and important period for moviegoing. (To clarify, the movie opened on July 3rd.)  Of course, 48 million seems like a lot of money–only because it is–but compare the numbers to Despicable Me 2, which opened the same weekend:  a first place finish with a gross of 148 million, that is, at least three times the amount of The Lone Ranger.  Ranger Danger.

Now, in its second weekend, The Lone Ranger is fading faster than that ever-fabled cloud of dust.  With a dip of over 60%–never a good sign–the movie fell from #2 on the charts to #5. With domestic grosses of 71 million, and steadily declining, its  chances of recouping are slim to none, considering that even if the film earned back its staggering production costs, that still doesn’t cover marketing and distribution expenses. Oh, and don’t talk to me about foreign sales because I see a great big Ranger Danger alert there too, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Now, it probably comes as a surprise to no one that I could have easily predicted this mess if only anyone had asked me, and here’s why:

  1. Armie Hammer is not a star. Who’s Armie Hammer, you ask? Exactly. He’s the guy playing the Lone Ranger. Funny thing, that. Am I the only one who remembers the last time, a big Hollywood studio tried to relaunch The Lone Ranger as a big screen entertainment only to meet a disastrous fate? In that one, circa 1981, the masked man was played by Klinton Spilsbury, a name every bit as memorable as Armie Hammer. Actually, I never saw the 1981 redo, but I’ve never forgotten the name, and last weekend, when I was looking for a whatever happened to Klinton Spilsbury type article, I came across an interesting piece at EW online. (I’ve included a link following this article.) There’s no doubt that Spilsbury was a great looking guy, once described as a cross between a young Clint Eastwood and a young Warren Beatty. Okay, that’s hot; check the photo in the article. Even so, Spilsbury reportedly just couldn’t “act” all that well. Now, I’m not implying that new masked man Armie Hammer cannot act, but he’s not a star. That’s an important part of this equation.  Hammer is blandly good looking, but he’s no Klinton Spilsbury, and if he were a more seasoned talent, he might have been perfect, but, so far, he has not demonstrated star quality in his most high profile roles: The Social Network, J. Edgar, and Mirror, Mirror (all more or less supporting roles, btw). At this point, yeah, I guess he seems likable enough, but I’m not even sure he’s a good–strong–actor.
  2. Wtf, Johnny Depp as Tonto? I want to state right here for the record that the minute I saw Johnny Depp’s over-the-top makeup as Tonto, in publicity photos probably released about a year or so ago, I knew that The Lone Ranger held no interest for me.  I know he was reportedly inspired by a painting entitled I am Crow by Kirby Sattler, but I think he got carried away and went too literal.  I also know I should not criticize a movie I have not seen, and I’m not doing that. I’m explaining why I don’t want to see the movie, and why, looking from the outside, I think appears to be–no, is–a mess.


    Remember when Johnny Depp didn’t suck? Before he achieved mega-blockbuster status, and his first Oscar nomination, with 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Depp was known mostly as the idiosyncratic, charismatic star of often quirky features, such as Edward Scissorhands, Benny & Joon, and Ed Wood (all of them Golden Globe nominated) as well as the great American classic, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. For me, his best performance is also his least typical: the conflicted undercover agent in 1997’s Donnie Brasco, (above)  based on a true story. This is an instance in which this gifted actor proves himself with talent and characterization, down to the most minute detail, rather than personality, tics, costume, and makeup. Edward Scissorhands and Gilbert Grape tie for a close second. Lately, his filmography, with few exceptions, is full of crap, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Tourist, Dark Shadows, and, now, The Lone Ranger. Oh, and don’t get me started on Sweeney Todd.

  3. For me, the problem is that Johnny Depp is still very much a star, which would almost be fine if the movie were entitled Tonto, but it’s not, and I think it’s a mistake when the top-billed actor, which is Depp, is playing the hero’s partner. As it is, they’re not equals, not even close. It’s confusing and out-of-balance. I have only heard mixed reviews about Depp’s performance. I know he wanted to do something different to distinguish his performance from Jay Silverheels on the old TV show, but there have been complaints that he hasn’t exactly advanced portrayals of Native Americans.  Indeed, there is even controversy about a non-Native American playing the character. Depp says he comes from Cherokee blood; others disagree. I’m sure Rodney Grant, Eric Schweig, and even Wes Studi would have been just fine in the role. For the record, Michael Horse, also a Native American, played Tonto in 1981’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger. So there.


    Hindisght, as the old saying goes, is always 20-20, which is why I think it’s almost too easy–now–to criticize Jay Silveheels (above) and his portrayal of Tonto in the old Lone Ranger TV series, which ran from 1949 to 1957. Some critics, including Native American author Sherman Alexie, complain that Tonto was, well, not so bright. Since, unlike Alexie, I am not Native American, I’m sure my reading of the character is much different from his, and I respect that. I also know I care not to revisit the Lone Ranger anytime soon lest all my illusions be shattered. What I remember is that most of my friends always thought Tonto was the cool one in the equation. Yep, Tonto was cool, and Silverheels was a good looking guy, much easier on the eyes than that masked man. I never thought of him as merely a sidekick. To me, he and the Lone Ranger were partners. Of course, maybe that’s just a reflection of my white privilege. It’s possible. Still, I’d like to point out that in an era in which Native Americans, or as we called them then, Indians, were often portrayed as noble savages, or just savages, Silverheels offered a welcome  variation, and he wasn’t a drunk, a con artist, or a buffoon, per countless sitcoms. Instead, he was to borrow a quote, unequivocally good. Okay, the pidgin English is pretty indefensible.  Silverheels (nee Harold J. Smith), a Mohawk hailing from Canada, was a hardworking actor who amassed, per the IMDb, a whopping 102 TV and film credits in his career (including Key Largo and Broken Arrow), many of them uncredited.  He also reportedly knew how to laugh at himself when necessary per his appearance in a famous Tonight Show skit with Johnny Carson.  His contribution to American pop culture has not gone unappreciated as he was recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame besides being inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, the first Native American so honored. He did not appear in the first several episodes of The Lone Ranger though once his character was introduced, he was there for the entire run of the series–unlike Clayton Moore who was briefly replaced as the titular character. Silverheels passed away in 1980. In his later years, he was a prominent activist and acting coach.

  4. Oh, I know someone somewhere will be quick to point out that since Depp is the bigger, and more beloved, star, and one of the film’s producers as well, it made perfect business sense to build the marketing campaign around him, but I say…not so fast, Kemosabe. That so-called smart business sense is really nothing more than corporate bait-and-switch greediness (not to mention a generous dollop of ego). Plus, hello, it didn’t work, did it? The movie is an epic stinker. What would have made more sense would have been to not make the movie at all and spend the 215 million on a handful of solid, if modestly budgeted, flicks. Another thought would have been to bank less on Depp’s magnetism and to cast someone more nearly equal as the Lone Ranger in the first place, say, Channing Tatum or even Matthew McCOnaughey, or why not go for broke and cast Depp in both roles? Hey, now that’s an idea!
  5. I think the suits at Disney over-estimated The Lone Ranger‘s appeal to younger moviegoers. Oh sure, people 50 and older might have fond memories of watching seemingly endless reruns  of the Lone Ranger and Tonto on black and white TV back in the day, but, come on, today’s target demographic of teens-to-twentysomethings have little or no awareness of that old series in their collective consciousness–aside, possibly, from the signature music–and, heck, even my generation avoided the Spilbsury reboot. Some things are just better left in their own eras. This is also why I think The Lone Ranger will have difficulty in overseas markets. It’s too specific to a particular moment in U.S culture. Of course, the people at Disney had other ideas. They likely anticipated the dearth of awareness among their target audience, so they basically attempted to reinvent The Lone Ranger using the Pirates of the Caribbean template: hire the same actor, Depp, give him outrageous costumes and makeup, and, oh yes, hire the same director, Gore Verbinski. Also, throw lots of money at it and fill it with huge explosive action sequences; however, if that’s all the powers that be had in mind, wouldn’t it have been more prudent just to make another Pirates of the Caribbean movie? God, please no.  Not that.  I liked the first one a lot, and I loved Depp in it, especially. There was novelty in his performance, and it was a nice little kick in the pants; I think I might have liked the second one even more at moments, but the third one was a mess, and I skipped the last one. I plan to skip the next installment, in the planning stages, as well. By now, the whole thing is tiresome.
Rango is an animated western in which Johnny Depp voices the title character, a chameleon who takes on the role of sheriff in a lawless town.

Neighbor, have you still not caught up with Rango, 2011’s Oscar winning animated feature film? If not, well, don’t you think it’s time?

If you just have to see Depp in a western directed by Verbinski, you might check out the next best thing: Rango, 2011’s Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature. In this one, Depp provides the voice of the title character, a chameleon, literally, with an identity crisis–nice, huh?–who wanders into a town right out of the Old West. What follows is an pastiche of a bunch of flicks reenacted by desert critters,  most notably Chinatown, with Ned Beatty doing a gosh-darn good job of recreating John Huston’s villainous Noah Cross as a turtle, along with High Noon and the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. It’s all marvellously fun, with lots of cinema in-jokes, and the animated effects are beautifully rendered. Depp, free from human form, does an excellent job of giving supple voice to his character.

Finally, a few weeks ago, I did a piece that covered some of the most memorable scores to westerns of a certain era, mainly How the West Was Won, The Magnificent Seven, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, along with such equally legendary TV themes as Bonanza, Rawhide, and Dallas. At the time, I considered including the theme from The Lone Ranger, that is, a portion–the fourth movement–of  The William Tell Overture by Giochino Rossini. Ultimately, I did not include it for two reasons: 1. Unlike the other pieces in the entry, it is not an original piece of music, that is, again, it was not composed specifically for the Lone Ranger series, right?  2. Because the release of the latest Lone Ranger movie was just around the corner at the time, I did not want my article to be perceived as plug for anything connected to the Disney corporation. Those folks get enough coverage; however, I have since considered the possibility that the rich, thrilling, almost epic, scores for the likes of How the West Was Won, The Magnificent Seven, etc., might have very well been inspired by the use of Rossini’s music in its TV western context. Isn’t it just about the most profound example, or one of the most profound examples, of classical music being re-appropriated for pop culture? Yes? Isn’t it also possible that the impact of it inspired such composers as Alfred Newman & Ken Darby (How the West Was Won), Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven), and all the rest as they evoked the spirit of the old west?  This is not a claim, but rather an interesting proposition.  I’m including a clip of The Lone Ranger series here; you can go back to the previous piece if you so choose to make a determination or comparison for yourself.

Thanks for your consideration…

The Lone Ranger at Box Office Mojo: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=loneranger.htm

The Legend of Klinton Spilsbury” at Entertainment Weekly online:


Johnny Depp explains the inspiration for his Tonto makeup:


Artist Kirby Sattler’s website: http://kirbysattler.sattlerartprint.com/

Article about Depp’s alleged Cherokee heritage from a Native American perspective: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/06/17/disney-exploiting-confusion-about-whether-depp-has-indian-blood-149941

Jay Silverheels at the Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0798855/

National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum: http://www.nationalcowboymuseum.org/Default.aspx

Native American actor Wes Studi follows Silverheels into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum:


Lengthy blog article about Silverheels via the indie radio station WFMU: http://blog.wfmu.org/freeform/2009/03/tonto-via-toronto-the-rise-and-fall-of-jay-silverheels.html

From the Los Angeles Times, Why Sherman Alexie dislikes Tonto: http://articles.latimes.com/1998/jun/28/entertainment/ca-64216

An excerpt from the documentary, Jay Silverheels: The Man Beside the Mask –  I’ve included this clip because it shows that everyone has an opinion about Silverheels, including an unidentified Native American that appears to be actor Michael Horse, who played Tonto in 1981’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger. Unlike Klinton Spilsbury, Horse has gone on to bigger and better gigs, such as Twin Peaks, Roswell, and the Oscar nominated animated feature Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, among many, many others. Still, he has only positive things to say about Silverheels:


3 Responses to “Ranger Danger”

  1. michael 15 July 2013 at 9:58 am #

    good one.
    especially enjoyed the stuff youn dug up about Jay Silverheels.

  2. listen2uraunt 22 July 2013 at 8:08 pm #

    Reblogged this on Confessions of a Movie Queen and commented:

    I’m reposting “Ranger Danger” because I want to clear the air about an unfortunately timed coincidence.

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