Lash, Hopalong, Paladin, Yuma: Morality I Understood
The government and the entertainment industry are still posturing at each other over who should control what kids watch on TV. The industry has said its Saturday morning programs ought to qualify as educational because the good guys always win; therefore the cartoon dramas should be classified as morality plays.
One recent Saturday morning I watched a quartet of muscular heroes in pastel jumpsuits trading lightning bolts with some nightmarish creatures who had vocal cord problems and probably bad breath too. They destroyed a couple of continents in the process of hurling unimaginable energies at each other, and the good guys won because of superior technology and cleverness, not because of superior morality.
There used to be morality plays on the air, programs from which an impressionable young person could indeed draw lessons about the clash between good and evil, about the rule of law, and justice.
They were westerns, the old-fashioned kind. There were a lot of wandering heroes in the early days of TV, and they all had a gimmick. Lash Larue imposed order with a bullwhip. Hopalong Cassidy had white hair, a limp, and a horse named Topper. They were real make-believe heroes, who fought real make-believe evil, like the rustler, the train robber, and the slimy guy who ran the corrupt town. The drifter hero would ride in, try to mind his own business, and within a half hour righted a wrong before riding off again, while some dewy-eyed damsel who'd been rescued waved sadly after him.
The era of the nomadic cowboy fizzled out on TV about a generation ago.
Like Johnny Yuma, the rebel who rode through the West and off TV after a season or two, in spite of the macho infusion from Johnny Cash's title song. Johnny Yuma looked like John Denver, and his gimmick was that he wore the scraps of a Confederate uniform. Not enough to keep him on the air.
Or, Paladin, who roamed into late-night rerun land eventually, after a good run against type. Imagine a good guy with a used face, who wore black, had a big mustache, and handed out business cards. Who'd imagine that'd ever work?
But the ultimate wandering hero was the Lone Ranger, especially on radio. The imagination could always provide the scenes the script hinted at, especially with gunshots, clopping hooves, and other sound effects setting the mental stage. And the dialogue, except for Tonto's, was what carried the action forward.
"Nnnnh. Me see big trouble in town, Kemo Sabe." They didn't pay Tonto's writer very much.
At the end of the episode, the Lone Ranger would shoot a gun out of some bad guy's hand with a silver bullet, which is probably impossible, and then climb onto the mighty white horse Silver and ride awaaaay!
And the baffled beneficiary of all that heroism would be left standing there holding a souvenir silver bullet, and ask, "Who was that masked man?"
And invariably there'd be some old coot standing around, and he'd say, "Sonny, that was the Lone Ranger."
The hero never killed anybody. Bad guys went to jail, where honest sheriffs kept them until honest judges and juries decided their fate, and if they were bad enough they went to the gallows. The system worked, with a little help from broadcasting's first superhero.
I learned about good and evil and truth and justice the American way, from the cowboys. Maybe parents ought to rent some of those old morality plays for their kids on Saturday mornings, instead of abdicating to the other merchandisers of "action figures."
* Steve Delaney is a writer and broadcaster living in rural Milton, Vt.