Thursday, January 8, 2004

”Texas! More than 260,000 square miles! And 50 men who make up the most famous and oldest law enforcement body in North America!”

Oh sure, the Lone Ranger might have been the most famous Texas Ranger (or should I say ex-Ranger) in Radio’s Golden Age, but on July 8, 1950 there was a new Ranger in town: Jace Pearson, modern-day personification of Texas Rangers everywhere. Tales of the Texas Rangers—which I listened to last night—was an underrated crime drama with a Western flavor that had an unfortunately brief run over NBC from 1950-52.

The idea for the series originated from Stacy Keach, Sr. (father of Stacy, Jr. and James), who had expressed an interest in what could very well be called the North American equivalent of the French Foreign Legion. Keach had proposed the idea as a motion picture, but by the time he got the okay from the Rangers organization the concept became a radio show. In researching the series with writer Joel Murcott, the two men were introduced to Captain M.T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas, a 30-year old veteran who served as technical advisor to the program and whose colorful background and stories provided much of the grist ultimately used for the material in the show’s scripts.

In listening to Tales of the Texas Rangers, one can’t help but notice that there is more than a passing similarity between it and NBC’s other popular police procedural, Dragnet. For example, Hal Gibney, one of the announcers on Dragnet, did double duty on this show as well. The opening credits would inform the audience that the stories broadcast were “based on fact…only names, dates, and places are fictitious for obvious reasons,” which is a roundabout way of saying “We’re trying to protect the innocent, dammit.” At the conclusion of each episode, the announcer would let listeners know that the evildoer from each episode was currently cooling his/her heels in Huntsville, a.k.a. the state penitentiary in the Lone Star State.

Tales of the Texas Rangers might very well be a knockoff of Dragnet, but I still think it’s pretty entertaining. It stars actor Joel McCrea in the lead role of Ranger Jace Pearson—McCrea is one of my particular film star favorites, an actor who I’m convinced never got the accolades that he deserved despite fine performances in films like Foreign Correspondent (1940), Sullivan’s Travels (1942), and my favorite of them all, Ride the High Country (1962). (In the shows I listened to, the announcer mentions that McCrea can currently be seen in Stars in My Crown, another fine film on McCrea’s resume.) The only other regular character on the show was Pearson’s superior, Captain Stinson, played by actor Tony Barrett (who also narrated the episodes).

The first show I previewed, “Play For Keeps,” was originally broadcast September 2, 1950 over NBC and the plot involves Bob Smithers—sheriff of Bradshaw County—and his attempts to shut down a gambling den run by the loathsome Lou Walton. The problem is, Walton keeps getting tipped off as to when Smithers is going to conduct his raids—and the person supplying the info is none other than Smithers’ constable, Jim Dunne. During a struggle at Walton’s, Dunne kills the sheriff and both he and Walton cover it up, but Frank Carlin, editor of The Bradshaw Times isn’t satisfied with Dunne’s “investigation” and so his articles attract the attention of the Texas Rangers, who put Jace Pearson on the case.

The second episode, “Dead or Alive,” is set against the background of a tragedy that occurred in 1947: a series of explosions from chemical plants and ore smelters rock Texas City and Galveston, leading a woman named Lillian Young to look for her missing brother among the unclaimed dead. Her husband Vance, a professional “knob knocker” (safecracker), talks her into identifying her deceased relative as him, since he’s currently a fugitive on the run from the law. She does so, allowing Vance to rob a safe in the hopes that Pearson and the Rangers will be convinced that dead men can’t crack safes. Of course, Jace cracks the case quicker than you can sing "The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You" (the Texas Ranger March and theme of the show).

I’m not certain why Tales of the Texas Rangers had such a short life on radio, but an educated guess would be because the show, during most of its run, was a sustaining series (although its first two months on the air were paid for by the good folks at Wheaties-General Mills). About three years after its last radio broadcast on September 14, 1952, a Saturday morning TV version premiered on CBS on September 3, 1955 and lasted until May 25, 1957—then the series ended up in reruns on ABC-TV from 1957-59. The television incarnation featured Willard Parker as Pearson and Harry Lauter as his partner, Clay Morgan.

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