Lee Berrien Powell
1908 - 1944
(Courtesy of Jack Tillmany)
|The Lone RangerTM and TontoTM are trademarks, and the trademark, characters and likenesses are owned by Classic Media, Inc. More information is available at the Classic Media website: http://www.classicmedia.tv/. This website on Lee Powell is a fansite and is not connected with Classic Media, Inc.|
During the heyday of the B-western, there were many cowboy heroes who rode the range. Most western fans fondly remember Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Charles Starrett, William Boyd, Buster Crabbe, Tim McCoy, Buck Jones, Johnny Mack Brown, Ken Maynard, Bob Steele, and dozens of others. An overlooked and nearly forgotten western and serial star was Lee Powell, the silver screen's first Lone Ranger.
Lee Berrien Powell was born on May 15, 1908 in Long Beach, California. Powell was a pretty good action hero, and had demonstrated same as the star of two classic Republic serials of 1938, THE LONE RANGER and THE FIGHTING DEVIL DOGS. There's a bit of eerieness about Powell's starring role as a Marine in THE FIGHTING DEVIL DOGS, as he would be wearing a real Marine Corps uniform during World War II and fighting his way through various Pacific island jungles.
On a subsequent webpage, there's a link to more info on Powell's initial contract with Republic Pictures. In late 2005, the Hakes Auction organization was auctioning Powell's original Republic contract in which he was paid $100.00/week for work in the LR serial, and the contract was dated November 22, 1937. (The LR serial was filmed 11/28/1937 to 12/31/1937, followed several months later by DEVIL DOGS.)
After the LONE RANGER and DEVIL DOGS chapterplays, Republic offered Powell an updated deal, a five-year term player contract for $150.00 a week, six-month options, salary escalators, etc., which was typical studio enslavement at the time. Republic was planning a sequel to the immensely popular THE LONE RANGER chapterplay. But Powell or his agent made a wrong business decision. They refused the deal and demanded more, and Republic said "bye bye". Bob Livingston, a member of Republic's Three Mesquiteers cowboy trio and already under contract to the studio, was given the starring role in the sequel, THE LONE RANGER RIDES AGAIN (1939).
In 1939, Powell hired on with producer Phil Krasne and Grand National Pictures for a new trio western series featuring Powell along with big band singer/band leader Art Jarrett and Al St. John. During the mid to late 1930s, Grand National had several western/outdoor adventure series - there was Dorothy Page as the "Singing Cowgirl", James Newill as "Renfrew of the Royal Mounted", and western songster Tex Ritter. But Grand National was in financial trouble and would soon go 'belly-up' ... and the new trio with Jarrett, Powell and St. John consisted of one film, TRIGGER PALS (Grand National, 1939).
Following that, there were a few bit parts, but Powell's only substantive role came when he portrayed "Captain Roka" and helped Buster Crabbe fight Ming in the cliffhanger FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE (Universal, 1940).
Unable to land much film work, Powell signed on with the Barnett Brothers Circus, and later, with the Wallace Brothers Circus, billing himself as the "The Original Lone Ranger of Talking Picture Fame", to attract a larger audience. While working for the Barnett Brothers Circus, Powell met Norma Rogers, the daughter of the owner, and they were married in Chicago on January 22, 1940. Norma was also the star equestrienne with Barnett, and she and other riders would take their horses over jumps, through fire, etc. As to Lee Powell, he wore a costume similar to his Lone Ranger serial outfit and would gallop into the center ring astride a white horse and shout "Hi-Yo Silver" while the orchestra played the William Tell Overture.
|However, the Lone Ranger's owners went to court to halt Powell from using the Lone Ranger name/likeness and capitalizing on their property. The lawsuit was filed in May, 1939 against both Lee Powell and O. C. Cox, the owner of the circus. Two years later, Powell (and the Wallace Bros. Circus) won the right to continue using the Lone Ranger movie reference for Powell.
Various newspapers and Hollywood tradepapers had articles on the lawsuit in late June - early July, 1941. Below is an excerpt from an article in the July 1, 1941 issue of Film Daily:
"Spartanburg, S. C. --- In a decision handed down here by Federal Judge C. C. Wyche, Lee Powell, actor, was granted full right to advertise himself as 'The Lone Ranger' of talking pictures ..."
You can read the (lengthy) decision in LONE RANGER, INC. v. COX which was issued on June 26, 1941. Powell and Wallace Bros. won the suit because Powell wasn't calling himself The Lone Ranger. Instead, he and Wallace Bros. used "Lee Powell, The Original Lone Ranger of Talking Picture Fame", et al. And Federal Judge Wyche found that billing was true as Powell portrayed the masked man in the serial THE LONE RANGER (Republic, 1938) and the feature version HI-YO SILVER (Republic, 1940). The full lawsuit ruling is at: http://www.leagle.com/decision/194152639FSupp487_1384.xml/LONE%20RANGER,%20INC.%20v.%20COX
"... a United States Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Richmond, Virginia, where the court enjoined E. O. Cox, doing business as the Wallace Brothers Circus, and Lee Powell, actor, from advertising, and appearing as, 'The Lone Ranger'; and the court confirmed that the character belongs to the radio station which evolved it, station WXYZ, Detroit ..."
Somewhere in the midst of his circus work, Powell went back to Hollywood as a member of another western trio, the short-lived Frontier Marshals group for low budget Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC). Six films were lensed in late 1941 and early 1942. By then, Powell's movie career was in a real tailspin, as he was billed third behind western songsters Art Davis and Bill 'Cowboy Rambler' Boyd (not the William Boyd of Hopalong Cassidy fame).
He enlisted in the Marines on August 17, 1942 in Los Angeles, and reported to the Marine base at San Diego, California as a recruit. After boot camp, he was assigned to the 2d Battalion, 18th Marines (Engineers), 2d Marine Division at Camp Elliott, California. Powell saw action at Tarawa (in 1943) and Saipan (in 1944). On July 30, 1944, Sgt. Lee Powell, serial number 442926, died on Tinian (Marianas Islands). World War II era reports indicated he was killed in action, and that information has been carried forward to current times.
Television/movie actor and retired Marine Corps Officer Brent Davis has done some investigation into Powell's death on Tinian, and info follows:
1. Brent referred me to a recent book about Hollywood personalities in the Marine Corps. That book is STARS IN THE CORPS - Movie Actors in the United States Marines by James E. Wise, Jr., and Anne Collier Rehill (ISBN 1557509492, Naval Institute Press, 1999). James E. Wise, Jr. is a retired Navy captain and has authored many books of military history, biography and the performing arts, and one of his more recent works is James Arness: An Autobiography by James Arness with James E. Wise, Jr. (McFarland, 2001). STARS IN THE CORPS - Movie Actors in the United States Marines includes a section on Lee Powell and following are quotes from pages 164-165 (and italics added to highlight the quoted text):
"Sgt. Lee Powell lived through some of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific War. But then, on the same day that the Tinian battle ended, he died of acute poisoning. Newspapers at the time assumed he had been killed in action, but Sergeant Powell's USMC files report not only the alcohol poisoning, but some sort of "misconduct", the nature of which was "undetermined". Hypothetically, it must have had something to do with cutting loose a bit too much after having survived the hellish battles in which he was involved, perhaps by celebrating with vast quantites of methyl alcohol. Even small amounts of this highly toxic substance can kill; it can only be hoped that the courageous and successful warrior at least got to have one last good party with his buddies.
But the United States's erstwhile masked man carried the mystery to his grave. He was buried in the Marine Cemetery on Tinian and later, at the request of his father, moved to the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
Sergeant Powell, age thirty-five when he died, was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, the Asiatic-Pacific Area Campaign Medal with two stars, and the Victory Medal World War II. The latter two awards were sent to his widow in September, 1948."
2. About a dozen years prior to the publication of the above mentioned book, Brent was thinking about authoring a screenplay called "The Death of the Lone Ranger", and conducted his own research into the death of Lee Powell. In 1988-89, he was able to contact a dozen or so Marines who knew or served with Powell. Some were on Tinian. Some had recollections about Powell's death. Others simply reported what they heard via the grapevine. Their comments and recollections coincide with the info in the Wise book - Lee Powell (and one or more other Marines) found or concocted some kind of beverage to celebrate the Tinian victory. Powell was taken ill and passed away (and one of the Marines celebrating with him had to be hospitalized and was temporarily blinded for several weeks).
The former Marines had some additional remembrances of Powell and italics added to highlight quoted text. Some were in their late teens and Powell was in his mid thirties and one referred to him as a "father figure". Others noted "... would remember Lee with affection" and "... we all liked him" and "I remember Lee fondly" and "he had a singing voice that was beautiful" and "Lee was really a great guy, a good story teller, and such a generous person ..." and Powell was "a good Marine". Several recalled that they found out about Powell portraying the Lone Ranger and and got in some good-natured ribbing with taunts of "Hi Yo Silver!". Another mentioned that "Lee never did try to impress any of us, if anything, he played down his notoriety."
For those who may not be familiar with World War II history, Tinian was a key island in the Pacific and an airbase would be constructed there. On August 6, 1945, a B-29 Superfortress bomber named the "Enola Gay" would take off from Tinian on its atomic bomb run to the Japanese mainland and a city named Hiroshima.
Our age of innocence was over ... in a few short years the B-western and serial would completely fade away, replaced by more realistic cinema, a deluge of sci-fi movies, the Cold War and some new-fangled gadget called television. On the "tube", Clayton Moore starred as the Lone Ranger, and became the consummate Masked Rider of the Plains.
Today, few people recall Lee Powell and his brief Hollywood career. But for those who do, he will always be remembered as the first cinema Lone Ranger.
(Courtesy of Ed Phillips)
Above - the grave marker for Lee Powell at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii (AKA The Punchbowl), Section F, Gravesite Number 1246.
(From Old Corral image collection)
Above, Lee Powell is in Marine Corps dress on the left, and next to Powell is co-star Herman Brix (Bruce Bennett). Harry Strang is the Sergeant in the center of this lobby card from Chapter 1 of THE FIGHTING DEVIL DOGS (Republic, 1938). Powell is also shown in the right corner holding the .45 automatic. In the left border is the black-garbed 'Lightning', one of Republic's more memorable serial villains. A few years later, Powell would become a real Fighting Devil Dog and battle an enemy far more dangerous than the cinema Lightning.
(From Old Corral image collection)
|Lee Powell, behind the full-face mask in the 1938 LONE RANGER cliffhanger. On the left is Victor Daniels, who billed himself as Chief Thunder Cloud, and portrayed the masked man's trusted companion, Tonto.|
|The unmasked Lee Powell and Chief Thunder Cloud from THE LONE RANGER (Republic, 1938) serial.|
(From Old Corral image collection)