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A formative milestone in kid's entertainment, tv hype, and merchandising mania, The Davy Crockett phenomenon has survived much longer than the two tv series that Walt Disney launched in 1954 and '55. Part of his major push into live action that literally raked in the cash (alongside his theatrical smash, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), The Davy Crockett tv shows were photograped in color, even though the first broadcasts were in black and white. Savant had the raccoon hat, the whole works, and can remember getting in a heap 'o trouble because I whacked my older sister on the head with a toy gun while watching the ending. Served her right for sitting in front of me.
2. Davy Crockett Goes to Congress. After sticking up for Indian rights and pacifying West Tennessee, Crockett serves a stint in Congress, again championing Indian rights. Ex-officer Norton is now a political wag who tries to get Davy out of town so a bad bill can be passed, but Russel brings Davy back to argue on the floor of the House, and good triumphs.
3. Davy Crockett at the Alamo. Always looking for a fight involving freedom, Davy goes to Texas to help Jim Bowie (Kenneth Tobey) hold off General Santa Anna. With him he brings idealistic cardsharp Thimblerig (Hans Conreid) and confused Indian Busted Luck (Nick Cravat). George Russel comes along too but is upset when it appears Davy has gone along with Bowie's deception about expected aid. Yet when the chips are down, Russel sneaks out with a message and then sneaks back in, to fight to the end with his old pal.
4. Davy Crockett's Keelboat Race. Davy and George get snared into a race of dueling dirty tricks with Mike Fink (Jeff York) and his crew of swarthy river rats.
5. Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. Working their way back upriver with the now-friendly Mike Fink, Davy and George take on a band of thieves who jump keelboats while disguised as Indians.
Once the height of schoolyard hipness, and now something of a curiosity, the Davy Crockett shows are a fascinating example of a talented, savvy, and adventurous Walt Disney striking out in new entertainment directions. 1954 had to be a pretty busy time for the master entertainer; besides producing one of the biggest shows on television and continuing with his animated classics, he was also finishing up his Jules Verne movie, shooting underwater in the new CinemaScope process. Oh, and he was also launching the Disneyland theme park!
As television shows from 1954, these are pretty impressive. Most of the competition were half-hour cheapies like Dragnet and Highway Patrol, shot on an assembly line so that a week's work might yield 3 or four complete shows. The Davy Crockett shows are nicely produced, utilizing top Hollywood talent and clearly shepherded by Disney himself. His animation writers and art directors got a chance to move into live-action, and matte whiz Peter Ellenshaw had more opportunity to do great work. Shooting on location, Disney also used his brain by filming in color, with the idea of issuing the series as a standalone movie after the black and white television debut. For actors, he found Fess Parker, a folksy, handsome tall fellow with a sober face. 1 To back Parker up (and dramatically hold the show together), Disney nabbed Buddy Ebsen, a musical comedy star with a middling career at MGM, who had clearly seen better days.
The series holds up better as light entertainment, than good drama or accurate history. Davy Crockett already had some of the best publicity in U.S. history before Disney, and this show turned him into Yankee Doodle, Mr. Deeds and John Wayne rolled into one. The scripts are smart 50s concoctions, co-opting the Civil Rights movement by having Crockett, a lowly Army scout, make personal deals with Indian chiefs, promising that their treaties with the U.S. government will be honored. Charming Washington with a line of palaver that suggests a totally un-cynical Will Rogers, Crockett's untarnished idealism is shown to be an innate American virtue that triumphs over bureaucratic evil, simply by providing a shining example.
The Alamo episode tells the official story that Texan independence was a battle for Freedom pure and simple, a point Savant won't argue here. For 1954 audiences confused by the lack of a clear ending to Korea and the growing feeling of hostility in the Cold War world, this affirmation of American values, even if based on total falsehoods, was exactly what we wanted to see. The downbeat ending evoked a continuity of glorious martyrdom, from the Alamo, through Wake Island, to Iwo Jima. 2
The storytelling in the first 3-show series is klunky but effective. The Ballad of Davy Crockett is used to round out each show and assure us that this is one special man we're watching, and it's a very hummable tune. Younger viewers will finally find out where the source of the Dr. Demento favorite, the un-PC Pancho Gomez comes from. A great deal of Disney's animation success can be attributed to his great songwriters and composers, especially the songs and music that held together his late-40s 'medley' movies; and the ballad here is a shrewd carryover. One cute observation is that each chapter begins with a book cover that says 'Davy Crockett's Journal', written by himself. This makes the Alamo chapter where Davy kicks the well-bucket, quite an achievement in authorship.
The freedom to recklessly rewrite history is a staple of American movies, and until Oliver Stone, few moviemakers were ever taken to task for it. The picture is fascinating for its 1950s whitewash of everything Crockett. The only obstacles in Crockett's career (at least until the Chinese-horde Mexicans march in) are individual thugs like Mike Mazurki, or sneaky politicos like William Bakewell. The frontiersman's purity sees him through every lowpoint, as with the death of his wife. The politics of the shows are remarkably two-faced, in one chapter calling the native Americans 'sneaky red-skinned varmints', and in the next coddling them as needy victims. This lack of insight on the subject of Indians was a commonplace in the 50s, as can be seen here in the fact that war chief Red Stick is given the buffalo-horned headpiece of a plains Indian, even though his hunting ground is Alabama and Florida.
The scripts are simple and efficient, and make great use of the Sancho Panza rule of heroism: to make your hero beloved, give him a doting sidekick. Buddy Ebsen is easily the best thing in these pictures, as he plays a great second fiddle to the rather dull Fess Parker. They even let him dance a bit, and he's too smart a performer to do anything show-off, just a few jig steps. In the Alamo episode, the script gives Davy two additional sidekicks. The wonderful Nick Cravat, Burt Lancaster's non-speaking trapeze partner in several pirate pictures, plays a sad sack (and illogically loyal) Indian, and Hans Conreid (The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T) does great work with his foppish cardsharp, turning nicely from the comic to the serious as the story darkens. All three stick it out to stay with Davy to the very end.
The second series, shot in 1955, is a marked improvement overall, with more emphasis on scripting and character, and much more lavishly produced. Besides the Bluto-like Mike Fink, you've got Kenneth Tobey back, this time as a Popeye-ish goon in Fink's boatload of merry thugs. Nowhere near as pious as the first series, these stories are ostensibly 'based' on the pamphlet penny-dreadfuls that championed Crockett's adventures. The action is more violent, the heroes are no longer squeaky clean, and there are no more attempts made to twist history into a Tennessee pretzel.
The keelboats that figure in the story look like miniaturized versions of the boats in one of Savant's favorite Hawks films, The Big Sky. Disney seemed to make one kind of movie, but liked other kinds as well, because he was constantly casting actors from genre efforts like Them! and The Crawling Eye. With very broad comedy and a constant sense of good natured fun, the two second-series entries are very rewarding.
This Disney Treasures collection comes in an attractive tin that like all non-standard packaging, ends up being a storage nuisance. Disc one contains the three 1954 shows, and disc two the 1955 followups, along with a short docu on the Crockett Craze and an interview with Fess Parker. Disney's official host Leonard Maltin does a good job interviewing a Davy C. expert in the docu, and the Fess Parker interview is done at the actor's Santa Barbara winery. Parker looks like a happy guy who graciously rode the Crockett craze for all it was worth, and who spent his money wisely.
Posters included in the printed inserts tout the theatrical features made by re-editing the shows for the big screen. The versions on this disc are clearly the original broadcast edits, as they start in black and white for the titles and intro, and segue to color as the shows begin. Every so often, there's a transition shot or a dissolve that didn't exist in the color version, and the film pops back to b&w again. There are also a couple of scenes with inferior color, for which the elements must have faded. Overall, the color is reasonable and the picture not too grainy. I don't know if these shows were shot with a Tech camera or the new Eastman single strip, but slightly flawed material in either process could account for the grain. Full b&w promos for the next week's shows on the Walt Disney TV show are included. The end credits even retain the original promo voiceover touting 20,000 Leagues, Disney's big 1954 Christmas theatrical sensation.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Found by Disney, of course, in the great monster movie, Them!.
The docu on this disc pretty much clears that up, even though the Davy Crockett expert interviewed
isn't aware of Parker's great featured bit in that film: "Like tuh 'scared the pants off
me! Sorry, Ma'am!".
2. This in contrast to Disney's faithfulness to the almost subversive nature of
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, casting Captain Nemo as an embittered anticolonial terrorist.