Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Celluloid Alamo: 5

 

Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier (Buena Vista, 1955)

 

An earlier Alamo film, in 1926, which we looked at in The Celluloid Alamo: 2, put Davy Crockett front and center of the Alamo story, with the title Davy Crockett at the Fall of the Alamo. Usually hitherto Crockett had played a relatively minor role (he often doesn’t even turn up till half way through the siege) but he was still part of the holy trinity of Travis, Bowie and Crockett, the central figures of Alamism (as I call it), that religion so dear to the hearts of (Anglo) Texans.

 

When he was still David Crockett

 

So Crockett was a revered figure to the faithful, but it wasn’t till the mid-1950s that the coonskin-capped one really began to dominate things. For many people, Crockett became the hero of the Alamo. It was thanks to Walt Disney.

 

Ideal material for Walt

 

Anxious to diversify, move into live action films, and raise capital for the new venture Disneyland, also to encourage patriotism and do down the Communists he was convinced were responsible for his labor woes, believing too in the new medium of television, Disney did a deal with ABC. The network bought a third of Disneyland stock and in return Disney produced a weekly TV show, Walt Disney’s Disneyland.

 

They had a huge hit with Davy Crockett, which aired on ABC from December 1954 thru February 1955 in one-hour episodes, with tall Fess Parker as Crockett. Crockett had been a pretty minor figure before. In the 1945 book The Age of Jackson, Arthur Schlesinger Jr called him “a phony frontiersman” and a con artist who wasn’t smart enough to cut it in Washington. He was often thought of as a boastful bumpkin overfond of bourbon. In Harpers, Texas-born John Fischer called Crockett a juvenile delinquent, a deserter “who weaseled his way out of the army”, an indolent and failed farmer, a hopeless politcian and hack writer. But Disney’s version would be nothing like that.

 

Frontier populism, especially the b’ars, rugged individualism, patriotism, family values, not to mention a heroic death defending liberty, this was the new Crockett.

 

According to historians Randy Roberts and James Olson, “By the end of the shows, Fess Parker was very well known, the power of television was fully recognized, and Davy Crockett was the most famous frontiersman in American history.” The program certainly sparked a major craze among small boys. Crockett fever raged nationwide.

 

 

Sales of child-sized coonskin caps went through the roof. Apparently the price of a pound of raccoon tails (yup, that’s a thing) went from 25 cents to $8.

 

Hats

 

Comics

 

Books

 

Disney raked in millions. Americans spent $100m on Crockett merchandise and an astonishing 10% of all children’s clothing sold was Crockett-affiliated.

 

I myself don’t recall it very well at the time – apart from the song, which I sang endlessly. Oh, and the joke about Davy having three ears, one on the left, one on the right and a wild frontier. I thought it was hilarious. I was only six, and I think the show was pitched at those with a mental age of about ten. But the series was repeated on NBC in the 1960s after Disney had moved his program to that network, gaining a new audience. And in color – although the ABC show had been broadcast in black & white, Disney had shrewdly had it filmed in color, with re-releases in mind.

 

Davy on TV

 

In between, in 1955, Disney cashed in by editing together Davy Crockett Indian Fighter, Davy Crockett Goes to Congress, and Davy Crockett at the Alamo into one feature film for theatrical release, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier. It was another smash.

 

 

The first thing to say when it is seen now (on DVD) is what a stiff actor Parker was. To call him wooden is really unkind to trees. He was apparently the despair of director Norman Foster who later said, “I found that if I didn’t do something to get adrenaline into his system, he would get slower and slower. He seemed to lack vitality. I told him to take vitamin pills.” Parker was also barely thirty at the time and looked younger, while the real Crockett was 50 at the time of his death at the Alamo. All sorts of actors had been in the running for the part, Sterling Hayden, George Montgomery, Ronald Reagan and James Arness, for example, but Parker was Disney’s own choice. He saw Parker in Them! and preferred him over Arness, who became Matt Dillon instead.

 

Unkind to trees

 

Foster himself, not one of the great Western directors, was a former director in Fox’s B unit turning out Mr Moto pictures. Probably his best work was helming the early Western Rachel and the Stranger in 1948, with Loretta Young, William Holden and Robert Mitchum. He did mostly TV shows from the 50s on.

 

Norman at the helm

 

There is some nice photography by Charles P Boyle but this directing, the acting (exception made for Basil Ruysdael, the best actor on the set, as Andrew Jackson), and the writing, by member of the Disney story department Thomas W Blackburn, as well as the padding from the many Disney nature films, combined to make this Davy Crockett plodding and juvenile.

 

Basil is Andy

 

The fact remains that it became hugely popular, and Crockett was elevated from just another frontiersman to top American buckskin-and-musket hero. And Parker was Davy Crockett to millions of people. Buddy Ebsen, who had been among the actors considered for the role of Crockett, became the rambunctious sidekick and biographer Georgie Russel (a sort of fictionalized George Russell, mentioned in passing in Crockett’s autobiography). With Ebsen we might have got a truer Crockett, but Parker’s version was staid and noble, not the vulgar and sardonic trickster with a dash of wicked charm.

 

Fess and his Buddy

 

The Disney Crockett was certainly the epitome of the heroic Alamo narrative. As Frank Thompson says in his book Alamo Movies, “There he stands at the top of the Alamo’s stone steps, the last defender alive, clubbing away at the oncoming Mexicans with his shattered and treasured Ol’ Betsy.” And the present author (viz. Jeff) adds that Davy had slain bears rather than a lion and he belabored his enemies with an empty musket rather than the jawbone of an ass but those durned Meskins were Phillistines alright and Davy was Texas’s Samson. It was a biblical fable.

 

Heroic Davy

 

For of course this was probably the most ‘heroic’ version of all the Alamo films. There are good grounds to believe that in reality Crockett may not have died like that, but might have surrendered and been executed after the battle. But this is anathema, heresy and sacrilege all combined to true Alamo believers. Crockett must go down fighting, heroically defying the odds. Fess Parker, surrender to Santa Anna? Never!

 

Crockett, Bowie (Kenneth Tobey) and Travis (Don Megowan) are the only historical figures among the defenders. Mike Mazurki is entertaining as ‘Bigfoot’. Yet Frank Thompson makes the point that there is more of a sense of desperate siege in this version than others; the defenders are short of ammunition, hungry and low in morale. “There is little that is ‘historical’ in Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, but there is much that is true.”

 

Travis

 

Bowie

 

Maybe. But Disney simplified the complex story of the Alamo down to one that lacked any subtlety at all. A group of true Americans fight a foreign dictator in the name of freedom. That’s it. And that’s what a lot of people still believe it was, too, or at least what they want to believe.

 

In this version there are no women in the fort (there’s no Dickinson sub-plot) and only one token Tejano. And there are certainly no slaves. Gracious, no! We never see Santa Anna and there is no attempt whatsoever to explain the Mexican viewpoint. Travis is a nice and modest man who doesn’t want to take over command from the sick Bowie; Crockett does not have to act as a mediator between the two, as in other versions. There is no Bonham, so it’s Georgie who has to take on the job of going to Goliad for help. When he returns with the fell news that no help is coming, Travis draws the line in the sand with his saber (you had to have that bit), and Davy, followed by Georgie, are the first to cross it.

 

The Indian fighting early part was filmed in North Carolina and Tennessee and the middle ‘political’ bit shot at Andrew Jackson’s home The Hermitage and at the State Capitol in Nashville. As for the Alamo, that was a set built at the Disney studios, combined with typical Disney matte painting (by ace artist Peter Ellenshaw). The result does look fake to modern eyes. So cost-cutting were the guys who constructed the set that it came in at only $12,536, which was under budget!

 

As for the final assault, says, Frank Thompson: “Norman Foster was apparently so apathetic about the project that he did not even try to make his few extras look like an army; this is the most pitifully under populated Alamo battle since Heroes of the Alamo in 1937.”

 

Foster did actually film Crockett’s death and body but Disney thought this would be far too traumatic for the audience of children so they re-cut it, and the last we see of Davy he is there on the wall swinging Ol’ Betsy. The Crockett craze was at its height then and Disney was chagrined that he had killed off his hero so unprofitably early. But there’d be a prequel. Phew.

 

Even though 90 million people had watched the TV show, the feature version still made $2m. Many wanted to see the story in a big theater, at a sitting, in color, and without commercial breaks. The world première was, naturally, at the Majestic in San Antonio.

 

That’s quite a line

 

Reviews were somewhat underwhelming. Variety thought the feature film “rates as a western of moderate value for the oater outlets”. But it didn’t matter. Not with all those kids wearing their coonskin caps and little Jeff annoying the family by singing so lustily. The authors of the entertaining book Forget the Alamo say that the TV show and feature remain to this day “a souvenir of a time when the needs of Anglo mythmaking justified racial insenstivities.”

 

Fess sings for Walt

 

 

5 Responses

  1. Not being much of an Alamista I’ve been reading this series more out of a general interest than any big connection to the celluloid Alamo – until now. I distinctly remember watching the rebroadcast of the Davy Crockett episodes – in color – on NBC’s The Wonderful World of Disney. I think, even as a kid, I had a sense that it was all ahistorical hooey and never really thought of the buckskin and musket stuff as “ Westerns” but I definitely see the connection now. To me Fess Parker was Daniel Boone more than Crockett but he does fit the image Walt was trying to portray for his pioneer days films, TV and theme parks.

    Fun to think of what a different story we could’ve seen from a different studio – with a bit more self-awareness and whimsy – and Buddy Ebsen as Davy Crockett! He would’ve definitely been a better dancer and story teller on film with Ebsen in place of the barely animated living tree that was Fess Parker. I’ve watched a few minutes of both Disney’s Crockett and the slow-motion action of TV’s Daniel Boone, no nostalgia for me for either.

    1. I think children often can tell when it’s hooey. Not always. I always thought STORIES OF THE CENTURY was historical!
      I do like your phrase about the “living tree that was Fess Parker”!

  2. “He was often thought of as a boastful bumpkin overfond of bourbon.”
    Jeff, I return to your site as much for your way with words as for the scintillating content on westerns watched or to be watched. I doff my hat to you with this post.

  3. Thanks for this entry when Davy went seismic. I think the ‘real’ Davy was far more interesting than the myth. I recently got a book on Davy in congress and its excellent. Congress was in a state of upheaval even then. Imagine that!

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