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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier
Even if you’ve never seen a single second of Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier, you know it. “Born on a mountain top in Tennessee / Greenest state in the land of the free / Raised in the woods so he knew ev’ry tree / Kilt him a bar when he was only three.” This earworm, written by George Bruns and Tom Blackburn, has been getting stuck in people’s heads since the mid-50s. Thanks, guys. And now that you’ve read those lyrics, it’s probably stuck in yours. You’re welcome.
Davy Crockett did not start out as a feature film. In the early 1950s, Walt Disney once again needed money. The studio was hemorrhaging cash as a result of budget overruns on 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and a pet project of Walt’s, an insane idea for an amusement park. Walt had discovered the power of television with a pair of early specials promoting Alice In Wonderland and Peter Pan. He realized that a weekly TV series could not only bring in some much-needed income, it could also promote the park.
He shopped it around but nobody seemed all that keen on the idea. Nobody, that is, except ABC, who was struggling to get a foothold against competitors NBC and CBS. Walt signed a deal with ABC and on October 27, 1954, Walt Disney’s Disneyland (named after his insane idea for a park) debuted coast-to-coast. I suppose there is some irony in the fact that Disney now owns ABC, but Disney has now acquired so many studios and subsidiaries that irony feels irrelevant.
At any rate, a weekly television series demands content. The Disney Vault already had quite a bit of content and the first seven episodes made judicious use of it. Alice In Wonderland and So Dear To My Heart made their TV debuts. Other episodes were assembled from True-Life Adventure shorts and Donald Duck and Pluto cartoons. There was also plenty of good old-fashioned hucksterism as Walt sold the public on Disneyland (which would open in July of 1955), 20,000 Leagues and Lady And The Tramp.
But Walt also wanted the series to feature all-new original programming. In particular, he wanted to produce a number of historical dramatizations based on American folk heroes. Walt had earlier considered doing an animated treatment of Davy Crockett, perhaps during the brainstorming sessions that produced the Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill segments in Melody Time. When Crockett was pitched for the TV show, Walt wasn’t completely sold on the idea. But the risk was relatively low, so the three episodes were given the go-ahead.
The project was given to two newcomers to the Disney lot. Writer Tom Blackburn started his career writing pulp western stories for dime magazines. He entered the movie business in the late 40s, still focused mainly on westerns like Colt .45 and Cattle Queen Of Montana. Director Norman Foster was a former actor who had found success helming a number of entries in the Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan series. They divided the Crockett story into three distinct episodes: the Creek Wars of 1813-14, Davy’s tenure in Congress, and his last stand at the Alamo.
Walt now began his search for an actor to play Crockett. James Arness was recommended for the part, so Walt screened his latest picture, the monster movie Them! But instead of Arness, Walt’s eye was drawn to Fess Parker, who had a small role as a pilot sent off to the crazy house after nobody believes his story about giant ants attacking his plane.
Parker was pretty close to calling it quits when he landed the role that changed his life. He’d kicked around Hollywood as a contract player for a few years, appearing in small, frequently uncredited roles. To describe Davy Crockett as a big break for the struggling actor would be an understatement.
Another actor who had been considered to play Crockett was Buddy Ebsen. Ebsen knew a thing or two about missed opportunities. He’d been in show business since the 1920s, winning acclaim as a dancer in movies like Born To Dance. He had been cast as the Tin Man in The Wizard Of Oz but was forced to drop out when the aluminum dust in the makeup made him sick. After that, MGM more or less benched him. Between his contract disputes with the studio and the outbreak of World War II, Ebsen’s career was sidelined for most of the 1940s.
Walt first hired Buddy in 1951 on something called Project Little Man. Ebsen was brought into the studio and filmed performing his signature dance moves in front of a large white grid. This reference footage was then studied by the team that soon became known as Imagineers. Their goal was to create a realistic miniature mechanical man who could move and speak. Eventually, they decided it would be easier to create full-size figures. The project was renamed Audio-Animatronics. So when you see Lincoln in Disneyland’s Hall of Presidents, you can thank Buddy Ebsen for his part in inspiring it.
After Fess Parker was cast as Davy Crockett, Ebsen was offered the role of Davy’s sidekick, George Russel. It was an inspired pairing. Parker and Ebsen share a natural, easy chemistry that makes it easy to believe that these two men are lifelong friends.
The guest stars include a number of solid character actors. William Bakewell appears as Tobias Norton. Basil Ruysdael plays General (later President) Andrew Jackson. Mike Mazurki, one of the most recognizable heavies of the period, is the land-grabbing Bigfoot Mason. Kenneth Tobey has a relatively small part as James Bowie. Best of all is Hans Conried, bringing some Captain Hook flavor to the role of riverboat gambler Thimblerig.
Davy also encounters a number of Native Americans on his adventures, making peace with Chief Red Stick (Pat Hogan, who actually was Native), coming to the aid of neighbor Charlie Two Shirts (Jeff Thompson, who I can’t find much information about) and defending the Alamo alongside Busted Luck (Nick Cravat, who definitely was not). Compared to a lot of other frontier westerns of the period, Davy Crockett treats the Indians with a fair amount of respect. They’re treated as equals, deserving of the same respect and fairness as anyone else. Even the warlike Red Stick is shown to be a smart, passionate leader. When he tells Davy that it’s not him, it’s the government he doesn’t trust, he’s not wrong. Davy’s more than a little naïve to think he can single-handedly guarantee their fair treatment but bless his idealistic heart for trying.
By feature standards, Davy Crockett was relatively low-budget. But for television in 1954, it looked very impressive. Walt insisted that every episode of Disneyland be shot in color, even though virtually everything was still being broadcast in black-and-white. The production has scale and scope, with big, exciting battle scenes, beautiful locations, and feature-quality matte effects by Peter Ellenshaw recreating Washington, D.C. circa 1830.
Davy was also able to encounter a wide range of wildlife, thanks in part to the True-Life Adventures series. When Davy wrestles an alligator, he’s fighting footage from the two-reel Prowlers Of The Everglades. Davy and George run across the buffalo stampede from The Vanishing Prairie, as well as a prairie dog. The footage doesn’t exactly fit together seamlessly. The gator fight in particular is a little dodgy. But it’s a cost-effective means of adding production value.
The first episode of Davy Crockett aired December 15, 1954. It was an overnight, runaway success, taking everyone involved completely by surprise. Suddenly it seemed you couldn’t step outside without hearing somebody singing “The Ballad Of Davy Crockett”. It’s estimated that more than 40 million people watched the final episode in February. Walt and Roy Disney responded by rushing a wide range of Davy Crockett merchandise into stores. Within months, the coonskin cap became the must-have accessory of kids across America.
The show’s success did not go unnoticed by movie exhibitors. Theater owners urged Disney to release a feature version. Since the show had been filmed in color, Walt thought that sounded like a good idea. On May 25, 1955, Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier hit theaters. I’m not 100% certain whether or not this was the first time something made for TV was repurposed for theatrical exhibition but it seems likely.
The success of Davy Crockett left Disney with one problem. The series ended with Davy’s death at the Alamo, so a sequel would be a bit tricky. But a prequel was certainly a viable option, so later in 1955, the country was treated to a fourth and fifth episode of Davy Crockett. This column will get to those adventures very soon. We’ll also see a lot more of Fess Parker, who became a Disney contract player after the success of Davy Crockett. Buddy Ebsen will be back, too.
Davy Crockett made Disney a force to be reckoned with on television. The Disneyland anthology series continued to air for decades, moving back and forth between ABC, NBC and CBS. The title would change, first becoming Walt Disney Presents, then Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color, The Wonderful World Of Disney and so on, but the format rarely did.
In addition to airing classic films and shorts, the series continued to produce original programs. These included documentaries on science and space exploration and more Frontierland dramas with characters like Elfego Baca, Texas John Slaughter and the Swamp Fox. The Wonderful World Of Disney banner returned as recently as this past May, with ABC’s primetime debut of Moana. If you treat all the various incarnations of the series as one show, as most do, it’s the second longest-running primetime show in America.
As successful as the series continued to be, nothing would ever match the once-in-a-lifetime popularity of Davy Crockett. It was a genuine phenomenon, capturing the imaginations of audiences of all ages. It’s hard to say why it clicked as completely and effectively as it did but the combination of Disney’s storytelling savvy with the new medium of television proved irresistible. For a little while in the 1950s, Davy Crockett was king of a whole new frontier.
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