Judge Mike Pinsky can't believe all the attention he gets from the ladies when he hits town in his buckskin jacket and coonskin cap.
"Be always sure you're right, then go ahead."—Davy Crockett (1786-1836)
How can we explain the Davy Crockett craze? In an interview on the two-disc Davy Crockett collection, popular culture historian Paul F. Anderson suspects that the Crockett show was perfectly timed to capture Cold War ideology: the character's ability to traverse cultural borders (as an "explorer" figure), the parallel between Crockett's restlessness and Americans' desire for social mobility, and the growing need for consumer gratification (the "fad" as a means to show one's affluence). But perhaps most of all, the Crockett craze satisfied our communal need in the 1950s for an American mythos.
Certainly, the Western genre itself is a crucial part of our American mythic narrative. While there are other parts of our history we mythologize just as heavily—Main Street and Liberty Square at the Disney theme parks should give you a clue as to some of the others—no period in our history has produced so many legends as the Old West. Although an extremely brief segment of time (only a couple of generations), popular media (dime novels, movies, television, and radio) have conflated this small point in space and time. Why? Perhaps the very notion of "frontier" suggests a border between order and chaos, a need to impose law on the world, a sense of a unified cultural identity through the rhetoric of colonialism. After all, "they" are lurking out there—the bandits and Injuns—and "we" must band together to form a community to resist them.
The "Frontierland" segments of the original Disneyland television show were introduced with the line, "Tall tales and true from the legendary past." And what did we see, not only in Disney's West, but in most Westerns as well? All white heroes taming the savage wilderness. Could you ever tell from television or movies that nearly every "Injun uprising" was precipitated by white atrocities, or that one-quarter of the cowboys were black (including the most successful marshal in the West, Bass Reeves)? But Westerns did what most popular culture was designed to do: give Americans a picture of a golden age most of them would like to believe was true, even if deep down they knew that it was not.
While most Westerns do not seem conscious of their status as myth-producing machines designed to mirror contemporary culture, Davy Crockett succeeds precisely because it plays with its own rules. We are told again and again that Davy is as much a legend as a historical figure, and in one surreal scene (in the second episode), Crockett (Fess Parker) discovers he is a dime-novel hero thanks to his friend Georgie Russel (Buddy Ebsen). Watching Davy look at his own image on the cover of a popular magazine, we realize that we are watching a transformation: real history has fused irrevocably with narrative. Now we can all identify with a more simplified, more "American" Davy Crockett, and through the purchase of a coonskin cap, become America embodied.
We look back on the Crockett craze in hindsight and think, "How 1950s." In spite of this, the Davy Crockett series holds up pretty well today. This limited edition, tin-case set, part of the "Walt Disney Treasures" collection, offers all five episodes (all this fuss over so few shows?) with the original Disneyland show bookends. Leonard Maltin provides introductions for each episode and offers helpful context. All five episodes are shown in color (the Disneyland segments are shot in black and white), although the print quality varies from shot to shot. Mostly, the mellow, slightly faded color footage gives everything a warm and friendly look, like an old friend. But some shots are more faded or grainy and show considerable age. Also, some shots appear in black and white or sepia. My guess is that much of the color footage here is cut from the theatrical prints of the Crockett episodes (they were edited together for theatrical release to sustain the show's momentum), and the black and white footage was recovered from the television archives and edited back in for this DVD release. I am glad Disney made an effort here to provide these shows uncut, especially given their reputation for tampering, but I wish they had at least included a note to explain the inconsistencies in the print. Nevertheless, the shows look pretty good for their age. Watching them in order, we can easily see the evolution of the Crockett character from cocky rebel to mainstream hero in only a year.
• "Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter" (aired December 15,
We see Davy's penchant for dangerous stunts when he tries to "grin" a bear into submission, then kills it (rather bloodlessly) with a small knife. Immediately, we see Disney's version of this legendary figure as a fiercely independent hero imbued with folk wisdom and excessive bravado, a sort of overgrown child living in a world where a person could wrestle a bear single-handed. Much of the plot of the episode revolves around Davy's conflicts with the bubbleheaded Major Norton (William Bakewell), whom Davy must save repeatedly from Indian attack. The Indian situation seems pretty incidental to the story, although ultimately, Davy must battle the chief in single combat for the life of Georgie, whereupon he gives an oath to protect the Creeks' interests with the government. The real conflict here is between Davy and army discipline, represented by Norton and the grandfatherly Andrew Jackson (Basil Ruysdael). But it is hard not to shake your head in disbelief when Davy says with a straight face to the Creeks, "You could all go home in peace if you just listened to reason!"
I must admit though, lack of characterization (Davy and Norton are interesting, but Georgie does not have much to do in this first episode) and overt racism aside, it is hard not to get caught up in the freewheeling, if violent, adventure. Most of this is due to perfect casting of Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen. Both are relaxed and low-key, treating their constant swashbuckling as if it just comes naturally, punctuating each daring act (and each death) with a wink and a grin, as if to remind kids that this is all just play-acting. Parker's ease makes this all seem like a game of cowboys and Indians, and everyone seems to be having a good time.
• "Davy Crockett Goes to Congress" (aired January 16,
This second episode is easily the best in the entire series. Davy is given considerable character development, as he moves from easygoing loner to responsible role model, and gets a moral dilemma to contend with. There is more scale, from rural frontier to bustling Washington (although the whole series was filmed in North Carolina). And the episode stands as an intriguing metaphor for Eisenhower's suspicion of the "military-industrial complex," with the deceptive Norton and his master Jackson standing in as the conspiring profiteers.
• "Davy Crockett at the Alamo" (aired February 23,
Reaching the besieged Alamo, Davy and company settle in with Jim Bowie (Kenneth Tobey). You can guess the rest. Even given historical necessity, it is surprising that Disney, given its reputation for prettying up its stories, accepts the grim ending, although no one ever actually says the word "death" in connection with Crockett. There is some sentiment along the way, as Davy gets to sing a farewell dirge to Tennessee before the final battle. Davy is last seen battling Santa Anna's entire army single-handedly as bodies are strewn about the fort—and he fades into legend.
• "Davy Crockett's Keelboat Race" (aired November 16,
In this story, Davy and Georgie are fur trapping in Kentucky, when they run across the boisterous Mike Fink (Jeff York), self-proclaimed "King of the River." A keelboat race to New Orleans ensues, with Davy taking command of a rickety boat with an untrained crew. The two heroes play cartoonish tricks on one another (fake signs lead Davy and crew into rapids; Davy ties a rope to Fink's boat and lets Fink tow him for miles). With Davy less of a prankster and Georgie played mostly as a clown here, Jeff York as Fink easily steals the show. In a later era, Fink's loudmouth antihero would have quickly spun off into a new series, but it is clear that Walt could sense that the Fink character, while fun in small doses, would not have fit the clean-cut Disney image.
• "Davy Crockett and the River Pirates" (aired 14
Once established as a clean-cut all-American figure, Davy could safely be retired from television and installed as a permanent fixture in Frontierland, our modern cultural equivalent of a Greek constellation. The real Crockett, whom Paul F. Anderson describes as a sort of rascally hick, is effaced by the image of a charming, rough-and-tumble hero in a coonskin cap.
And what of the real Fess Parker? Along with the 19-minute interview with Anderson on the Crockett craze, Disney includes a 17-minute interview (also by Leonard Maltin) with a comfortable Fess Parker at his winery in California. Parker talks with Maltin about Walt's involvement in the production (Anderson also speaks of this, noting that Walt showed disinterest in the Crockett story at first, then warmed up to it over time), behind-the-scenes tensions with director Norman Foster (best known for letting Orson Welles take over on Journey Into Fear), and his good chemistry with the other performers. It is nice to know that Parker retained a healthy ten percent of the merchandising from the show, and I am sure his cut of that $300 million (over $2 billion in today's dollars) in the first year alone was pretty sweet. And for the record, I've tasted his wine, and it is quite good.
Disney rounds out the extras on this collection with a photo gallery (with an annoying interface of little picture frames) showing plenty of behind-the-scenes shots and merchandising. Along with the two interviews, this gives a good sense of the show's popularity and its effect on American popular culture.
Our post-Cold War cultural climate may never see a craze that so completely captures the ideology of our national consciousness, if only because we are no longer so conspicuously unified by our popular culture. In one sense, this is a good thing, if we consider how many people were left out of the popular culture of the '50s—especially those who were not middle-class white males. If Davy Crockett began as an attempt by Walt Disney to create a nostalgic myth of the Old West, it has only doubled its resonance now, becoming a nostalgic look at the 1950s' nostalgia about the golden age of American colonialism. If the real Davy Crockett were as much a rascal as the history books say, he would probably be pretty amused by all the fuss over a few coonskin caps and a catchy tune.
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