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Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955)
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Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955)

On December 15, 1954, Walt Disney's new anthology television series -- Disneyland, on ABC -- presented the program "Davy Crockett: Indian Fighter." Running one hour, it starred Fess Parker as Davy Crockett, the larger-than-life, nineteenth-century pioneer/soldier/politician who wore a coonskin cap and died at the battle of the Alamo. Filmed in Technicolor (unusual for TV at the time) because Disney already had a plan to transform it into a feature film, the episode caught on, especially with young boys, and Davy Crockett became a nationwide phenomenon. A second episode, "Davy Crockett Goes to Congress," aired on Jan. 26, 1955, and only intensified the Crockett craze. A third, "Davy Crockett at the Alamo," finished the story one month later, attracting a whopping 40 million viewers. Along the way, Disney made a fortune in Crockett merchandise, and the show's theme song, "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," sold 10 million records.

The intensity with which Davy Crockett swept America's imagination induced Disney to make two further episodes -- prequels -- for airing in late 1955, during the TV series' second season. Meanwhile, Disney set about editing the first three episodes together to create the 93-minute feature film Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, released on May 25, 1955 -- just in time for millions of kids' summer vacations. The innovative release plan (first TV, then theaters) worked brilliantly: the movie grossed $2.5 million, even though most audiences had presumably already seen the footage on television. Kids loved seeing Crockett on the big screen and made the film an interactive experience. As author William R. Chemerka later wrote: "One scene...always generated a reaction from youngsters. When Crockett instructs Major Norton to whistle 'like a Tennessee thrush,' movie theaters turned instantaneously into audio aviaries as hundreds of kids mimicked the bird call."

While Davy Crockett had been portrayed on screen numerous times before, and would be again -- notably by John Wayne in The Alamo (1960) -- for a generation of Americans, Davy Crockett and Fess Parker remain synonymous. But he was not actually the first choice for the part.

The film's director, Norman Foster, actually recommended Buddy Ebsen for the role after seeing the actor in an episode of the Omnibus TV show entitled "The House" (1954), based on a John Steinbeck story. Disney liked the idea of Ebsen, but he was also considering James Arness, and to that end he looked at Arness's new science-fiction film Them! (1954). While watching Them!, Disney noticed Fess Parker in a single, brief scene; it was enough to make Disney exclaim, "That's Davy Crockett!", and the rest is history.

With the casting of Parker, Buddy Ebsen was offered the role of Crockett's friend, George Russel, which he accepted. Ebsen brought such a down-home, folksy humor to the role that a few years later he was cast as Jed Clampett in the hit TV show The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-71). In his memoir, Ebsen remembered the Davy Crockett shows to have involved "some of the most rugged location [work] I have ever experienced." The script called for many stunts, but only one stunt man was provided, and he was much shorter than either Parker or Ebsen. As a result, the two actors had to do their own stunt work. "In the course of filming," Ebsen wrote, "I figure I qualified for four Purple Hearts."

One day, a riding accident knocked Ebsen unconscious. Another day, a musket blew up in his face, and he lost "my eyelashes, my eyebrows, and a good patch of my front hairline." Another incident resulted in Ebsen receiving a two-inch gash on his forehead, which bled profusely even as he was filming a shot. Ebsen attributed these mishaps to poor planning by the Disney production crew. He had good words for his director, however, describing Foster as "a sensitive gentleman with a sense of humor and an impeccable artistic conscience."

Fess Parker also called Foster "a wonderful director," but added, "[we] didn't always see eye to eye. He was a New York-trained actor and he really didn't understand some of the physical dangers we encountered out on location, but in the end he certainly proved that he was the real deal."

Norman Foster was certainly experienced, with over two dozen credits to that point -- including several Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto titles, as well as Journey Into Fear (1943) and Rachel and the Stranger (1948). From 1928-1935, during his acting career, he had been married to Claudette Colbert.

Fess Parker became a star as a result of playing Davy Crockett, but he remained under exclusive contract to Walt Disney, who refused to loan him out for the non-Disney films Bus Stop (1956) and The Searchers (1956). For the rest of his life, Parker carried mixed feelings. While he was grateful to have been plucked out of obscurity to play Davy Crockett and achieve fame, he was resentful that Disney didn't allow him the chance to develop his career with more serious roles in great movies. Instead, Parker went on to make Disney's Old Yeller (1957), another hit, but was not able to parlay his success into true movie stardom. Disney finally released him from his contract and Parker scored another hit TV series with Daniel Boone (1964-1970).

Before Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier opened in 1955, Parker embarked on a massive cross-country promotional tour for the film, appearing in 42 towns across the nation. Ebsen joined in for some of them. Parker had kind words for the veteran actor Ebsen, calling him "a gentle, talented, generous man.... Buddy, being a very experienced actor, gave me a lot to bounce off of and gave me all the support I could have possibly wanted."

The Davy Crockett phenomenon continued in force when, in July, 1955, the Disneyland theme park opened in Anaheim, Calif., with the park's Frontierland heavily centered around the character.

This film scored well with critics, who characterized it as geared obviously toward kids but well done. They also noted the oddness of seeing something in theaters that had been designed for the small screen. "A certain condescension in construction to the small size of the television screen is noticeable in the frequency and frankness of the close-ups that run through this film," observed The New York Times. "Practically all of the dialogue exchanges are played by the characters' heads. This tends to be slightly annoying on a full-size theatre screen. But the color is clear and enhancing... and the unembarrassed closeness of the characters certainly permits you to get acquainted with them."

The two subsequent prequel TV episodes of Davy Crockett were themselves edited into a second feature film, released in the summer of 1956 -- Davy Crockett and the River Pirates.

By Jeremy Arnold

SOURCES:
William R. Chemerka, Fess Parker: TV's Frontier Hero
Buddy Ebsen, The Other Side of Oz: An Autobiography
Didier Ghez, editor, Walt's People, Volume 5: Talking Disney With the Artists Who Knew Him. Fess Parker interview by Michael Barrier
Charles Tranberg, Walt Disney & Recollections of the Disney Studios: 1955-1980

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