THE DAVY CROCKETT PHENOMENON
Even before Zorro, however, Walt Disney had demonstrated a mastery of the juvenile Western. His cinematic treatment of the life of Davy Crockett was not properly a television series. It premiered in three separate, hour-long episodes of the Disneyland program: Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter was telecast on December 15, 1954, as the eighth installment in that influential Disney anthology show; Davy Crockett Goes to Congress appeared on January 26, 1955; and the trilogy ended on February 23 with Davy Crockett at the Alamo. No program before or since has captured the imagination of the nation in so short a period. Nielsen ratings placed the number of viewers of the second program at more than half of all people watching TV.
Before the finale was aired, the United States was gripped in a Davy Crockett craze. Crockett hysteria meant an unprecedented commercial boom. Spurred by youngsters and their faddish taste for the TV show, Americans spent upwards of $100 million in Davy Crockettry. More than 4 million copies of the record, "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," were sold; and 14 million Davy Crockett books were purchased.
Since Disney did not have exclusive control of the historic name and likeness of Crockett—as William Boyd and the estate of author Clarence E. Mulford possessed title to everything associated with Hopalong Cassidy—in short order there were an estimated 3,000 different Davy Crockett products for sale. From bath towels and plastic ice cream cone holders, to ukeleles, underwear, and wristwatches. Davy's name or familiar representation in fringed leather clothing and raccoon-skin cap triggered a consumerist binge.
The fad flourished about seven months, abating only when, as sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld reported at the time, "almost every child has his cap, rifle, powderhorn, book and record." Thus, when Disneyland offered two new Crockett TV films in late 1955—Davy Crockett's Keelboat Race (November 16), and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (December 14)—millions watched but few were anxious to resume the merchandising mania.
Encouraged by ABC, for the next several years Walt Disney continued to produce Westerns for Disneyland. Made-for-TV films featuring heroes like Daniel Boone, Andy Burnett, Texas John Slaughter, Elfego Baca, and Zorro were popular, but they never triggered the social or commercial reaction precipitated by the first Crockett TV movies. Even a repeat of the original trilogy in late 1959 failed to elicit a significant response.
In the history of the video Western the Davy Crockett programs were transitional. Although designed for children, they displayed adult values and relatively mature sensibilities. Certainly, Davy had familiar juvenile embellishments. His partner and pal, Georgie Russell, stayed with him from obscurity in backwoods Tennessee to death and immortality at the Alamo. His rifle was affectionately named "Old Betsy." Davy operated in a simplified world of black-and-white issues, and he possessed a moral mandate bordering on the sacrosanct.
But, Crockett also had grown-up qualities. The death of his wife lent bereavement and character-building vulnerability to Davy. He was also a patriot. Davy may have been familiar as a frontiersman in fringed buckskin clothing, but as a political philosopher he was uncommon—an unreconstructed democrat who was especially outspoken during his short career as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
In seeking elective office, he told his friend and fellow Tennessean, President Andrew Jackson, that if elected to Congress, "I wouldn't be takin' orders from you, General. I'd be takin' 'em from them that elected me." In Washington, Davy chided fellow congressmen eager to break treaties and grab valuable Indian land, telling them "Expansion ain't no excuse for persecutin' a whole part of our people because their skins is red and they're uneducated to our ways." With plenty of backwoods allusions, he reminded them—and contemporary Americans as well—that running the nation, indeed even being part of the nation, was serious business. As he phrased it, "We got a responsibility to this strappin', fun-lovin', britches-bustin' young b’ar cub of a country," Davy declared with noble innocence, "We've got a responsibility to help it grow into the kinda nation the Good Lord meant it to be."
In his maiden speech to Congress, the unpretentious Crockett explained himself in the rhetoric of the common folk:
I'm Davy Crockett, fresh from the backwoods. I'm half horse, half alligator, and a little tached with snappin' turtle. I got the fastest horse, the prettiest sister, the surest rifle, and the ugliest dog in Tennessee. My father can lick any man in Kentucky, and I can lick my father. I can hug a bear too close for comfort, and eat any man alive opposed to Andy Jackson. Now, some Congressmen take a lot of pride in sayin' a lot about nothin', like I'm doin' right now.... Others don't do nothin' for their pay but just listen day in and day out. I wish I may be shot if I don't do more than listen.
The death and violence depicted in the Davy Crockett movies were also unprecedented in television Westerns. In a genre long used to good, clean fistfights and heroes who shot outlaws only in the hands and arms, there was considerable loss of life in the fictionalized accounts of Crockett's career. There were bloody confrontations with the warring Creek Indians. Shootings, knife fights, and brutal hand-to-hand combat were plentiful. Furthermore, until these programs no TV Western champion had ever died; but at the Alamo, national legends like Colonels Jim Bowie and William B. Travis were slain by Mexican troops, and Davy's life-long sidekick was shot and killed by the besieging enemy. Crockett himself was last seen out of ammunition and swinging his rifle at a swarm of invading Mexican soldiers, about to die in the fight for American territorial expansion.
Long before the so-called adult Western premiered in the fall of 1955, the Davy Crockett features illustrated the potential impact of mature Westerns on viewers. Walt Disney later suggested a causal relationship between these films and adult cowboy dramas. As he told an interviewer, "I gave ABC their first full-hour Western series with my Davy Crockett shows and soon the network was flooded with other Westerns.”
While Disney may not have been accurate in that assessment of his impact on television—The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp was in production before the Crockett fad swept the nation—the Davy Crockett phenomenon could not have helped but impress TV producers and network executives. Furthermore, if Davy Crockett did help spark the revolution in video Westerns, Disney certainly kept the fire alive with his other short frontier series. Featured on Disneyland in the years after the Crockett explosion were the limited-run productions The Saga of Andy Burnett, The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca, and Tales of Texas John Slaughter, as well as Zorro and Daniel Boone.
Typical of the Disney cowboy hero, John Slaughter was a fast-draw sharpshooter who joined the Texas Rangers to help clear desperadoes from frontier Texas. Elfego Baca was a lawyer—the first Latino lawman in TV history and as deadly with his guns as with his law books—who brought law and order to nineteenth-century New Mexico. Andy Burnett was a frontiersman from Pennsylvania who found most of his adventures struggling against Blackfeet Indians in the Colorado wilderness.
Disney's heroes were streamlined embodiments of American history and morality; but they could be as tough as the worlds in which they operated. Thus, Texas John Slaughter was introduced in each episode as the man "who made 'em do what they oughter, for if they didn't they died." Baca may have worn a business suit, but he was invincible in a fistfight, and in appropriate situations not averse to killing a foe in a gunfight. Burnett, who was captured by Blackfeet warriors, endured painful ordeals but eventually became an honorary member of the tribe and came to appreciate and participate in Indian ways.
Such representations contained mature qualities not found in early TV Westerns. Disney extracted Andy Burnett from adult-oriented stories written by Stewart Edward White and serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in the 1930s. The Burnett films were intended by screenwriter Tom Blackburn as less a Western than "the dramatization of an historical novel.... an attempt to recreate honestly the period of the mountain men.”
Tales of Texas John Slaughter productions were based on the real-life exploits of an early Texas Ranger. On the premier telecast of the series on October 31, 1958, Walt Disney—described by movie critic and biographer Richard Schickel as "a lonely man in love with vanished graces"—appeared on camera to add humanizing authenticity to his new filmic characterization:
Well, I have a personal interest in John Slaughter, too. Our research department discovered that when Mrs. Slaughter died in 1942, among her personal affects were 100 shares of Walt Disney Productions stocks. That just goes to show that this old West that we talk about is not so old after all. It's only yesterday in this young country of ours. Yes, John Slaughter was quite a man.
Although Disney may not have caused the adult Western to appear on TV in the mid-1950s, the commercial and cultural impact of Davy Crockett, and the attractive Western characters he developed on Disneyland, gave strong impetus to those who may have decided that the time was propitious to take the video Western out of its adolescence and introduce it as mature drama. The history of the genre during the next decade and a half is testimony to the soundness of such business and cultural decision.