Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Westward Ho The Wagons!

Original theatrical poster for Walt Disney's Westward Ho The Wagons!

Fess Parker was right smack dab in the middle of his Disney contract when Westward Ho The Wagons! was released in December of 1956. Already, signs of boredom had begun to creep in. Given the phenomenal success of Davy Crockett, it’s totally understandable why Walt would want to keep Parker comfortably within his wheelhouse. But there’s a big difference between playing to an actor’s strengths and simply repeating yourself. Apart from his choice of hat, Parker’s character here isn’t all that much different from Davy Crockett or James Andrews in The Great Locomotive Chase. At least this time, he gets to sing and play guitar.

Tom Blackburn, the writer behind Davy Crockett, based his script on the kid-lit novel Children Of The Covered Wagon by Mary Jane Carr. Carr specialized in detailed, well-researched stories about the Oregon Trail for younger readers. Carr’s book seems to be told primarily from the perspective of the children themselves. While the kids are certainly still present in Blackburn’s script, they take more of a back seat to Parker’s character, “Doc” Grayson.

Weirdly, Grayson isn’t even the actual leader of the wagon train. That would be James Stephen, played by TV’s Superman, George Reeves, in one of his final roles. Grayson isn’t even a real doctor. He seems to have been the assistant of the company’s actual doctor before his death. But everyone, including Stephen, defers to Grayson in virtually every situation because it’s Fess Parker. Even Superman took a back seat to Davy Crockett in the 50s.

For a movie about a wagon train, Westward Ho The Wagons! covers surprisingly little territory. And for a movie with an exclamation point in its title, it features shockingly little excitement. As the movie opens, the company has already traveled quite a distance. They arrive at Chimney Rock, where the prairies of the Midwest give over to the more rugged territory of the Rocky Mountains. They attract the attention of a Pawnee war party. The Pawnee first steal a few horses, then capture young Dan Thompson (David Stollery, then famous as rich orphan Marty Markham in the Spin And Marty segments of The Mickey Mouse Club), the son of the late doctor. Dan manages to escape and warn the pioneers before the war party can ambush them, barely escaping with their lives.

The wagon train continues on to Fort Laramie and territory controlled by the usually-friendly Sioux. While in the trading post, the Sioux medicine man Many Stars (Iron Eyes Cody) catches sight of Dan’s younger sister, Myra (Karen Pendleton). Many Stars tells his Chief that the girl’s blonde hair and blue eyes would bring powerful magic to the tribe, so the Chief attempts to trade for the girl. When the pioneers refuse, tensions rise between the two groups.

The only people who seem unaffected by the hostilities are the kids. The Sioux children and the pioneers are quick to form a friendship. But when the Chief’s son, Little Thunder (Anthony Numkena) is hurt, the tensions flare. Knowing things will only get worse if the boy dies, Grayson offers to help, convincing Many Stars that “two medicines are better than one”. Anyone care to guess whether or not Little Thunder pulls through?

The bifurcated structure of Blackburn’s script made it easy for Walt to chop the movie in half and air it on television. But unlike the two Davy Crockett features, this was always intended for theaters. Cinematographer Charles Boyle, who had also worked on Davy Crockett, shot the film in CinemaScope (although the only version Disney has released on home video to date is a terrible-looking pan & scan transfer). Matte artists Peter Ellenshaw and Albert Whitlock helped give the picture size and scope. And producer Bill Walsh was finally moving into feature production after successfully launching Disney’s TV division.

Director William Beaudine was also coming from Disney’s TV side, having helmed several popular Mickey Mouse Club segments including Spin & Marty and Corky And White Shadow, a serial about a girl and her German Shepherd that starred another member of the Disney Repertory Company, Davy Crockett’s pal, Buddy Ebsen. But Beaudine was far from being a newcomer. He’d been in the industry since the silent era, working for virtually every studio in town.

Beaudine’s fortunes took a hit in the early 1940s and he found himself working for Poverty Row studios like Monogram. For years, he churned out movies at an astonishing pace, eventually becoming one of the most prolific directors in film history. He became known for making movies fast and cheap, which made him perfect for television. Westward Ho The Wagons! would be a late-career opportunity for Beaudine to make a feature with the kind of budget he hadn’t had in years. But he kept on working in TV and low-budget features right up to his death in 1970. Beaudine will be back in this column.

If you were a regular viewer of either Disneyland or The Mickey Mouse Club in 1956, you’d have been very familiar with most of the actors in Westward Ho The Wagons! As if the prospect of Davy Crockett sharing the screen with Marty Markham wasn’t exciting enough, the film also brings back Mike Fink, King of the River! Jeff York had made a big impression in Davy Crockett And The River Pirates and he continued to have good chemistry with Parker as Doc Grayson’s sidekick, Hank.

Besides Stollery, most of the other children in the cast were kids audiences would have been on a first name basis with. Doreen! Cubby! Tommy! Karen! These Mouseketeers were forever holding the banner high, beaming into audiences’ living rooms every weekday on The Mickey Mouse Club. Walt would later turn other Mouseketeers into much bigger stars. For now, he was just beginning to cross-pollinate features with his available TV talent.

The cast did include a few newcomers to the Disney lot. Kathleen Crowley played Laura, Parker’s love interest and the older sister/guardian to Dan and Myra. Crowley’s film career never quite took off, although she was a regular presence on television throughout the 1950s and 60s. Sebastian Cabot, on the other hand, went on to a lengthy association with Disney. Cabot has a fun role here as the French trader Bissonette, doing his best to broker peace between the pioneers and the Sioux. This column will see (and hear) quite a bit from Cabot.

Unfortunately, all this TV influence prevents Westward Ho from really taking off as a feature film. Again, Disney is doing the movie no favors by releasing it in a pan-and-scan format. Boyle’s cinematography may look great for all I know but you’d never know it from what the studio has made available. But even a fully restored transfer wouldn’t solve all of the movie’s problems, the biggest of which is the episodic script.

Our heroes never really seem to get anywhere. When we meet them, they’re in the middle of their journey. When we leave them, they’re still in the middle of their journey. Between the endless nature of the story and the big cast of characters we’re introduced to, it feels like an extended pilot episode for a proposed TV series.

This might be somewhat forgivable if it weren’t for the fact that the most exciting action sequence comes at the halfway point. Legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt acted as second unit director and staged the rousing sequence where the pioneers release their horses to fend off the attacking Pawnee. It’s an impressive spectacle that the rest of the movie cannot live up to.

Apart from this one exciting scene, Westward Ho The Wagons! might just as well be titled Generic Cowboys And Indians Picture. You know how when you see a character in a movie or a TV show flipping through the channels and they run across stock footage from some old western? That’s essentially what this looks like. Only the most devoted western fan would be compelled enough to keep watching.

With its focus on Parker’s relationship with Stollery and the rest of the Mouseketeers, Westward Ho The Wagons! was aimed squarely at younger audiences. But it failed to generate Davy Crockett-sized business. Parker, at least, got a minor hit out of the song “Wringle Wrangle”.

Wringle Wrangle as sung by Fess Parker in Walt Disney's Westward Ho The Wagons!

Parker had previously hit the charts with his version of “The Ballad Of Davy Crockett”. It was one of the biggest songs of 1955 but Parker’s was just one of several versions flooding record stores and radio airwaves that year. Parker’s release had to play second fiddle to Bill Hayes’ rendition, which hit #1 on the Billboard charts (Parker peaked at #6). But the song obviously did well enough that Disneyland Records kept trying to sell Parker as a recording artist. “Wringle Wrangle” made it up to #12 and that was the end of his time as a pop star.

But despite his growing dissatisfaction with the studio, Westward Ho The Wagons! would not spell the end of Fess Parker’s time with Disney. He’ll be back in this column before long, as will most of the other members of the Walt Disney Repertory Players.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Davy Crockett And The River Pirates

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Davy Crockett And The River Pirates

Davy Crockett At The Alamo, the third and supposedly final episode of Disneyland’s Crockett miniseries, aired February 13, 1955. The title of that episode would seem to indicate a fairly definitive conclusion to the Crockett saga. But 40 million viewers, a wildly profitable theatrical release and millions upon millions of dollars in Crockett merchandise changed those plans very quickly. By November, Crockett was back on the air for Disneyland’s second season.

The two new episodes proved to be just as popular as the originals. So since the studio had already struck paydirt with a theatrical release, they had nothing to lose by trying to pull it off a second time. Davy Crockett And The River Pirates hit theatres July 18, 1956. Perfect timing for crowds of Crockett-crazed, coonskin-cap-wearing kids just starting to get bored as summer vacation hits its peak.

Having covered the highlights of Crockett’s actual life in the first film, director Norman Foster and writer Tom Blackburn allow themselves to play a bit more fast and loose in the prequel. As the rewritten lyrics to “The Ballad Of Davy Crockett” make plain during the opening credits, “Most of his chores for freedom and fun / Got turned into legends and this here is one.” In other words: calm down, history nerds. We’re all just having a good time here.

It’s hard to say whether or not Walt always intended to release the new episodes as a feature. They would have been in production at roughly the same time Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier was being rushed into theaters. But even though nobody knew for sure if that gamble would pay off, it was a low-stakes risk, so it would make sense for Foster and Blackburn to have a potential theatrical release in the back of their minds.

That could explain why Davy Crockett And The River Pirates feels less episodic than its predecessor, despite the fact that it’s literally two television episodes stitched together. This time out, Davy (Fess Parker) and his faithful sidekick George (Buddy Ebsen) are taking a load of furs downriver where they’ll fetch a higher price. They attempt to book passage on a keelboat owned by Mike Fink, “King of the River” (Jeff York). He agrees to take them…for $1,000.

Balking at Mike Fink’s terms, Davy and Georgie hit up the only other boat in town, owned by old-timer Cap’n Cobb (Clem Bevans). Cobb’s crew has run off, frightened by rumors of murdering bands of Indian pirates along the Ohio River. But Cobb reckons he could muster up a new crew if men knew that Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter, was on board. Davy’s not one to toot his own horn but he’s willing to let folks believe the legends if it means a free boat ride.

Davy and Georgie split up to find some able-bodied rivermen. Georgie thinks he’s found a likely candidate when he runs into a pugnacious redhead named Jocko (Kenneth Tobey, who had already appeared as Colonel Jim Bowie in the previous film). But Jocko already works for Mike Fink, King of the River. Mike Fink and Jocko proceed to get George blind drunk. By the time Davy catches up with him, George has challenged Mike Fink to a race, betting their entire load of pelts that they’ll reach New Orleans first.

As the race gets underway, Mike Fink resorts to every dirty trick in the book. He sends Davy down a channel full of dangerous rapids. He sabotages their rudder. He gloats when Davy’s sense of decency and fair play causes delays. Davy comes to the rescue when they’re attacked by the Indian pirates, even though Mike Fink insists he could have easily handled the situation himself. Like Davy, Mike Fink even has his own theme song, although you get the idea that he wrote it himself and forced everybody else to learn it.

But in the end, hard work and decency pay off as Davy edges out a victory. A humbled Mike Fink lives up to his end of the bargain, eating his own hat, and the King of the River and the King of the Wild Frontier part as friends. They haven’t gone far before Davy and George are captured by a Chickasaw hunting party. Brought before the Chief, Davy learns that war is about to break out. Whites have been murdering Indians suspected of piracy but the Chief insists that there are no Indian pirates.

Davy and George promise to get to the bottom of the mystery and reteam with Mike Fink to trap the pirates. With Mike Fink disguised as a rich banker, the team spreads the word that they’re traveling with sacks and sacks of gold. They attract the attention of Colonel Plug (Walter Catlett), a traveling peddler and musician, who readily accepts the invitation to join them.

Plug turns out to be the advance man for the river pirates, led by Samuel Mason (Mort Mills) and the Harpe brothers (Paul Newlan and Frank Richards). Disguised as Indians, the river pirates attack, only to be laid low by Davy and his men. The river is cleared, the good name of the Chickasaw is restored and Davy and Georgie are off to their next adventure.

The tone of Davy Crockett And The River Pirates is much, much lighter than the first film. Jeff York’s performance sets the tone as he and his men pitch everything way over the top. These are broad, physical performances that are playing for the cheap seats way in the back. But surprisingly, it doesn’t quite become overbearing. Fess Parker’s laid-back, easy-going performance grounds the movie and prevents it from spiraling out of control.

Buddy Ebsen also benefits from the new direction. He’s a more active participant here, occasionally causing problems but more often helping to solve them. Ebsen’s gift for physical comedy is given a proper showcase in his drunk scene and his comedic timing is pitch perfect throughout. It’s a little surprising that Disney didn’t cast him more often after this. Buddy Ebsen will only appear once more in this column, well after The Beverly Hillbillies made him into a household name.

The tone of Davy Crockett And The River Pirates is very much in keeping with Disney’s animated tall tales and legends like Paul Bunyan. Parts of the film feel just like a live-action cartoon, like the display of trick shooting put on by Mike Fink and Davy. It would be completely understandable if you walked away from this movie assuming that Foster and Blackburn had invented the whole story.

But there’s more here based on historical fact than you might think. Mike Fink was a real person, the self-proclaimed “King of the Keelboaters”. He was a blowhard and a loudmouth who loved nothing more than promoting his own myth. Disney sanded down some of his rough edges and was smart to pair him with Davy Crockett. He makes a great foil and partner here.

Samuel Mason, the Harpe brothers and the River Pirates are also rooted in fact. Mason did indeed lead a group of pirates, disguised as Indians, along the Ohio River. The film was even shot at Cave-In-Rock, the very location Mason used as a base of operations. Davy Crockett had nothing to do with bringing them to justice but the historical mishmash of characters and incidents makes sense.

The Harpe brothers are really only identified in passing, which also makes sense. If Mike Fink’s character had to be softened before he could be included in a Disney movie, the Harpes had to be completely sanitized and disinfected. In real life, they were notorious outlaws, sometimes cited as America’s first serial killers. Even Mason thought they went too far. He was so disgusted by their savage nature that he kicked them out of the river pirates gang. It’s a little bit like if The Shaggy D.A. just happened to be prosecuting Charlie Manson.

Like its predecessor, Davy Crockett And The River Pirates was a sizable hit at the box office. On TV, Disneyland would continue to mine Frontierland in search of the next Davy Crockett with miniseries like The Saga Of Andy Burnett, The Nine Lives Of Elfego Baca and Texas John Slaughter. None of these hit Crockett-levels of popularity and none of them warranted a domestic theatrical release.

It wouldn’t be until 1960 that another TV compilation hit theatres and it probably wasn’t the one Disney was expecting. For season seven of what was now titled Walt Disney Presents, Walt commissioned two new miniseries: Daniel Boone starring Dewey Martin and Zorro. Daniel Boone must have seemed like the natural successor to Davy Crockett but Zorro was the one to hit.

Adding insult to injury, four years later a freed-from-his-Disney-contract Fess Parker signed on to star in a different Daniel Boone TV series for NBC, coonskin cap and all. Parker’s Daniel Boone would run for six seasons, never quite eclipsing Davy Crockett in popularity but it did just fine. But Fess Parker still owed Disney some work before any of that could happen. He’ll be back in this column.

By 1988, Disney’s anthology TV series had morphed into The Magical World Of Disney and it was time to give Davy Crockett another shot. Davy Crockett: Rainbow In The Thunder was the first of several new adventures featuring Tim Dunigan (Captain Power himself!) as Davy. Johnny Cash appeared briefly as an older Davy, looking back on his life before heading to Texas. The New Adventures Of Davy Crockett didn’t exactly set the world on fire either, although I seem to recall them turning up on The Disney Channel fairly often.

Disney’s theatrical Davy Crockett features were an unqualified success. Over the years, made-for-TV productions would occasionally make the jump to the big screen. The practice became especially common overseas, in territories where the shows hadn’t aired yet. Walt’s insistence on giving TV productions feature-film budgets was paying off in a big way.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Littlest Outlaw

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Littlest Outlaw

The Littlest Outlaw is a minor entry in the Disney canon. It’s rarely allowed out of the Disney Vault. The studio released it on VHS back in 1987 and as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive DVD in 2011. It has not been released on Blu-ray and isn’t currently available on Disney+, although a high-def version is available to rent or buy digitally on platforms like Vudu and iTunes. And while I’m not going to make the case that this is some kind of neglected masterpiece, The Littlest Outlaw is a better movie than its low profile would suggest.

The movie was the brainchild of producer Larry Lansburgh. Lansburgh started out as a stuntman before a fall from a horse broke his leg and ended his on-camera career. In 1938, he took an entry-level job at Disney, eventually making his way into editing. In 1941, he was part of El Grupo, the South American goodwill tour of Disney artists sponsored by the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs. Lansburgh shot some of the 16mm footage that later appeared in Saludos Amigos and was an associate producer on The Three Caballeros.

Throughout his career, Lansburgh’s first love remained animals, horses in particular. In 1954, he produced and directed Stormy, The Thoroughbred, a 45-minute featurette about a racehorse who’s bought by a champion polo player. Lansburgh next pitched Walt the idea for The Littlest Outlaw. Walt, who was also an avid polo player and horse-lover himself, liked the idea.

With Lansburgh producing, Walt gave the story to Bill Walsh to flesh out into a screenplay. Walsh had started out writing various Disney comic strips like Mickey Mouse and Uncle Remus. Recently, he’d been put in charge of television, producing major hits like Davy Crockett and The Adventures Of Spin And Marty. The Littlest Outlaw would be his first feature film but it was far from his last. We’ll see plenty more of Bill Walsh’s work in this column.

Lansburgh’s south-of-the-border trip evidently made quite an impact on him. There’s no real reason why Lansburgh couldn’t have simply hired a local crew, driven half an hour in any direction from the Burbank studio and made The Littlest Outlaw there. But Lansburgh wanted his film to have authenticity. To direct, he hired Roberto Gavaldón, one of Mexico’s leading filmmakers. The film was shot entirely on location in Mexico by a bilingual cast and crew.

Contemporary critics are all too eager to condemn movies of the past for whitewashing or indulging in outdated and offensive cultural stereotypes. So it’s disappointing when a movie like this gets it right and doesn’t receive the credit it deserves. Representation does matter and Disney and Lansburgh deserve to be acknowledged for engaging so many Hispanic artists in front of and behind the cameras.

In fact, Gavaldón actually shot the movie twice, once in English and again in Spanish. The Spanish version, El pequeño proscrito, makes a few changes. Most notably, Mexican actor and singer Pedro Vargas appears as Padre, a role played by Joseph Calleia in the English-language version. This version is difficult if not downright impossible to see these days, which is too bad. I’d love to see how the Spanish version differs from the English.

Lobby card for the Spanish language version of The Littlest Outlaw

The movie itself is a pleasant if unsurprising story of friendship between a boy, Pablito (Andrés Velázquez), and a horse. The horse, Conquistador, is owned by General Torres (played by John Ford regular Pedro Armendáriz). Torres plans on riding Conquistador to victory in an upcoming show but the horse refuses to make the high jump. Pablito’s stepfather is the horse’s trainer but his abusive methods only make the horse even more afraid to jump. When Conquistador’s skittishness causes the General’s young daughter to be thrown off, Torres orders the animal killed. But Pablito knows it isn’t Conquistador’s fault, so he runs away with the horse, encountering outlaws, gypsies and a kind-hearted priest (Calleia).

Again, none of this is exactly groundbreaking. You’ve seen variations of this story before. Unfortunately, the weakest link is young Velázquez, who seems stiff and uncomfortable throughout. Maybe he gives a more relaxed, natural performance in the Spanish-language version. The grownups, on the other hand, are a lot of fun, especially Calleia as the Padre. Calleia enjoyed a long Hollywood career, often playing bad guys and dark, shadowy figures. The Littlest Outlaw is the opposite of that. Calleia seems to be having a good time as the friendly, easy-going Padre who offers sanctuary to Pablito and Conquistador.

While the locations are lovely and the performances are generally solid, the film could use a little more Mexican flavor to spice things up. It makes a move in the right direction in its final act as Pablito’s journey takes him into the bullfighting arena where he encounters legendary matador Pepe Ortiz, played by none other than Pepe Ortiz himself. We get to see some authentic bullfighting action and while it isn’t as graphic or violent as some I’ve seen, it’s still plenty real. Bullfighting has become a controversial sport in the West, especially among animal rights activists. It could be this aspect of the film that prevents Disney from making it more readily available. None of the footage is particularly disturbing, unless you’re simply against the very idea of bullfighting at all. But Disney tends to react (or overreact) on the side of caution when it comes to potentially touchy subjects.

The Littlest Outlaw was Disney’s Christmas release for 1955, a big year for Walt in virtually every respect. His television presence was firmly established thanks to both the weekly Disneyland anthology series and the daily Mickey Mouse Club. Disneyland, the theme park, opened in July and after a fairly disastrous opening day, was rapidly turning into one of Southern California’s must-see attractions. And at the movies, Lady And The Tramp had become Walt’s biggest animated hit in years, while the first theatrical compilation of Davy Crockett episodes was essentially a license to print money.

But The Littlest Outlaw ended 1955 with a bit of a whimper. Critics dismissed it and, after its original theatrical release, it didn’t leave much of a cultural footprint. The studio did release a record, The Story Of The Littlest Outlaw, narrated by Jiminy Cricket for whatever reason. The record stayed in print well into the 1960s, periodically getting re-released alongside other stories like Bongo and The Three Little Pigs. It seems possible that more kids ended up becoming familiar with Jiminy Cricket’s telling of the story than the original film.

Album cover artwork for The Story Of The Littlest Outlaw

There’s no real reason for Disney to keep The Littlest Outlaw under wraps. It’s a fine little movie. Nothing you haven’t seen before but it’s a perfectly agreeable rainy afternoon movie. They’ve certainly shined a spotlight on far worse. Ideally, they should release both the English and Spanish-language versions on Disney+. They could use more multilingual programming and it would be fascinating to compare the two versions. Honestly, a Disney en español collection would be a nice addition to the service. Give me a call, Disney+ Folks! I’m available for consulting both on a freelance or a more permanent basis.  

VERDICT: Not quite a Disney Plus but better than a Disney Minus, so I guess that makes it just Plain Disney.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's 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.

Walt Disney on the cover of a 1954 issue of TV Guide.

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.

Walt Disney's Official Davy Crockett Indian Fighter Hat (Coonskin Cap)
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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.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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