Thirty years after the premiere date, I first watched Fess Parker portray the legendary Davy Crockett. Whether he was racing Mike Fink in a keelboat or defending the Alamo, I sat with my Dad on numerous occasions and cheered Davy on. August 17th is the 230th birthday of this American legend and, from my childhood memories with my Dad, I just had to pay tribute to the man who was born on a mountain top in Tennessee.
Davy Crockett was a real guy who had a great impact on the United States. His character would help propel Walt Disney at a time when he desperately needed good news. Launching a brand new television show in 1954 to help promote and pay for Disneyland, Walt struck gold with his Davy Crockett episodes. December 15th, 1954 Davy Crockett Indian Fighter premiered on television during the Disneyland television show. During this rush to pay for and build Disneyland, the success that would be felt for the company was unimaginable.
Davy Crockett Indian Fighter introduces us to Davy and his best pal Georgie Russell. They join the fight with General Andrew Jackson against the Creek Indians. The show is filled with battles, one in particular is a great victory for Jackson and the soldiers, and that leads to Davy and Georgie returning home following the end of their volunteer service. But they promise to return and subsequently do. The Army they return to is in a stalemate with the Creek Indians, and Georgie gets captured by the Creek. It is up to Davy to save him. In a tomahawk duel with Red Stick the chief of the Creek people, Davy is victorious, but shows compassion. Rather than killing Red Stick he agrees to spare his life if Red Stick signs the peace treaty with the army. Red Stick does and war is averted.
January 26th, 1955 brought the follow-up Davy Crockett Goes to Congress. Don’t let the title fool you, the show is more than just about how a bill becomes a law. Once again Davy and Georgie leave home in search of new territory for settlement. Crockett and Russell befriend Creek Indian refugees and learn they are being harassed and forced off of their land. Davy subsequently becomes the magistrate of this new territory and faces the leader of the gang of brutes named Big Foot in hand to hand combat. Davy prevails and is able to arrest the criminals and settle things down for his friends in the area. Davy Crocket is no longer the Indian fighter. He is a supporter of Native rights.
Called into service once again by his former general, Andrew Jackson, now President. He asks Davy to run for Congress. Crockett wins easily and becomes popular amongst the government members. His stand on Native American rights is well known, and it wouldn’t be a show with politics if there weren’t some underhanded corrupt politicians up to no good. Davy is seen as an enemy by President Jackson’s underlings and is sent on a speaking tour. Coincidently, during his absence, a bill is being introduced into the House of Representatives to change Indian treaties which would allow the government to change the treaties they made and possibly move Native’s further west. Georgie Russell, who is absent through most of this movie, learns about the bill and rides off to warn Davy.
Davy rides back to Washington where he speaks passionately to his fellow Congressmen about why the bill is wrong. Ultimately he would be so disgusted with the disingenuousness of politics, Davy and Georgie would leave government for the frontier. But Davey Crockett was not done.
One month later on February 23, 1955 the broadcast premier of Davy Crockett at the Alamo would stun audiences as viewer’s watched Davy Crockett die. Davy and Georgie set off for Texas to help the embattled Texans fight off General Santa Anna. They eventually make their way to the Alamo in San Antonio where after several successful defenses of the small mission, the vast Mexican army overruns and captures the fort. Davy and Georgie fight alongside the other Texans and as one last attempt to blast the invading army with a canon, Georgie is killed telling Davy to, “give them what for.” Everyone else dies but the final scene of the movie is Davy swinging his rifle at the approaching enemies, with a cue to the famous song “The Ballad of Davey Crockett”. We don’t see him die, but everyone who watched that night and beyond knew Davy’s fate.
The success of the television shows was unparalleled to anything Walt Disney had had before. The craze for everything Davy Crockett resulted in coonskin caps, which Davy Crockett wore through the shows, becoming a favorite item for consumers. The title song “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” became a chart topper on the Billboard Magazine charts. Kids across North America were donning coonskin caps, and even Democrat vice presidential nominee Estes Kefauver, wore a coonskin cap at different times during the 1956 campaign. All this success and merchandise sales gave Walt Disney extra money that he needed.
Fess Parker who played Davy Crockett (and, incidentally, had a birthday the day before Crockett’s — August 16th) and Buddy Ebsen who played Georgie Russell were international superstars. Each of the men played the roles with grace. They never acted like invincible men taming the wilderness. They were believable and trusted by many to be the embodiment of American virtues. Davy Crockett was viewed as a man who could fight and defend himself when needed but didn’t resort to killing people for sport. He favored talking through problems and respect for others. Though he is viewed as an Indian Fighter, his portrayal throughout these three shows as a friend to Native Americans is a positive portrayal in a time when that rarely happened.
Dressed in full costume, Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen rode on horseback as their characters during the opening day parade for Disneyland on July 17th, 1955. Parker would go on to play another American frontier legend, Daniel Boone, on television for many years. But he wasn’t done with Davy Crockett.
Davy Crockett was a popular as ever by the time Disneyland open, and Walt didn’t want to lose the enthusiasm of his audience. How do you bring back a dead character? A prequel was in order.
Davy Crockett’s Keelboat Race hit the airwaves on November 16th, 1955. Another American legend Mike Fink was introduced as Davy’s rival and a keelboat race down the Mississippi River was launched between Fink and Crockett. Davy can easily put a crew together because of his fame, and though it looks like Fink, the self-proclaimed “King of the River” is bound for victory, Crockett and Russell win the race and make a new friend in Mike Fink.
Walt Disney wasn’t done. Now that Davy and Georgie had a friend in Mike Fink another episode was bound to be made and audiences only had a month to wait for Davy Crockett and the River Pirates to premiere.
The final episode begins where Keelboat Race ended with Mike Fink dropping Davy and Georgie off at a remote location. Naturally the generous Tennesseans have left Fink with some gifts, a brand new hat and a small cannon for his keelboat. Fink is touched and vows to help them out if they ever need it.
Searching for some Chickasaw Natives to barter for some horses, Crockett and Russell are captured and learn from the Chickasaw chief that many tribesmen from an allied tribe have been killed by settlers. A war is threatening to break the peace that has been established. The Native groups of the area have been framed for attacks on river boats. The attacks on the river which appear to be from natives are actually pirates in disguise.
Crockett vows to stop the pirates telling the Chickasaw to stop their attack and give him time. Davy’s fame and friendliness to Natives is well known by the Chief so he releases them. They meet up with Mike Fink and plan to stop the river pirates. Crockett and Fink transform the Gullywhumper into a new boat and switch roles. Fink becomes a rich banker that his hauling a valuable cargo down the river. It’s not long before they are attacked by the pirates and Davy, Georgie, Fink and the crew end the deadly attacks on the river and defeat the pirates.
Davy Crocket would continue to influence Walt Disney and subsequently the Disney Parks for decades to come. The Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes are set to reopen at Disneyland Park next year. You can always get a cold drink at Crockett’s Tavern in Fort Wilderness at Walt Disney World, and play some video games at the Davy Crockett Wilderness Arcade in Fort Wilderness. Even Mike Fink and his keelboats found a home in Magic Kingdom. Though riding around in the boats is no longer possible you just might catch a glimpse of the Gullwhumper attached at the dock in Frontierland the next time you are in the Magic Kingdom.
I purchased the Walt Disney Treasures DVD with the complete Davy Crockett series in the early 2000s as a gift for my Dad and sixteen years later it is a valued item in his movie collection. What makes his legend and these films so enduring?
Davy Crockett was a real guy who became a legend in a time when legends were looked for. Was he as good and honest person like Fess Parker portrayed him? Probably not. Where some people have often criticized the Disney productions of the 1950’s as sugarcoating reality, I say there is a lot to enjoy in watching the Davy Crockett movies. You learn about history. The Davy Crockett movies are a buddy story, and the friendship between Davy and Georgie is something that can inspire others. Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen play their parts in a wholesome manner that you cannot help but route for them in all of their adventures.
I don’t think Davy Crockett should be rebooted. But if someone at Walt Disney Pictures made a new version, I know of two people who will definitely be in line at the theatre on opening day. Happy Birthday Davy Crockett and thank you for your legend.