Walt Disney, Corrupter of Our Youth

I’ll confess to going slightly overboard when I pick titles.  Some of them seem too cute.  Perhaps it’s just that by the time one of these late-night writing sessions is done and the result is waiting to receive a name, I’m a bit logy.  Over the past several weeks I’ve also had one bout of cold, flu or other assorted malady after another, so if some recent titles seemed more eccentric than usual, an elevated temperature may be to blame.

If you’re not aware that Errol Flynn played Custer in a Warner Brothers B&W spectacular called “They Died With Their Boots On,” then the title of the entry just prior to this one made no sense whatsoever.  The original point of “They Played Dead With Their Boots On” also got lost somewhere.  As I started to investigate the environment in which Moody Bedel Lovewell and Betsey Watkins started raising their family in the Ohio valley in 1817, I was surprised to see similarities cropping up between the period that followed the War of 1812, and the era when America’s baby-boomers were playing with their hula-hoops, coonskin caps and toy six-guns.  I had been looking for an answer to the question, What was it like to grow up in America in the 1820’s?  Lately I’ve begun to wonder if it might have been something like growing up in America in the 1950’s.  At least a little bit.

The War of 1812 was waged at several locales in North America, but it was only a sideshow in a far-flung conflict between European empires, one that culminated in the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte’s army at Waterloo.  In America it was a red-blooded flag-waver of a war.  After the British torched the U.S. capital, patriotic fervor must have burned almost as brightly as it would following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.  By the time jubilant American G.I.’s saw the end of WWII looming, the partly-cremated remains of the great villain of the 20th century, Adolf Hitler, lay buried in a shallow grave in Berlin.  When Moody Lovewell’s term of service was up in 1817 and he was free to marry Betsey Watkins, Napoleon was serving out his final exile on St. Helena.

So, the children of the veterans of 1812, like their baby-boomer cousins 140 years later, grew up in a time when the Big Bad Wolf had recently been vanquished, and, once America shook off a post-war depression that hung on until 1821, the country entered a period of optimism, growth and technological innovation.  Children born in the 1820’s grew up in a world that was being introduced to daguerrotypes, telegraph keys and steamships, while the children of WWII gathered around flickering images on TV picture tubes, heard the roar of jet engines and watched mankind’s first tentative steps into space.  One cultural artifact which the two eras shared without much alteration was Davy Crockett.

Crockett almanacs began appearing in the 1830’s, shortly after the play featuring a thinly-disguised Crockett, “Nimrod Wildfire: The Lion of the West” became a sensation on the New York stage.  Even a dyed-in-the-wool snob like Edgar Allen Poe had to admit that he not only knew who Davy Crockett was, but could recite details about his legend.  What made Crockett a folk hero in his own day was his distrust of authority, and his stubborn reluctance to be any man’s dog, even Andrew Jackson’s.  Davy Crockett’s autobiography proudly recounted his involvement in a mutiny against his old commander during the Creek Indian War, even if some exaggeration was involved in the telling.  He openly split with the popular President over Andrew Jackson's policy of Indian removal, and even considered running against him in the next election.

We sometimes credit Walt Disney with resurrecting Davy Crockett in the 1950’s, as if the frontier hero lay slumbering in mothballs for a century before being reintroduced to America on “Disneyland.”  This simply isn’t so, as a look at Crockett’s appearances on film early in the 20th century shows:

Davy Crockett In Hearts United (1909)       Davy Crockett (1910)                                        The Immortal Alamo (1911)                        Martyrs of the Alamo (1915)                             Davy Crockett (1916)                                      Davy Crockett at the Fall of the Alamo (1926)                                                               Heroes of the Alamo (1938)                          Davy Crockett Indian Fighter (1950)           The Last Command (1955)

America had never forgotten Davy Crockett the martyr.  Disney reminded us of Davy Crockett the rebel, the anti-authoritarian hothead, the simple man in buckskins who always followed his conscience, consequences be damned.

My wife has long theorized that much of the youthful rebellion of the 1960’s could be laid at the feet of Walt Disney, with Davy Crockett as Disney's first standard-bearer on American television.  There does seem to be a common thread running through most of the Disney offerings we grew up watching, starting with Crockett.  My wife always points to the theme of defiance of authority in “The Fighting Prince of Donegal,” “Johnny Tremain," “Pollyanna,” “The Prince and the Pauper," “The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men,” “Rob Roy, Highland Rogue,” and Dr. Syn, the vicar of Dymchurch Abbey, otherwise known as “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh.”  

Disney’s signature tweaking of the Dr. Syn story, by the way, was to give the vicar an altar boy, played by child-star Sean Scully, who became Syn's junior spy at Squire Banks’s manor.  The boy could be counted on to help his master outwit General Pugh, twist King George’s nose, and serve as an underage accomplice during the commission of various capital crmes.  Luckily, he was never caught.

My own favorite example of Disney's finagling with his source material comes from one of the studio's minor efforts, “Toby Tyler,” the story of a boy who runs away to join the circus, based on a cautionary children’s book written by James Otis in 1880.  I saw the movie in a theater when I was in grade school and rather liked it.  Standing beside a book rack in a dime store in Superior, Nebraska, a short time later I spied a copy of Otis’s story and flipped through it.  Coming to the final page, I was surprised to find an illustration of a contrite Toby coming home to his Uncle Daniel and asking to be forgiven for running away.  Wait a minute, I thought.  In the movie, didn’t his aunt and uncle come to see Toby perform under the big top, and ask him to forgive them?  I forget what their offense was, but they were old, and in Disney’s book, must have been guilty of something, whereas Toby was young and thus unquestionably in the right.

Otis’s story also ends on a heavily religious note, a resolution seldom encountered in a Disney film (The only purely spiritual moment I can think of in the whole Disney canon involves a cat who goes to Heaven, but is sent back).  Friars and padres could always be counted on to redistribute the booty Robin Hood and Zorro passed along for them to fence, but beyond that they were ineffectual figureheads.  Dr. Syn, alias The Scarecrow, may have been Disney’s ideal hero, a man of the cloth who turned into Robin Hood after the sun went down.  A vicar who smuggled rum by moonlight was at least good for something.    

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com