Monday, March 22, 2010

Momento mori

It's one of those senior moments: the report of a death which ... doesn't seem quite timely.

The New York Times has a neat reflection, by Charles McGrath, on the death of Fess Parker:

If you grew up in the 1950s, then the character Davy Crockett, played by Fess Parker, who died at 85 late last week, is an essential part of your mental furniture. His ballad most likely still plays over and over in your head, especially the fourth line, with its odd Appalachian spelling and suggestion of folk tale strangeness: “Kilt him a b’ar when he was only 3.” Cosseted in your urban or suburban television room in Eisenhower America, how could you fail to be impressed by a feat like that?
It was, as Malcolm can testify, nearly as impressive in Eden/Macmillan East Anglia.

McGrath continues:
In truth, Davy Crockett was less the “king of the wild frontier,” as the song goes on to say, than the king of a merchandising juggernaut that convinced millions of children that they needed to own Davy Crockett pajamas and lunchboxes and coloring books and official Davy Crockett coonskin caps. We actually wore these little ratty-looking toupees with no irony or embarrassment at all.
For the Seattle Times, Dennis McLellan expands on this commercial epiphany:
TV's "King of the Wild Frontier" also touched off a merchandising frenzy: 10 million coonskin caps were sold, along with toy "Old Betsy" rifles, buckskin shirts, T-shirts, coloring books, guitars, bath towels, bedspreads, wallets — anything with the Crockett name attached.

Viewers also fell in love with the show's catchy theme song. Bill Hayes' version of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" soared to No. 1 on the hit parade and remained there for 13 weeks.

"It was an explosion beyond anyone's comprehension," Mr. Parker recalled decades later. "The power of television, which was still new, was demonstrated for the first time."

Even Disney was taken by surprise.
Disney planned three Davy Crockett adventures, with the hero dying heroically at the Alamo as the conclusion of the third. Sticking with McLellan:
"We had no idea what was going to happen to Crockett, " [Disney] later said. "Why, by the time the first show finally got on the air, we were already shooting the third one and calmly killing Davy off at the Alamo. It became one of the biggest overnight hits in TV history, and there we were with just three films and a dead hero."
Crockett and McLellan (both names from Galloway, both among the Border reivers), Parker (the North of England), McGrath (Donegal and, as McGraw, the County Down) ... is there a pattern developing here?

The title of the NYT piece, by the way, is:
An Enemy of Raccoons but a Friend of Marketeers.
The death of innocence

Malcolm recalls a time when any Norfolk moggie or squirrel went in fear of imminent re-invention as pre-adolescent headgear. Television came late to our part of the world. Image-making pyjamas and lunchboxes were bourgeois steps too far, too grand, too alien for our comprehension. But wildlife and the neighbour's pet pussy ... that's what catapults were for. After that, and a bit of amateur taxidermy, you, too, could act out the last episode. With added verisimilitude and confidence, if all other heads were crowned with mere rabbit pelts.

The Walt Disney Corporation (which Carl Hiaasen, much later, properly nailed as Team Rodent) was already getting into commercial exploitation of the dream-factory, and thereby of the impressionable young to be separated from their limited loot. Disney apparently withheld Parker from more grown-up pictures, working with John Ford (Jeffrey Hunter's part in The Searchers) or Marilyn Monroe (Don Murray got that one), for fear of contaminating the brand.

And thereby hangs another tale

McGrath's delicious punchline is:
It seems entirely fitting that in later life, having come to the end of his acting career, Mr. Parker reinvented himself as a successful vintner. Once an idol of baby boomers, a model of coonskin fortitude, he now became for them a source of middle-aged balm and solace, making wine they could sip in the evening as the shadows lengthened. Davy would probably have abstained, but he lived in an America where people were nobler and firmer of purpose.
So, Ave atque Vale! Fess Elisha Parker.

We shall not see your like again. It doesn't sell in the 21st Century.
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