Thursday, June 29, 2006

Elfego Baca & The Swamp Fox DVD (1959 - 1961)

The phenomenal success of Davy Crockett in the mid-50’s was a hard act to follow, but Walt Disney and his television staff rose to the occasion with more real American heroes to dramatize on their weekly anthology program (formerly Disneyland, by now under the title Walt Disney Presents); Elfego Baca & The Swamp Fox.

If these two characters are unfamiliar to you, you are not alone. Elfego and the Fox may not be as popularly revered as Davy was, but their exploits, seen rarely if at all in recent years, are no less entertaining.
The collection begins on disc one with the series based on Elfego Baca (1865-1945), a Mexican-American who lead the type of life most screenwriters could'nt dream up. A checkered past as an outlaw lead him to the job of sheriff which, in turn, spurred his interest in the law. He eventually became a lawyer who specialized in helping the “little people”, namely his fellow Mexican-Americans.
In bringing this story to television, Walt, knowingly or not, introduced what was likely the first Mexican-American hero into the homes of America. And although Italian-American actor Robert Loggia was cast as Baca - such inverse “color blind” casting was not uncommon in those days - his performance is nonetheless quite effective. Allowing an accent that is thin in spots, the very young Loggia is very charismatic in the role and, having grown up in New York City, obviously relished the opportunity to play the proverbial hero of the ol’ west; just watch him grin from ear to ear every time he mounts a horse. Ethnic characters of any type were uncommon in these early days of television, and the fact that Baca was not only non-stereotypical, but also very much a role model (sure, he smoked, but who didn’t on TV then? Besides, he was a good Catholic ...) is quite the testament to the (consciously or not) forward thinking of the creators of the program.
Ten episodes of Elfego Baca were produced between 1958 and 1960, but only three (first, second and fifth) are included here. Although originally aired in black and white, Walt had the foresight to film in color, so aside from the opening titles and previews, all episodes in this set (and for The Swamp Fox as well) are in full color, including Walt’s original introductions to each episode (in the Baca segments, he’s even garbed, appropriately, in natty western wear).
The first Baca show, titled enigmatically “The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca” (original airdate October 3, 1958), is the best; based directly on the incident that earned the real Baca such infamy, it sets the tone that carries throughout the remaining episodes. The plot is set in motion from the get-go when Baca is cornered in an adobe hut by an angry lynch mob; 33 hours, 4,000 bullets and some fire and dynamite later, Baca miraculously survives, therefore earning the reputation as the “man who could not be killed.” What is most compelling about this scenario are its racial overtones: one Mexican-American against 80 Caucasians. In other words, the white guys were the enemy … quite amazing, in retrospect, considering this was a 1958 family program.
More material ahead of its time can be found in episode 2 (“Four Down and Five Lives to Go”, original airdate October 17, 1958), which focuses on Baca’s unconventional approach to being a sheriff - such as throwing a live rattlesnake at his prey. The story has Baca tracking down a murderous fellow countryman, leading him to comment “men like him … give our people a bad name.”
We then skip forward to episode 5 (“Attorney at Law”, original airdate February 6, 1959) where we find that, although he is a lawyer now, Baca has not given up his sharp shootin’. I have a feeling that this episode was included not so much for the chance to see Baca do some lawyerin’, but because of guest star Annette Funicello, incongruously cast as a Mexican maiden name “Chiquita”, unlike Loggia, Annette doesn’t even attempt an accent.
Saddled at times with some clumsy dialogue, but blessed with impressive production values (a Disney mandate), Baca is a commendable western series just as exciting as its more “adult” contemporaries, such as The Big Valley and Bonanza.
From the Wild West to the Colonial South, disc two centers on Lt. Col. Francis Marion (1732-1795), the rebellious freedom fighter who was the “Robin Hood of the American Revolution.” Dubbed the “Swamp Fox” due to his crafty outfoxing of the British, the efforts of Marion and his militia, with their “hit and run” raids, were instrumental in keeping the fires of revolution burning during a crucial time during the war.
In the role of Marion, Walt cast Leslie Nielsen, best known at that time for the sci fi classic Forbidden Planet (and years before his comedic evolution in Airplane!, Police Squad!, et al!). As could be expected, Nielsen is more drab here, but his performance picks up as the story progresses. Unfortunately, like Elfego Baca, there are only three episodes in this set (a total of eight Swamp Foxes were produced between 1959 and 1961), and a juicy revenge plot arises just at the close of the third episode, leaving quite a cliffhanger for most viewers of this DVD. One can only hope that the remaining five Foxes (as well as the remaining seven Bacas) will be made available some day. If so, then maybe Nielsen will decide to participate; his absence from any bonus materials in this set is greatly noticeable.


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