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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