Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Old Yeller

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Old Yeller

Let’s get this out of the way up front. Spoiler alert: the dog dies. You probably already knew that. Even if you’ve never seen Old Yeller, you probably knew that the dog dies. Bill Murray uses it to rally the troops in Stripes. An entire episode of Friends is built around Phoebe’s discovery of how the movie really ends. It’s one of those pop culture moments that transcends itself and enters into our collective subconscious.

Old Yeller started life as a novel by Fred Gipson published in 1956. It received a Newbery Honor, the runner-up prize to the award won by Johnny Tremain. Walt Disney must have snapped up the movie rights to the book almost immediately to get it into theaters for Christmas 1957. Gipson is credited as co-writer of the screenplay with William Tunberg and as near as I can tell, the film remains extremely faithful to the book.

This makes sense because the story doesn’t exactly have a lot of twists and turns. The Coates family are homesteaders trying to make ends meet in 1860s Texas. Patriarch Jim Coates (Fess Parker) is embarking on a cattle drive that’ll take him out of state for a few months, so oldest son Travis (Tommy Kirk) is appointed Man of the House. Pa’s gone less than 24 hours when a big yellow dog (Spike) comes tearing through the Coates’ cornfield, destroying crops, scaring the plow-mule and ripping up a couple lengths of fence.

That old yeller dog keeps showing up, stealing food and making himself comfortable. Travis is ready to shoot him on sight but his precocious younger brother Arliss (Kevin Corcoran) immediately lays claim to the mutt. The boys’ extraordinarily patient mother, Katie (Dorothy McGuire), thinks this is a fine idea for some reason and lets Arliss keep Yeller, sticking with literally the first name they could think of.

It isn’t long before Yeller stops stealing food and starts earning his keep. He saves Arliss from an angry mother bear (justifiably angry, since Arliss was messing around with her cub). He turns out to be a good herding dog. Even Travis warms up to him, eventually spending more time with him than Arliss does.

A hint of conflict seems to appear when Yeller’s original owner, cowboy Burn Sanderson (Chuck Connors), shows up to claim his dog. But Burn turns out to have a heart of gold. After he sees how the family has bonded with Yeller, he agrees to let them keep the dog (in exchange for a horny toad and a “woman-cooked meal” in an arrangement worked out with Arliss). Before he leaves, Burn takes Travis aside and warns him of a spread of hydrophobia that’s going through the area. This information will come in handy very soon.

Travis and Yeller’s bond is cemented when Yeller is seriously injured saving Travis from a pack of wild hogs. Travis is also badly hurt but makes it back home and brings his mother out to rescue Yeller. They escape the threat of hydrophobia this time but it soon descends on the Coates home. First, Travis has to put a rabid cow out of her misery. Then Yeller saves Katie from a rabid wolf attack. While at first it seems that Yeller might be OK, he eventually starts exhibiting symptoms. And so, Travis has to man up and shoot the best friend he’s ever had.

Re-release poster for Old Yeller

Old Yeller was an enormous hit when it was released in 1957. It was the fifth highest-grossing film of the year and it became a touchstone for multiple generations. It’s one of those movies that people either love or hate for the exact same reason: it’s so incredibly sad. If the death of Bambi’s mother makes kids cry, the death of Old Yeller seems to make men, women, boys and girls of all ages weep.

And yet, this is a film that has never done anything for me. It is not difficult to make me tear up during a movie. But I am resistant to the saccharine manipulation of Old Yeller. Look, nobody likes to see a beloved pet get put down and Yeller seems to be a very good boy indeed. But I just don’t get invested in the relationship between this particular boy and his dog.

Part of the problem is that all of the young performers grate on my nerves to some extent. This worries me because we’re going to be seeing a lot more of both Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran in this column. It isn’t that I think the kids are giving bad performances or are miscast. I believe they’re doing exactly what Walt and director Robert Stevenson asked them to do. I just don’t care for it.

Arliss is particularly hard to take. He’s an exploding little dynamo of energy, splashing around in mud puddles, climbing over the furniture and swinging from the rafters. Corcoran shouts most of his dialogue at the top of his lungs. He’s the kind of kid that makes you grit your teeth in frustration if you saw him at the grocery store or a restaurant, hoping against hope that his mother will actually step in and do something about the little hellion.

Travis is a bit more complicated and Kirk does a good job shading him in. He’s a decent kid, doing his best with probably too much responsibility. He warms up to Yeller slowly and believably, at least at first. But when he does decide he likes the dog, it’s like a switch has been flipped. All of a sudden, it’s his dog, not Arliss’. When neighbor Lisbeth (Beverly Washburn) tries consoling Travis by gifting him a puppy sired by Yeller (and not just any puppy, the pick of the litter), Travis petulantly rejects it, saying he already has a dog. When Lisbeth gives the pup to Arliss instead, I expected him to shout, “Hooray! Now I have two dogs!” I have a hard time feeling bad for Travis at the end since he essentially stole his brother’s dog. And I can’t feel sad for Arliss because he’s Arliss and everything seems to work out for him anyway.

Both Kirk and Corcoran went on to long careers at Disney. Tommy sort of stumbled into acting when he was cast in a bit part in a production of Ah, Wilderness! at the Pasadena Playhouse (also in the cast of that production was troubled former Disney star Bobby Driscoll). Afterward, he became a go-to child guest star on TV shows like Matinee Theatre and The Loretta Young Show.

In 1956, Disney secured the rights to Franklin W. Dixon’s The Hardy Boys, intending to make it their next Mickey Mouse Club serial. Tommy was cast as Joe, opposite Tim Considine from Spin And Marty as Frank. The Hardy Boys was a big hit, so Walt kept Tommy busy hosting remote segments on The Mickey Mouse Club. There was even talk of Tommy appearing as young Davy Crockett before Old Yeller came along. Old Yeller was huge but his next movie for the studio would be even bigger and secure Tommy’s reputation as Disney’s All-American Teenager.

As for Corcoran, he also started out on The Mickey Mouse Club, frequently playing different-but-similar characters called Moochie on serials like Spin And Marty and Moochie Of The Little League. After Old Yeller, he appeared as Tommy’s younger brother a couple more times and eventually moved up to starring roles. After graduating college, Corcoran went back to Disney as an assistant director and producer on movies like Pete’s Dragon and Herbie Goes Bananas. So he’ll continue to be a presence in this column for some time.

Dorothy McGuire and Fess Parker both receive above-the-title billing, although Parker probably filmed the entirety of his role over the course of a day and a half. He sports a mustache this time but apart from that, it’s Parker as usual. He was getting very close to the end of his association with Disney by this point, so it’s hardly surprising that his role isn’t much more than a cameo.

McGuire had been Oscar-nominated for her role in Gentleman’s Agreement in 1947 but her career had hit a bit of a rough patch. Now in her 40s, she had begun to transition into “Mom Parts” with William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion, a sizable hit in 1956. Old Yeller cemented the matriarchal image of her career’s second act. She’ll be back in this column before long.

One actor who will not be returning to this column is Chuck Connors. Connors had been working steadily in movies and TV throughout the 50s but hadn’t become a huge star yet. Old Yeller would be his only work for Disney but it proved significant. Shortly after the film came out, Connors was cast as the lead in the television series The Rifleman. He turned the role down, telling the producers they weren’t paying enough. They were ready to move on to another actor when they went to a screening of Old Yeller. Impressed by Connors’ chemistry with Kirk, they agreed to his salary demands and Chuck Connors got the most iconic role of his career.

Old Yeller was a bona fide blockbuster but, perhaps because of the subject matter, Disney showed a fair amount of restraint when it came to tie-in merchandise. It was mostly limited to tie-in books and adaptations for comics and younger readers. There was one bizarre lapse in judgment. In 2005, Disney licensed the name to Kroger for Disney’s Old Yeller dog food. DogFoodAdvisor.com gave the product a one-star rating and it appears to have been bottom-of-the-barrel garbage. It doesn’t look like they make it anymore, which is probably just as well.

Disney's Old Yeller Dog Food

Walt was very proud of Old Yeller and re-released it to theatres a couple of times. The film was so popular that optioning Fred Gipson’s sequel was a no-brainer. So even though Old Yeller himself won’t be back in this column, the Coates family will.

Over the years, Old Yeller has remained critic-proof (except for dog food critics, that is). It’s easy to understand why. You simply cannot argue against the visceral, gut-punch reaction most people have to this movie. Believe me, it is no fun to be the odd man out at the party. Especially when that party’s more like a wake and everybody around you is bawling their eyes out. So if you are one of those people who hold Old Yeller near and dear to your heart, I understand, even if I can’t entirely relate.

VERDICT: Disney Minus. Sorry, it’s just not for me.

Like this post? Help support the Electric Theatre on Ko-fi!

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Johnny Tremain

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Johnny Tremain

Branching into television production worked out extremely well for Walt Disney. In an era when TV was still broadcast in black-and-white, Walt was forward-thinking enough to insist on filming in color. This enabled him to repackage the enormously popular Davy Crockett serials and release them theatrically. Those two features proved that the quality of Walt’s TV productions could hold their own on the big screen.

Johnny Tremain was intended to premiere on the Disneyland TV series, just like Davy Crockett. Walt would continue to make historical adventures a key element of the show for years with serials like The Saga Of Andy Burnett and The Nine Lives Of Elfego Baca. But after screening Johnny Tremain, Walt decided it was good enough to skip television and premiere theatrically instead.

If he was going for longevity, Walt couldn’t have picked better source material. Esther Forbes’ Newbery Medal-winning novel was published in 1943. It’s been a fixture of middle school curriculums ever since. The book has never gone out of print and in 2000, Publishers Weekly placed it at #16 on their list of all-time best-selling children’s books. If you’ve somehow managed to go your entire life without being exposed to Johnny Tremain, you must have gone to a school that didn’t have books.

Tom Blackburn, Disney’s go-to writer for historical adventure projects, adapted the book. He and composer George Bruns also tried to recapture their “Ballad of Davy Crockett” magic with a couple of original songs, although “The Liberty Tree” didn’t exactly rocket to the top of the charts. Blackburn’s script betrays the movie’s TV origins, splitting the story into two distinct episodes.

In the first, we meet our young hero. Johnny Tremain (Hal Stalmaster) is an apprentice silversmith in Boston working under Ephraim Lapham (Will Wright). Wealthy merchant Jonathan Lyte (Sebastian Cabot) wants to commission a replacement piece but Lapham refuses, concerned that his skills are no longer up to the task. Johnny insists that he’s up to the challenge and accepts the work under a tight deadline.

While working on the piece, Johnny reveals a secret to Lapham’s daughter, Priscilla (played by former Disney child star Luana Patten, considerably grown up from her appearances in Song Of The South and So Dear To My Heart): Johnny is in fact related to Lyte. Before she died, his mother gave him her christening cup engraved with the Lyte family crest. But Johnny wants to make his own way in the world and has decided not to confront Lyte with his story unless he absolutely must.

For advice on Lyte’s commission, Johnny goes to visit Boston’s other prominent silversmith, Paul Revere (Walter Sande). Revere, of course, is a member of the Sons of Liberty, the revolutionary organization formed by Samuel Adams (Rusty Lane). Printer’s apprentice Rab Silsbee (future West Side Story and Twin Peaks star Richard Beymer) encourages Johnny to get involved but Johnny prefers to stay out of it.

Taking Revere’s advice, Johnny breaks the Sabbath to finish Lyte’s commission. But an accident badly burns his hand, rendering it useless. The Laphams are forced to let him go. Unable to find work anywhere else, Johnny appeals to Lyte, showing him the cup his mother left him. Rather than taking him in, Lyte accuses Johnny of burglary and has him arrested. Josiah Quincy (Whit Bissell) defends Johnny in court, calling Priscilla as a witness and clearing his name. Grateful for all their help, Johnny takes a job delivering newspapers and acting as a messenger for the Sons of Liberty.

From this point on, Johnny has a front-row seat for all the key events of the American Revolution. He and Rab take part in the Boston Tea Party. He’s there for Paul Revere’s famous Midnight Ride to Lexington. He’s on the front lines of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. If he’d been carrying a gun, he probably would have been responsible for the shot heard round the world.

There’s nothing about Johnny Tremain that I would describe as actively bad. It’s a well-made film with high production values and a capable cast. But it is an extremely old-fashioned movie, a little bit stiff and stagy. At times, it feels more like a professionally made Independence Day pageant than a film, especially when the entire cast marches through the streets of Boston singing “The Liberty Tree”. Hamilton, this isn’t.

The biggest problem is that Forbes’ novel has had every last trace of grit and toughness scrubbed out of it by the Disney Sterilization Crew. The book treats the Battles of Lexington and Concord with some degree of realism. Rab is wounded and dies painfully (spoiler alert for a novel you really should have read by now, I guess). The movie treats it like an exciting romp through the woods with high spirits and laughter all around. I don’t expect Johnny Tremain to turn into Saving Private Ryan but any anti-war message from Forbes’ book has been completely jettisoned.

Much of the pleasure of Johnny Tremain comes from watching the cavalcade of character actors as real-life historical figures. Walter Sande is a particular treat as Paul Revere, giving the silversmith a down-to-earth decency that goes beyond the usual thumbnail sketch of kids’ Intro to American History books. Sebastian Cabot is smugness personified as Lyte. And Jeff York (Mike Fink, King of the River!) is virtually unrecognizable as James Otis, a founding member of the Sons of Liberty whose behavior has become increasingly erratic after a head injury.

Considering the presence of Luana Patten, you might expect Walt to cast her former co-star Bobby Driscoll as Johnny. But Driscoll had already been arrested once for marijuana possession by this point, so Walt cast newcomer Hal Stalmaster in the lead role. He isn’t a natural actor but he certainly sells Johnny’s earnestness.

If you’ve paid attention to the credits of virtually any movie or TV show from the second half of the 20th century, you’ve seen the name of Hal’s older brother, the legendary casting director Lynn Stalmaster. Lynn was already in casting when Hal got the part in Johnny Tremain and was evidently surprised to find out that his younger brother had any interest in acting. As it turned out, Lynn was right. Hal’s interests did end up lying elsewhere. Walt cast him in another Revolutionary War TV serial, The Swamp Fox starring Leslie Nielsen. But apart from a few small TV roles, Hal retired from acting entirely before the end of the 1960s. He ended up following in his brother’s footsteps, working in Disney’s casting department for a time before becoming a talent agent.

But Johnny Tremain’s most significant addition to the Disney roster was director Robert Stevenson. Stevenson was a British director who emigrated to the US in the early 1940s. He was under contract to David O. Selznick, for whom he made the 1943 version of Jane Eyre starring Orson Welles, and made a few films at RKO before moving into television. He was a prolific TV director, helming multiple episodes of shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Gunsmoke.

When Walt hired Stevenson to direct Johnny Tremain, it was just another TV gig. It became a life-changing experience. Over the course of the next twenty-plus years, Stevenson would direct another 18 features for the studio, nabbing an Oscar nomination for his work on Mary Poppins. In 1977, Variety named him the most commercially successful director of all time with 16 films on their list of all-time highest-grossing films. Needless to say, we’ll be seeing a lot more Robert Stevenson movies in this column.

It’s hard to say whether or not Walt’s theatrical gamble paid off for Johnny Tremain. Box office numbers weren’t widely reported back in 1957. But Walt certainly acted like he expected another Davy Crockett-size hit. He flooded stores with Johnny Tremain toys, comics, and other tchotchkes. There were even official Johnny Tremain tri-cornered hats to try and convince kids that coonskin caps were so 1955.

Walt Disney's Johnny Tremain Crayons and Stencils
Walt Disney's Johnny Tremain Tri-Cornered Hat

The movie also inspired Walt to propose a new addition to Disneyland called Liberty Street recreating Revolutionary-era Boston. Liberty Street eventually morphed into Liberty Square in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. The Johnny Tremain connections might not be quite as overt as Walt had once planned but the Liberty Tree, an enormous 100-year-old southern live oak, still dominates the area.

The Liberty Tree in Walt Disney World's Liberty Square

Johnny Tremain also stayed alive through screenings on TV and schools. That original TV format lent itself to editing, so in addition to returning to its original berth on Disneyland, Disney edited it down further to focus on sequences like Paul Revere’s ride. For years, even if you hadn’t seen Johnny Tremain in its entirety, you’d probably seen some of it on a day when your history teacher needed a break.

Today, Johnny Tremain isn’t impossible to find but Disney certainly isn’t treating it like one of their crown jewels. They haven’t released it on Blu-ray or made it available on Disney+ but you can rent or buy an HD version digitally on Vudu or iTunes. It isn’t a terrible movie but I think it’s destined to remain stuck in the past. Nostalgia buffs may enjoy revisiting it. But if you’re new to the world of Johnny Tremain, I don’t think you’ll be inspired to buy your own tri-cornered hat.

VERDICT: Disney Neutral

Like this post? Help support the Electric Theatre on Ko-fi!

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Westward Ho The Wagons!

Original theatrical poster for Walt Disney's Westward Ho The Wagons!

Fess Parker was right smack dab in the middle of his Disney contract when Westward Ho The Wagons! was released in December of 1956. Already, signs of boredom had begun to creep in. Given the phenomenal success of Davy Crockett, it’s totally understandable why Walt would want to keep Parker comfortably within his wheelhouse. But there’s a big difference between playing to an actor’s strengths and simply repeating yourself. Apart from his choice of hat, Parker’s character here isn’t all that much different from Davy Crockett or James Andrews in The Great Locomotive Chase. At least this time, he gets to sing and play guitar.

Tom Blackburn, the writer behind Davy Crockett, based his script on the kid-lit novel Children Of The Covered Wagon by Mary Jane Carr. Carr specialized in detailed, well-researched stories about the Oregon Trail for younger readers. Carr’s book seems to be told primarily from the perspective of the children themselves. While the kids are certainly still present in Blackburn’s script, they take more of a back seat to Parker’s character, “Doc” Grayson.

Weirdly, Grayson isn’t even the actual leader of the wagon train. That would be James Stephen, played by TV’s Superman, George Reeves, in one of his final roles. Grayson isn’t even a real doctor. He seems to have been the assistant of the company’s actual doctor before his death. But everyone, including Stephen, defers to Grayson in virtually every situation because it’s Fess Parker. Even Superman took a back seat to Davy Crockett in the 50s.

For a movie about a wagon train, Westward Ho The Wagons! covers surprisingly little territory. And for a movie with an exclamation point in its title, it features shockingly little excitement. As the movie opens, the company has already traveled quite a distance. They arrive at Chimney Rock, where the prairies of the Midwest give over to the more rugged territory of the Rocky Mountains. They attract the attention of a Pawnee war party. The Pawnee first steal a few horses, then capture young Dan Thompson (David Stollery, then famous as rich orphan Marty Markham in the Spin And Marty segments of The Mickey Mouse Club), the son of the late doctor. Dan manages to escape and warn the pioneers before the war party can ambush them, barely escaping with their lives.

The wagon train continues on to Fort Laramie and territory controlled by the usually-friendly Sioux. While in the trading post, the Sioux medicine man Many Stars (Iron Eyes Cody) catches sight of Dan’s younger sister, Myra (Karen Pendleton). Many Stars tells his Chief that the girl’s blonde hair and blue eyes would bring powerful magic to the tribe, so the Chief attempts to trade for the girl. When the pioneers refuse, tensions rise between the two groups.

The only people who seem unaffected by the hostilities are the kids. The Sioux children and the pioneers are quick to form a friendship. But when the Chief’s son, Little Thunder (Anthony Numkena) is hurt, the tensions flare. Knowing things will only get worse if the boy dies, Grayson offers to help, convincing Many Stars that “two medicines are better than one”. Anyone care to guess whether or not Little Thunder pulls through?

The bifurcated structure of Blackburn’s script made it easy for Walt to chop the movie in half and air it on television. But unlike the two Davy Crockett features, this was always intended for theaters. Cinematographer Charles Boyle, who had also worked on Davy Crockett, shot the film in CinemaScope (although the only version Disney has released on home video to date is a terrible-looking pan & scan transfer). Matte artists Peter Ellenshaw and Albert Whitlock helped give the picture size and scope. And producer Bill Walsh was finally moving into feature production after successfully launching Disney’s TV division.

Director William Beaudine was also coming from Disney’s TV side, having helmed several popular Mickey Mouse Club segments including Spin & Marty and Corky And White Shadow, a serial about a girl and her German Shepherd that starred another member of the Disney Repertory Company, Davy Crockett’s pal, Buddy Ebsen. But Beaudine was far from being a newcomer. He’d been in the industry since the silent era, working for virtually every studio in town.

Beaudine’s fortunes took a hit in the early 1940s and he found himself working for Poverty Row studios like Monogram. For years, he churned out movies at an astonishing pace, eventually becoming one of the most prolific directors in film history. He became known for making movies fast and cheap, which made him perfect for television. Westward Ho The Wagons! would be a late-career opportunity for Beaudine to make a feature with the kind of budget he hadn’t had in years. But he kept on working in TV and low-budget features right up to his death in 1970. Beaudine will be back in this column.

If you were a regular viewer of either Disneyland or The Mickey Mouse Club in 1956, you’d have been very familiar with most of the actors in Westward Ho The Wagons! As if the prospect of Davy Crockett sharing the screen with Marty Markham wasn’t exciting enough, the film also brings back Mike Fink, King of the River! Jeff York had made a big impression in Davy Crockett And The River Pirates and he continued to have good chemistry with Parker as Doc Grayson’s sidekick, Hank.

Besides Stollery, most of the other children in the cast were kids audiences would have been on a first name basis with. Doreen! Cubby! Tommy! Karen! These Mouseketeers were forever holding the banner high, beaming into audiences’ living rooms every weekday on The Mickey Mouse Club. Walt would later turn other Mouseketeers into much bigger stars. For now, he was just beginning to cross-pollinate features with his available TV talent.

The cast did include a few newcomers to the Disney lot. Kathleen Crowley played Laura, Parker’s love interest and the older sister/guardian to Dan and Myra. Crowley’s film career never quite took off, although she was a regular presence on television throughout the 1950s and 60s. Sebastian Cabot, on the other hand, went on to a lengthy association with Disney. Cabot has a fun role here as the French trader Bissonette, doing his best to broker peace between the pioneers and the Sioux. This column will see (and hear) quite a bit from Cabot.

Unfortunately, all this TV influence prevents Westward Ho from really taking off as a feature film. Again, Disney is doing the movie no favors by releasing it in a pan-and-scan format. Boyle’s cinematography may look great for all I know but you’d never know it from what the studio has made available. But even a fully restored transfer wouldn’t solve all of the movie’s problems, the biggest of which is the episodic script.

Our heroes never really seem to get anywhere. When we meet them, they’re in the middle of their journey. When we leave them, they’re still in the middle of their journey. Between the endless nature of the story and the big cast of characters we’re introduced to, it feels like an extended pilot episode for a proposed TV series.

This might be somewhat forgivable if it weren’t for the fact that the most exciting action sequence comes at the halfway point. Legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt acted as second unit director and staged the rousing sequence where the pioneers release their horses to fend off the attacking Pawnee. It’s an impressive spectacle that the rest of the movie cannot live up to.

Apart from this one exciting scene, Westward Ho The Wagons! might just as well be titled Generic Cowboys And Indians Picture. You know how when you see a character in a movie or a TV show flipping through the channels and they run across stock footage from some old western? That’s essentially what this looks like. Only the most devoted western fan would be compelled enough to keep watching.

With its focus on Parker’s relationship with Stollery and the rest of the Mouseketeers, Westward Ho The Wagons! was aimed squarely at younger audiences. But it failed to generate Davy Crockett-sized business. Parker, at least, got a minor hit out of the song “Wringle Wrangle”.

Wringle Wrangle as sung by Fess Parker in Walt Disney's Westward Ho The Wagons!

Parker had previously hit the charts with his version of “The Ballad Of Davy Crockett”. It was one of the biggest songs of 1955 but Parker’s was just one of several versions flooding record stores and radio airwaves that year. Parker’s release had to play second fiddle to Bill Hayes’ rendition, which hit #1 on the Billboard charts (Parker peaked at #6). But the song obviously did well enough that Disneyland Records kept trying to sell Parker as a recording artist. “Wringle Wrangle” made it up to #12 and that was the end of his time as a pop star.

But despite his growing dissatisfaction with the studio, Westward Ho The Wagons! would not spell the end of Fess Parker’s time with Disney. He’ll be back in this column before long, as will most of the other members of the Walt Disney Repertory Players.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

Like this post? Help support the Electric Theatre on Ko-fi!

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

Like this post? Help support the Electric Theatre on Ko-fi!

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Great Locomotive Chase

Original theatrical poster art for Walt Disney's The Great Locomotive Chase

Walt Disney LOVED trains. Model trains, full-size trains, animated trains, historic trains, experimental trains, you name it. If it ran on a rail, he was all over it. So it was perhaps inevitable that he would eventually make a film based on one of the most famous railroad-related incidents of the Civil War, it not all time. The Great Locomotive Chase, based on the 1862 theft of a Confederate train by Union spies, briefly reignited Walt’s interest in filmmaking. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite the thrilling passion project it should have been.

Lawrence Edward Watkin, the screenwriter responsible for Disney’s British films from Treasure Island to Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue, had very much remained a part of the studio since the UK division folded. Watkin not only wrote the screenplay for The Great Locomotive Chase, he also served as producer for the first and only time in his career. Producing might not have been his forte but he continued to write for Disney for many years.

Watkin’s 1942 novel Marty Markham had provided the basis for the wildly popular Spin And Marty segments on The Mickey Mouse Club. One of the primary directors on that show was a former editor named Francis D. Lyon. Lyon had won an Oscar as one of the editors on the classic boxing film noir Body And Soul. His first two films as director, Crazylegs and The Bob Mathias Story, had both been sports biopics that starred their subjects as themselves. Having cornered the market on that very specific subgenre, Lyon signed on to The Adventures Of Spin And Marty.

Comic book adaptation of Walt Disney's Spin & Marty

Spin And Marty became an out-of-nowhere phenomenon, almost rivalling Davy Crockett. Considering the success Disney had repackaging other TV productions for theatrical exhibition, I’m a little surprised that Spin And Marty won’t be appearing in this column (although its stars, Tim Considine, David Stollery and second season addition Annette Funicello, certainly will). Regardless, teaming up the director and the original creator of Spin And Marty on a project must have been a no-brainer.

The choice of who to star in the film was even more obvious. Davy Crockett had turned Fess Parker into an international star. Naturally, Disney had placed Parker under contract and now had to generate projects for him to appear in. The role of James J. Andrews, the civilian Union spy from Kentucky who led the mission, was squarely within Parker’s wheelhouse. Andrews may have had a nicer wardrobe but he was still very much a Crockett type.

Jeffrey Hunter was cast opposite Parker as the persistent train conductor William Fuller. Today, Hunter is probably best remembered among geeks of a certain age as Captain Pike in the original pilot for Star Trek. Back then, Hunter had been kicking around Hollywood for a few years. He had appeared in movies like Red Skies Of Montana and Belles On Their Toes but efforts to turn him into a major star hadn’t really clicked. That started to change after John Ford cast him opposite John Wayne in The Searchers, which was released just a few weeks before The Great Locomotive Chase.

Ironically, Ford’s first choice for the part had been none other than Fess Parker. Parker wanted the role badly but Disney refused to let him out of his contract. Hunter later said he didn’t know anything about all that until years after the fact, while Parker said losing the part was one of the biggest disappointments of his career. This would end up being one of several incidents that ended up creating a rift between Fess Parker and Walt Disney.

The rest of the cast was filled out with character actors who would go on to have long associations with the studio. Jeff York, Kenneth Tobey and Don Megowan had all appeared alongside Parker on Davy Crockett. Harry Carey Jr. starred as Triple R Ranch counselor Bill Burnett on Spin And Marty. John Lupton, who narrates the film as Union soldier and chronicler William Pittenger, would later appear in several Disney film and TV productions of the ‘70s. Even the great Slim Pickens pops up briefly as the engineer of the train Fuller commandeers. All of these actors will appear in this column again.

This would be Disney’s first time bringing American history to the big screen (Davy Crockett, of course, having been originally made for television) and Walt was prepared to spare no expense. Peter Ellenshaw again painted meticulous mattes that brought the past to life. Walt himself made sure to guarantee the historical accuracy of the locomotives, working personally with the B&O Railroad Museum to secure period-appropriate trains. Watkin based his screenplay primarily on the account written by Pittenger himself. Artist and historian Wilbur Kurtz was brought on board as a technical advisor, a job he’d previously performed on both Gone With The Wind and Song Of The South. The location chosen was along the disused Tallulah Falls Railway in north Georgia, not too far from where the actual event took place.

All of this research may have resulted in a reasonably accurate portrayal of the events, although Watkin’s script absolutely takes some liberties. But it doesn’t necessarily translate into a particularly exciting movie. Trains are wonderful, beautiful pieces of machinery. I’m a huge fan of them myself. But they aren’t very fast. Back then, they topped out around 20 miles per hour. Andrews’ train wasn’t going nearly that fast because they kept stopping to cut telegraph wires, tear up rails and perform other acts of sabotage. When Fuller first takes off in pursuit of the train on foot, it seems at first as though the movie’s entire chase might be a foot race.

The movie seems to be told in increments of 10-15 miles. Andrews’ train gets a little ahead, then stops. Fuller catches up a little bit, deals with whatever shenanigans Andrews has prepared for him, then inches forward again. Every so often, one of Andrews’ more aggressive men will spoil for a fight, only to have Andrews talk him off the ledge. For an ostensible action movie, it’s all very leisurely.

Finally, Fuller succeeds in catching up to his stolen train and Andrews agrees that it’s time to make their stand and fight. But no sooner has he made this declaration than the Cavalry rides in, hoopin’ and hollarin’! Hopelessly outnumbered, Andrews and his men head for the hills, abandoning the train and their mission. The big fight is over before it’s even underway and the whole mission has been for nothing. If you’ve ever been uncertain about what the term “anticlimactic” means, watch this movie. All will be made clear.

Andrews and his men are eventually captured and sentenced to death. While awaiting execution, Pittenger comes up with a daring escape plan. The plan works but Andrews sacrifices himself, allowing himself to be recaptured so the rest can get away. In the end, only about half the men make it back to safety, where they become the first recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The problem here is that the story is being presented as one of great heroics and honor, when it’s really one of defeat and failure. It’s an interesting story but the movie isn’t equipped to frame it in a way that makes sense. Half our heroes are executed and their plan fails but somehow that’s still a triumphant ending? The only winner here is Fuller. He, at least, gets to shake hands with his nemesis in the end and assure him that he was a worthy and honorable opponent. The movie really should have been about him.

Original theatrical poster for Buster Keaton's The General, inspired by the real-life Great Locomotive Chase

Of course, that movie had already been made thirty years earlier. Buster Keaton’s silent classic The General was inspired by the exact same incident. Only in this version, Keaton plays the Fuller character (here named Johnnie Gray), the tireless, persistent Southern engineer who pursues his stolen locomotive regardless of whatever obstacle is thrown at him. In terms of historical accuracy, it has relatively little to do with the actual event. But as a movie, it’s a whole lot more fun to watch.

As a comedy, The General is able to make the Union spies the bad guys without anyone raising an eyebrow. The Great Locomotive Chase might be on the right side of history but it’s telling a story where the good guys lose. And yes, this is a very homogenized look at the Civil War that reduces the players to Good Guys and Bad Guys. Don’t look for any larger explorations of the issues surrounding the war here.

On the plus side, that also makes the film relatively inoffensive. African-American characters are mostly absent. Sure, you could choose to be offended by the fact that they somehow made a movie that takes place in Georgia during the Civil War with only three, mostly non-speaking Black characters. But considering Hollywood’s track record with situations like this, silence is probably golden.

The Great Locomotive Chase only did so-so business when it was released in the summer of 1956. But it ended up playing a small role in another landmark event in Walt’s life. Walt’s adopted hometown of Marceline, Missouri, contacted him that year. The city was preparing to open a new municipal swimming pool and wanted to dedicate it to Marceline’s favorite son. Walt and his brother, Roy, agreed to return to their childhood home for a homecoming visit that summer. One of the planned events would be the Midwest premiere of The Great Locomotive Chase.

Walt and Roy Disney attend the Marceline premiere of The Great Locomotive Chase

If you’ve seen footage or photos of Walt and Roy strolling around Marceline while reminiscing, it most likely came from this trip. This visit became a key part of the myth-making around Walt Disney’s boyhood. The idealized nostalgia of Disneyland’s Main Street USA and films like So Dear To My Heart and Lady And The Tramp now had a basis in reality. Walt would continue to put Marceline up on a pedestal for the rest of his days. It came to represent everything that was good and pure and true about America.

Also on this visit, Walt began making inquiries into buying the old farm where he and his family had lived. He was envisioning another theme park, one that would transport visitors back to a quieter, more idyllic time. Dubbed The Marceline Project for security reasons (Walt knew that property values would skyrocket the second people discovered Disney was coming to town), it was meant to be an actual working farm with living history exhibits and attractions designed by the Disney Imagineers.

Walt’s death in 1966 brought an end to The Marceline Project. Walt had hoped Roy would bring the new park to fruition but by this time, he was completely absorbed in the construction of Walt Disney World, the Disneyland companion park in Florida.

Still, the Disney connection has provided a big boost to the Marceline Chamber of Commerce. At the premiere of The Great Locomotive Chase, Walt told the audience of children, “You are lucky to live in Marceline. My best memories are the years I spent here.” Any town would be thrilled to ride the coattails of a quote like that for generations and Marceline has certainly done just that. In 2001, the town opened the Walt Disney Hometown Museum to celebrate Walt’s centennial year.

As for the movie itself, nobody really talks much about The Great Locomotive Chase anymore. It isn’t available on Disney+ and has not yet been released on Blu-ray. The city of Adairsville, Georgia, holds an annual Great Locomotive Chase Festival the first weekend in October (unfortunately cancelled this year, due to COVID) to commemorate the actual event. I’ve never been but I’m guessing that if any movies are included in their festivities, it’s Buster Keaton’s The General and not this one.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

Like this post? Help support the Electric Theatre on Ko-fi!