Thursday, July 25, 2019

Davy Crockett A-fightin' Some River Pirates!

Fess Parker as Davy.
When Walt Disney's Disneyland TV series debuted its first Davy Crockett limited run series in 1954, no one could have anticipated its massive success. Not only was it a ratings smash, but it spawned an extremely lucrative line of tie-in merchandise and a hit song. It also made a TV star of then-unknown 31-year-old Fess Parker and made coonskin caps popular again (at least with the young folks). To capitalize on the overwhelming response to this three-episode Davy Crockett series, Walt Disney had an edited version released as the 1955 theatrical film Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier.

A sequel was inevitable and in 1955, Disneyland aired two additional Davy Crockett episodes. They were also edited together and released to theaters as Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. Technically, the second "film" is a prequel as it chronicles events that took place prior to the climax at The Alamo at the end of Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier.

After several months of hunting, Davy and his chum Georgie Russel (Buddy Ebsen) plan to hire a keelboat to travel from Kentucky to New Orleans to sell their pelts. They first approach the boisterous Mike Fink, the self-proclaimed "King of the River," who wants to charge them a highly unreasonable $1000. Davy and Georgie nix that offer and decide to form their own crew aboard elderly Captain Cobb's Bertha Marie Marietta.

Jeff York as Mike Fink.
Mike Fink doesn't take kindly to the competition, so he gets a drunk Georgie to bet all the furs against two barrels of whiskey that Davy and crew reach New Orleans first. It's a lively boat race with Davy navigating river rapids, fighting Indians (more on that later), coping with sabotage, and helping out a marooned farmer.

The second half of the film finds Davy and Georgie trying to quell a local Indian uprising. They discover a band of ruthless "river pirates" are impersonating the Indians and attacking boats. Realizing they need some help, Davy turns to Mike Fink and his men.

The plot of Davy Crockett and the River Pirates is understandably disjointed, as it was comprised of  two 60-minute episodes that aired on Disneyland as Davy Crockett's Keelboat Race and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. The keelboat race is the more entertaining of the two as it provides more screen time to Jeff York as the colorful Mike Fink. York breathes life into his loud and bigger-than-life character, providing an effective contrast to Fess Parker's incorruptible hero. Fink even has his own catchy song which describes him as "a bull-nosed, tough old alligator, and real depopulator, born too mean to die."

If Jeff York looks familiar, you may be remembering him from Old Yeller (1957), in which he played Fess Parker and Dorthy Maguire's lazy, grub-hunting neighbor. He also later appeared opposite Parker as a guest star on the Daniel Boone TV series. York briefly had a series of his own, co-starring with Roger Moore in The Alaskans (1959-60).

The other standout performances in Davy Crockett and the River Pirates belong to Buddy Ebsen and Kenneth Tobey. The former rarely got a chance to stretch himself on The Beverly Hillbillies, so it's entertaining to watch him as a humorous sidekick. As for Tobey, who famously played the hero of The Thing from Another World, he's barely recognizable as Fink's grizzled, cigar-chewing, red-headed crony.

Buddy Ebsen and Kennth Tobey.
Watching it today, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates drips with nostalgia and is strongly recommended for film and TV fans who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. It's also surprisingly progressive in its treatment of Native Americans, who are not portrayed as villains.

Incidentally, Fess Parker did not benefit financially from the Davy Crockett merchandise bonanza due to the nature of his contract with Disney. When repeats of the Davy Crockett episodes sparked renewed interest in the character in 1963, Parker approached Disney about a Davy Crockett TV series. When that didn't work out, Parker and producer Aaron Rosenberg developed the Daniel Boone TV series, which ran for six years on NBC. Parker owned 30% of the show and pretty much retired from acting after its run.


Caftan Woman said...

I have been known to shut out the world and wrap myself in the glow of nostalgia with Disney's Davy Crockett mashups.

Ron said...

I grew up watching these shows. Had me a coonskin cap, yessiree. (Damn tail fell off, but it was still warm in the winter.) For whatever reason the Parker movie I remember best is Disney's "The Great Locomotive Chase" (1956).

The studio gave a boost to so many actors' careers; Guy Williams ("Zorro"); Robert Loggia ("Nine Live of Elfego Baca") -- not to mention Hayley Mills, Kurt Russell and on and on. Walt could pick 'em.

Rick29 said...

So true! Walt Disney had an eye for talent.

Lincolnman said...

Wholeheartedly concur - this is a great series and you can easily see why it was such a sensation when initially run. Jeff York was superb as Mike Fink - "girls run and hide, brave men shiver, he's Mike Fink, King of the River"...

Rick29 said...

It's a darn catchy song!

Silver Screenings said...

I'm intrigued that Disney put two TV episodes together and released it as a feature film. Did that happen very often in the 1950s?

Ron said...

I mentioned above "The Great Locomotive Chase" that I remember seeing as a serial on the Disney TV show. "The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh" also fits the bill. I'm sure there were scads more. Sorry, Rick, if I stepped on your toes, and SS, if I imposed.

Ron said...

"The Scarecrow . . ." mentioned above came out in 1963, but Disney was releasing these shows/films right along far as I can recall.

Rick29 said...

Yes and in the 1960s, too. There were episodes of MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. that were expanded into theatrical features. Even less successful shows, like BLUE LIGHT, had episodes strung together and released overseas as movies.