As a youngster growing up in the mid-1950s, I was swept up in the phenomena that was Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier like nobody’s business. Knew every verse of the song, which wasn’t hard to learn because for a couple of years you could hear it playing practically EVERY-flippin’-where you went.
Born on a mountain top in Tennessee
Greenest state in the land of the free
Raised in the woods so he knowed every tree
Killed hisself a bar when he was only three
Da-vee, Da-vee Crockett
King of the Wild Frontier
Many a young vocal cord was strained trying to hit the high note on that last syllable of “Da-VEE”, let me tell you. And many a barbered and carefully combed head of hair was turned into a sweaty tangle by having a coonskin cap clamped over it for a hours on end, too. The “official” Davy Crockett hat (and all sorts of other gear and related toys) were channeled through a dime store chain called Kresgie’s (sic?). My folks, God bless ‘em, couldn’t afford the official version so the coonskin cap I got was some ratty, roadkill-looking thing (probably more authentic than the official version) but I nevertheless wore it proudly and constantly for a long time.
Getting back to the Kresgie stores, they were making so much money off the arrangement that they pumped “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” over their public speakers with religious fervor. I can only imagine how frazzled the adult employees of those stores must have gotten after hours and days on end of listening to that. I mean, at the time, as a kid, I thought the song was so great that there was no need for any other song to ever be written or performed … But now, as an adult (no wisecracks), I gotta admit that a little bit of that catchy little ditty goes a long way.
So, anyway, the three-part airing of Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier on Disney’s TV show in 1955 was so incredibly popular that it left Mickey Mouse’s papa and his staff scrambling on how to milk its success even more. They re-aired it, they edited the episodes together into a full-length color feature that played in theaters, and they had the marketing department cranking out related products like crazy. But the public wanted more Crockett and Disney wanted to give it to them (and reap additional profits for himself in the process).
A problem arose, however, from the fact that the character of Davy in King of the Wild Frontier (following the fate of the real-life Crockett) died at the Alamo.
How to tell more tales about a popular character you’ve gone and killed off? The answer was, although I don’t believe the term was in common use at the time (maybe not even in existence) --- a prequel. Go back to an earlier point in Davy’s life and tell some more adventures from there.
Hence, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates.
It first aired in 1956, as a two-parter, once again on Disney’s popular TV show. Davy Crockett’s Keelboat Race was shown in November, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates came in December. The following year, the two segments were spliced/edited together for another full-length color feature that played in theaters.
I had the pleasure of watching this version again (probably for the third or fourth time – though not for many, many years) when it played the other night on TCM. Both the little kid in me and what pretends to be an adult found it to hold up very well. The tale stems from a meeting between Crockett and the legendary/quasi-mythical river man Mike Fink. As the segment titles pretty clearly indicate, at first the two are pitted against one another in a rough and tumble keelboat race; then they join forces to battle a pack of marauders pretending to be Indians who are attacking/sacking boats that pass by their hideout at Cave-Inn Rock on the Ohio River.
The leaders of the gang are the notorious Harpe brothers --- vicious, real-life characters, who truly committed river piracy, among other crimes, and were serial killers responsible for as many as 50 victims. As you might imagine for a Disney feature, this aspect of their villainy is not presented as part of the story here. As a matter of fact, the whole treatment of this adventure is done mostly as broad, semi-slapstick comedy. Jeff York, in the role of loud, boisterous Mike Fink (“I’m half wild horse, half cockeyed-alligator, and the rest o’ me is crooked snags and red-hot snappin’ turtle; I can out-run, out-jump, out-drink, out-cuss, and out-fight any man on both sides of the river!”), pretty much steals the show. And Buddy Ebsen, in the role of Davy’s pal Georgie Russell, displays masterful comic timing honed from years of vaudeville and earlier supporting roles. Fess Parker, as Davy, is the stalwart. And, over-arcing all the fun, there is plenty of excitement and rough-and-tumble action.
The production values --- color, music, period touches, supporting players --- are all top notch.
As already mentioned, I enjoyed the heck out of viewing this gem all over again, even after so many years. And you know what else? If I still had that ratty old coonskin cap from decades ago, I likely would have clapped it on and wore it while once again trying to hit the high notes of the ballad whenever it played in the background.