Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Davy Crockett and the River Pirates

Davy Crockett and the Improved in Every Way

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "Davy Crockett and the River Pirates" (Disney, 1956). We join frontiersman Davy Crockett (Fess Parker) and his brother-in-arms George Russel (Buddy Ebsen) during a trapping expedition in Kentucky in the spring of 1810. Loaded with as many animal skins as they carry, they plan to hire a river boat to take them to New Orleans to get top dollar for their wares.

"Try not to screw this up too, will ya, Georgie?" "Okay, Davy."

When they reach the port of Maysville on the Ohio River, they meet the boisterous and rude giant of a man Mike Fink (Jeff York), captain of the Gullywhumper out of Pittsburgh, who declares himself loudly (and often) that he's "king of the river."
The Gullywhumper cometh.

"A $1000? We could almost buy our own ship for that!" "But who's going to pilot it? You?"

When Fink offers Davy and George passage to New Orleans for $1000 (an astronomical sum at the time), the duo opt instead to enlist the aid of the elderly Captain Cobb (Clim Blevans) of the Bertha Mae who is in need of the crew.
Captain "Cornonna" Cobb.

It turns out that "Injuns" downriver have been attacking river boats ruthlessly, and very few are willing to risk their lives. While the two try to round up able bodies for Cobb, George accidentally attempts to enlist one of Fink's boatmen. This leads to an impromptu drinking contest where the lightweight George bets the furs that he and Davy will make it to New Orleans before Fink and his crew.
Also, he rides a wagon wheel chandelier, which I found quite funny.

The two boats begin a head-to-head race where the wily Mike Fink uses every dirty trick in the book, but can he beat Davy Crockett with his determination, level-headedness, and kindness?
What a strange race.

Can the two crews defeat the notorious pirates that are plaguing the river?

Disney: Not leaving money on the table since 1955.

This semi-prequel takes place in between the events of the first film, "Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier" (Disney, 1955), which was necessary, because Disney rather shortsightedly ended that film with Davy Crockett's death at the Alamo as the show's popularity blew up. Similar to the previous film, this is a composite of footage from the last two episodes of the Davy Crockett television show (specifically, "The Wonderful World of Disney Presents Davy Crockett's Keelboat Race" and "Davy Crockett and the River Pirates"). Perhaps because it limits the scope of the story it is telling, it seems a bit more cohesive and less rambling than the other movie.

Also, the action scenes are far less "bad fight choreography" and more "man v. the elements."

The first half of the film focuses on the race between the Gullywhumper and the Bertha Mae, and after that is resolved the second half focuses on Davy and Mike Fink combining resources to stop the pirates who are masquerading as Native Americans to prevent a war between the colonists and the indigenous people.
Cultural appropriation at its worst.

Better than the last one.

Between the two films, I prefer this one. It's storytelling focus, while a bit more formulaic, nonetheless allows for more character development. Mike Fink gets a pretty good redemption arc, going from cheating villain to endearing friend by the end of the movie.

"All is forgiven, Davy." "Uhhhhhhhhh... Okay, Mike."

Buddy Ebsen's George Russel is a more effective comedic foil than in the first film, and even Fess Parker is considerably more relaxed as Davy isn't required to be quite as wooden and stoic in this iteration. The river pirates themselves are so unabashedly evil that it is really satisfying seeing the films heroes take them down for their misdeeds.
"And after we kill Fink's crew, we'll skin puppies to make coats!"

There is a surprising amount of singing for a "western" adventure film, including songs sung by Jeff York (as Mike Fink) and a few by Buddy Ebsen. They serve to show the viewer that this is a far more lighthearted tale than the first film, and so I welcome them.

Typical then, problematic now.

Be warned though, there are a lot of film and television staples from the time that are disgustingly present in this production. The most glaring is the representation of Native Americans; although they are not portrayed as the villains, they are still portrayed as stereotypes played by lily white actors pretending to be tribesmen.

"Why are you guys painted red?"

Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that one or two characters in particular are quite literally painted red. There are no other minorities represented or acknowledged, and I'm struggling to remember if there are even any women in the film at all (there certainly aren't any female main characters). If you're looking for diversity in film, this isn't it.
"An' iff'n yew's a Republican, it is!"

This film also continues Walt Disney Studio's use of stock footage to depict natural threats, and it's always tiresome to see.
"Watch out Davy! There's a gator over there in that other lighting scheme and film grain!" 

Watch with kids with caution.

If you're watching with kids, there are a few things you should know: While there's no foul language in the film, the first half depicts Mike Fink as an unrepentant bully who solves many of his problems with threats, intimidation, and his fists. While the second half shows him as a fast friend and stalwart companion won over by Davy's good sportsmanship and kindness, it could trigger children suffering from this sort of abusive trauma in their lives.

Real life bullies are far less likeable than Mike Fink.

There is some (bloodless) gunplay in the film, and lots of implied murder, and on-screen deaths (again, bloodless) of the very bad characters, so if you're trying to limit this sort of media just be aware.
There is a lot of implied murder, actually.

A bit of after-film trivia

Apparently, all of the prop boats used in the film were later used at Disneyland to ferry park visitors through parts of the park, and remained in operation until 1997, when the Gullywhumper capsized injuring several patrons. After closing, the Bertha Mae was sold to a private collector and the Gullywhumper was moored as a background prop before it eventually sunk from a combination of bad weather and disrepair and was removed.

Where can you watch it?

"Davy Crockett and the River Pirates" is currently streaming on Disney+.

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