I have little love for The Goonies, perhaps because I wandered into the theatre with a friend when we were young adults with some time to kill. I recall a bloated film with a ridiculous plot, even by kiddie movie standards, starring unpleasant child actors who continually shriek over each other's dialogue. Critics, at the time, generally panned it. At some point, it turned into a beloved childhood classic from the magical 1980s.
But Secrets of the Pirates Inn? Yeah, I have some love for that. The 1969, low-budget film presages The Goonies, likely even inspired it, though it's probable neither would exist if Disney hadn't built its Pirates of the Caribbean ride. And I caught this one as an adult, too. If I saw it as a kid in '69, I have no memory of that.
So, Walt Disney.
He and his brother built a corporation that now owns more of the entertainment industry than I care to imagine. But Walt died in '66, and his entertainment giant floundered creatively for more than a decade. They'd already stopped using full-animation in their films, deeming it too expensive. The parks still went full-tilt, with the second one opening in 1971. Merchandising of their iconic characters never faltered. But the movies? The studio had been producing decent live-action family fare since the 1950s, including pirate classic Treasure Island (1950). After the death of their founder, they contented themselves with low-budget, formulaic films. The larger budget ones they released for the big screen, and then peddled as two-part episodes of their weekly show a year later. The lower-budget ones went directly to television. When they didn't involve Dean Jones, they typically combined some older actor, now past prime but still dedicated to the craft, with some up-and-coming child stars. The characters encounter a mystery and have scary but comedic adventures, often while being pursued by crooks. The film climaxes with a wacky chase scene. Disney ran this formula into the ground until sometime in the 1980s, when the corporation underwent a renaissance.
The formula began with some promise. The Love Bug (1968) may not be Oscar material, but it was the year's third highest-grossing American movie, and it birthed five sequels (the last one in 2005), a short-lived TV series, and rip-offs in the form of Germany's Superbug series and Sid and Marty Krofft's Wonderbug.
And their contemporaneous TV fare?
Secrets of the Pirates Inn.
Three kids hang out in their small, seaside town. Scott is the leader. His kid sister Tippy is the smart one. Sidekick "Catfish" brings the comedy. They hang around an old, decrepit inn that had once been a hideout for Jean Lafitte. The owner recently died, after devoting years trying to find a legendary lost treasure.
You see where this is going, right? The odds of a bunch of kids finding lost pirate gold in real life run about eight zillion to one against. But in children's stories? Happens every other week.
The owner's brother, a former sea captain, played by Ed Begley in one of his last roles, takes the children into his confidence. Of course, they stumble onto the trail of clues his late brother and every previous owner has overlooked. And, of course, danger is afoot, because they aren't the only ones interested in finding missing treasure.
Secrets of the Pirates Inn was adapted from a 1968 children's novel by Wylly Folk St. John. Disney changed the names of the main characters, most likely so they could reuse them without paying further royalties. The sea captain was an uncle in the book. No one in the film expresses any concern about an old man leading some unrelated children on a dangerous adventure, beyond worrying the kids might be bothering the poor guy. The sequel came in the form of The Strange Monster of Strawberry Cove (1971), adapted from an entirely different children's book series, The Mad Scientists' Club.1 That one I do recall fondly, but it does not hold up nearly so well as Pirates Inn. Scott, Tippy, and Catfish have been written with too little consideration of the years that have passed since their first adventure. The sheriff (Bill Zuckert in both films) remains remarkably unwilling to listen to the kids despite the fact that, the last time he dealt with them, they actually were being stalked by a criminal, and they really did find pirates' treasure.
The pacing and tone of both films belong to another era. But the pirate adventure remains fun, and Begley makes a great old sea captain. As I see things, its low-budget thrills beat the big-budget Goonies. Lafitte and his gang went to some length to conceal the credibly-sized treasure, but it falls far short of One Eyed Willy's efforts, which would have cost several treasures, involved the major engineering talents of his age, and could be circumvented by smashing through the wall of the final chamber from the other side. Even the final chase scene in Pirates Inn doesn't get overplayed, and the heroic children demonstrate plausible intelligence under implausible circumstances. Viewed with kid eyes and a grasp of the conventions of past kid movies, Secrets of the Pirates Inn makes for charming and occasionally suspenseful viewing.
Director: Gary Nelson
Writer: Herman Groves from the book by Wylly Folk St. John
Ed Begley as Dennis McCarthy
Jimmy Bracken as Scott Durden
Annie McEveety as Tippy Durden
Patrick Creamer as Catfish Jones
Charles Aidman as Carl Buchanan
Paul Fix as Vern Padgett
Bill Zuckert as Sheriff Wiley
Fredd Wayne as Jim Durden
Anne Whitfield as Margaret Durden
1. The Mad Scientists' Club books and stories were written by Bertrand R. Brinley. The Strange Monster of Strawberry Cove gets addressed as an aside here. It is based on the club's first adventure, "The Strange Sea Monster of Strawberry Lake," first published in Boys' Life, September, 1961.