I’ve never quite forgiven author, Fred Gipson the last two chapters of his Old Yeller, a cornerstone of my childhood and, I suspect, a good many others who eventually grew into adulthood and came to embrace its noble depiction of one of life’s hard and un-romanticized truths: the loss of a beloved pet. Arguably, Gipson’s eloquently written tale hit me harder because I was male and had an affinity for dogs. The book has since stuck with me as a tender, if nostalgic, reminder of life’s fragility. In later years, I was amazed how great the novel’s impact remained on me, even more surprised to realize it had no gender bias in its roster of admirers. Indeed, I went to high school with a girl who openly professed Gipson’s book to be her personal favorite, and who never missed an opportunity to screen the 1957 Walt Disney classic whenever it aired on ABC’s Disney Sunday Night Movie; this, of course, back in an era when ‘home video’ did not exist and cable TV was still in its infancy – one ‘cable’ channel (‘On-TV’) attempting to challenge the network ratings of the then ensconced ‘big three’: ABC, NBC and CBS. Okay, now I am dating myself.
It is to Walt’s credit, and even more so to Gipson’s, that neither the book nor the movie has ever been further from my heart than at this moment, some thirty-six years removed from my first exposure to both as a precocious eight year old. Unlike a good many ‘family films’ made today, that either treat children as empty-skulled simpletons, who require that every life truth be sugar-coated with insincere fluff, or, at the other end of the spectrum, browbeat the toddler sect with anesthetizing volumes of silly screen violence meant to shock them into adulthood but narrowly put most every adult to sleep, neither the book nor the movie are ever anything less than sincere in their depictions of life, love and loss; the sentiment of the piece – particularly, the movie (though not to egregious levels) also it’s irrefutable strength. Personal opinion, of course, but I would really like some child psychologist to explain to me why unedited Looney Toons and Three Stooges shorts supposedly promote violent episodes in children while the present-day compost, even when not directly marketed at children, but nevertheless present in their living rooms during optimal hours of viewing, does not. Under such warped notions, could The Flintstones not be viewed as condoning spousal abuse? WILMA!!! …and no, I don’t want to give the liberal bell-ringers any more fuel to add to their already thoroughly misguided stockpile of kindling. But, I digress.
So, back to Old Yeller; Walt’s poignantly conceived and superbly realized “lean and sensible” flick about a loppy-eared ‘yeller’ mongrel; rather indiscriminately dispensed with by noted film critic, Bosley Crowther as “a nice little family picture – warm and appealing – sentimental…but as strudy as a hickory stick”. Well, yes – decidedly that, and yet, unexpectedly, a great deal more. Like all truly memorable movies, made by artists who genuinely believe in their craft, Old Yeller has transcended its own time to become a cultural touchstone for generations; the movie, like the novel, lovingly handed down through time, with time itself powerless to put its kindly advice to shame or out of fashion. However, it is a testament of an entirely different kind – and far more telling of Old Yeller’s longevity as a cultural artifact, permanently ingrained in the vernacular – to discover people, who have yet to either read the novel or see the movie but, who can still immediately identify both by name. I have yet to encounter anyone who did not shed at least a few tears at the end of the novel and blubber like a wounded sparrow after the movie; the latter’s great success chiefly centered on Tommy Kirk’s magnetic and truthful performance as Travis Coates, the elder son who unexpectedly bonds with our four-legged star, but is forced to put the animal down after it contracts hydrophobia.
In scale, Old Yeller is a decidedly modest movie, most of it shot in the Malibu hills and on a single exterior log cabin set; interiors photographed on sound stages back at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. Nevertheless, it packs a considerable wallop in the raw emotions department, perhaps because from the moment the Coates clan is presented to us we can genuinely embrace them as a family unit, not merely a group of actors brought together to tell us a good yarn. There’s nothing to touch Dorothy McGuire’s Katie Coates, a benevolent sage in petticoats. McGuire, whose early career as a Fox contract sexpot, I must confess, I never bought into, arguably gave the performance of her career as the mousy frump who becomes magically beautiful in the eyes of a war-damaged soldier in RKO’s 1945 weepy, The Enchanted Cottage; a rarely seen and near-forgotten classic that deserves far more consideration. But for me, McGuire truly came into her own in the mid-fifties and onward, playing maternal figures such as Katie, and, of course, her poignant turn as ‘mother’ in Disney’s big-scale adventure/drama, Swiss Family Robinson (1960). We don’t really see a lot of Fess Parker in Old Yeller, Walt’s beloved embodiment of Davey Crockett herein cast as devoted husband and father, Jim Coates; enduring a separation from the family unit near the beginning, but reunited with them near the end, just in time to disseminate some manly advice, bookend and anchor this coming of age story to those bygone, if stereotypical, patriarchal principles a la ‘Father Knows Best’.
The real stars of the picture are undeniably Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran. As infrequently warring, but always devoted brothers, Travis and Arliss Coates, Kirk and Corcoran proved so convincing in this, their debut for the studio, that Walt would frequently team them together in subsequent pictures. Both were given seven year contracts. Each makes an indelible impression in this movie. Kirk, in particular, delves into wellsprings of uninhibited emotion rarely seen in a male child star, his range impressive; his acting style as fresh and believable as the rural landscapes that surround. Corcoran is the flashier of the two, and indeed, in later pictures in which he appeared, he frequently plays the sly and scheming grandstander.
If there had been an Oscar category for four-footed actors, then Spike – the stray, trained by the award-winning team of animal wranglers, Frank and Rudd Weatherwax to obey a myriad of commands on cue – decidedly ought to have won it. Spike gives one of the most intelligent performances of any animal; his frequent nods and slight turns of the head are very expressive. Old Yeller’s confrontations with a bear, a long-horned cow, a group of raccoons and finally ‘a wolf’ (actually a German Shepherd with its coat dyed) were all carefully choreographed. The dumb show is convincing, particularly when accompanied by post-synced violent barks and growls. Honorable mention should also go Beverly Washburn as Elizabeth Searcy, giving a painfully angst-riddled performance as a young girl with desperate puppy love for Travis. We also tip our hats to Jeff York, as her shiftless pappy, Bud; who floats in and out of the story, largely as comic relief and, of course, to get a free meal out of Katie for his lack of effort. In an early role, resident western baddie, Chuck Connor does a memorable cameo as Burn Sanderson, a kindly rancher in search of his lost dog.
Old Yeller’s main title is a playful setup for the star of our picture who afterward will not appear on the screen for a solid twenty minutes. It features Spike chasing a jackrabbit through underbrush and tall grasses, accompanied by the appropriate twang of Jerome Courtland’s ballad, written by Oliver Wallace and Gil George. From here, we segue to the isolated Coates’ homestead. Jim is determined to earn real money on a four month cattle drive; reminding wife, Katie that money is the only thing they lack to make their idyllic existence complete. She is understandably reticent about being left behind for so long with their two young boys. But Jim has faith in Travis, placing him as the figure head of the household while he is away. Life on the homestead is richly rewarding for the Coates’ clan. But as Travis makes ready to hook up Jumper to a plow, the horse is spooked when Old Yeller chases the jackrabbit across his open fields. Jumper takes off, dragging Travis and the plow behind him and tearing up the fence posts besides. Travis is humiliated and angry. Then and there, he vows to put a bullet into the ugly ‘yeller’ dog if ever he shows his mangy hide on their land again.
The next day, Katie sends Travis to fetch some meat curing on their back porch, only to discover Old Yeller has already eaten it and is lying nearby, quite satisfied. Travis is incensed and reaches for his rifle; prevented from exacting his revenge by Arliss, who immediately claims Old Yeller as his dog. Katie is sympathetic, reminding Travis how, at Arliss’ age, he had a beloved pet too. Very reluctantly, Travis concedes his brother can keep Yeller. But Travis tempts the dog with a piece of newly caught and skinned venison, deliberately hanging the fresh kill at a height Yeller can easily reach and vowing to shoot him if he so much as touches it. Believing Yeller will waste no time devouring the meat, Travis is amazed when, at dawn, he discovers the venison as yet untouched, with Old Yeller lying on the woodpile only a few feet away.
Impressed with the dog’s ability to resist temptation, Travis takes Old Yeller in search of Rose, the family’s long-horned cow. She has wandered off to give birth to a calf the night before. Discovering Rose and her offspring nearby, Travis attempts to take the newborn back to the farm. Rose charges him, but not before Old Yeller repeatedly stops her from goring Travis, by jumping on her neck and knocking her to the ground until she is brought to submit. Later, as Travis prepares to milk the cantankerous cow, he employs Yeller again to subdue Rose. This time, the dog and the cow merely regard one another for a precious moment or two before Rose calms down. In the days that follow, the Coates entertain a trio of visitors; first, Bud Searcy and his daughter, Elizabeth, and then, Burn Sanderson, a rancher in search of his dog. From Elizabeth, Travis learns Old Yeller has been spending his night carousing with the Searcy’s female dog; also, thieving scraps from nearby homesteaders under the cover of night.
Travis vows to break Old Yeller of this bad habit. But before the training can commence, Burn arrives at the farm to claim Old Yeller for his own. While Katie and Travis willingly allow Burn to tie a rope around Yeller’s neck, Arliss is enraged and quite unwilling to sacrifice his beloved pet to this stranger. He chucks rocks at Burn’s horse, causing Burn to be thrown from his saddle. What follows is a poignantly staged confrontation between a boy and a man, shot by director, Robert Stevenson with affecting high and low camera angles to magnify Burn’s towering presence and Arliss’ diminutive size. Far from being sore, except, understandably in the saddle, Burn suggests a trade for Old Yeller; Arliss’ newly caught horny toad and a home-cooked meal from Katie. Recognizing the goodness in such a man, Katie willingly agrees to Burn’s terms. Later, as Burn prepares to depart the farm, he quietly pulls Travis aside and tells him to beware; a plague of hydrophobia is sweeping the region and wild hogs are particularly susceptible.
The days pass – none of them uneventful. The ever devious Arliss lures a bear cub into a trap and is nearly mauled when its mother charges to defend her young. While Travis rushes for his rifle, danger is narrowly averted after Yeller confronts the mother black bear; the two sparring for several moments before the dog successfully forces both bears into retreat. Travis and Yeller begin their hunt for wild pigs. At first, it is a routine adventure; Yeller corralling the squealing boars into a rocky grotto where Travis intends on marking them with the family’s brand. Alas, the adventure turns to terror when one of the pigs attacks Travis, badly cutting open his leg. Travis discovers Yeller severely damaged in the grotto, using his shirt to bind the gaping wound and rushing home to fetch Katie and Arliss. Katie works diligently to nurse her son and his best friend back to health. However, when the Searcy’s return to the farm a short while later, Bud tells a rather lurid story about an uncle from Texas who, bitten by a ‘critter’ infected with hydrophobia, contracted the horrible disease and died painfully going mad. Katie is disgusted by Bud’s insinuation the same fate will befall Travis. Nevertheless, after Bud’s departure, she elects to keep a watchful eye on both her son and Yeller.
In his wake, Bud has left behind Elizabeth to help with chores on the farm. Time passes. Travis and Yeller recover from their ordeal without any signs the disease has afflicted them. Alas, Rose has fallen ill with hydrophobia, stammering and slobbering about until Travis shoots her dead. But as Katie and Elizabeth prepare a bonfire to burn Rose’s remains and thus prevent the spread of the disease, they are suddenly attacked by a rabid wolf. Yeller springs into action to defend the women, but is wounded by the wild animal before Travis is able to kill it. Katie realizes no sane wolf would ever have ventured so close to a fire; that any wolf attempting it must have been driven mad with illness. She tells Travis Yeller must be put down. But Travis defends Yeller, explaining how his protection has proven time and again to be indispensable. Katie reluctantly agrees to allow the dog to live; but only if he is penned in the corn crib for a time – at least, until they can deduce if Yeller is ill.
For several weeks all goes according to plan. Yeller’s wounds heal and he is as happy and as healthy as before, always eager to see the family at meal times. Arliss pleads for Katie to release him from the crib. She promises if Yeller is still well by Saturday, he can be set free. As fate would have it, that evening when Travis takes Yeller his food, the dog has begun to show the first signs of hydrophobia; snarling and refusing to eat. Katie orders Arliss to bed. However, having had quite enough of Yeller’s imposed exile, and unaware of the danger the dog now presents, Arliss sneaks off to the corn crib to set Yeller free. In the meantime Katie, realizing something is remiss by the way Travis is reacting to her questions about Yeller, suddenly also notices Arliss is not in his bed. She races to the crib just in time to prevent the mad dog’s escape. Travis fetches his rifle and Katie tenderly reminds him of the futility in waiting any longer. Yeller will never get well and presently, he is suffering. Travis concurs. “I know, mama,” he tearfully admits, “But he was my dog…I’ll do it.”
Director, Robert Stevenson’s handling of this pivotal moment is perhaps the most disarmingly heartbreaking in the entire movie; done with faint ominous strains of underscore gradually elevating the scene’s dramatic tension; Charles P. Boyle’s cinematography never taking a moment’s break off Tommy Kirk’s tear-stained visage, photographed through the crooked slats of the corn crib, with Kirk giving us the finest moment in the story; eyes gradually moistening with tears, bottom lip gentle quivering as he pulls the trigger to put his beloved Yeller out of his misery. Stevenson’s immediate cutaway to a puff of smoke from the death charge, separating Katie and Elizabeth from Travis, his back turned to the camera as he stoically walks off, head hung low, rifle barely clutched in hand, is a devastating signifier of that collective moment when youthful innocence is catastrophically stolen from us. Travis is no longer a boy; a sentiment echoed the next afternoon when Jim returns to the farm with presents for his family (a new dress for Katie, an Indian headdress and tomahawk for Arliss and a beautiful horse, earlier promised to Travis), is told the story of Old Yeller by Katie, and then imparts a bit of manly wisdom on his eldest with whom he now has far more in common.
“Now and then, for no good reason, life will haul off and knock a man flat. Life’s like that sometime,” Jim attempts to explain, “But it ain’t all like that. You can’t waste the good thinkin’ about the bad…cuz that makes it all bad.” Travis would have to agree. For upon their return to the farm, father and son discover Katie attempting to wrestle a piece of fresh meat away from one of Old Yeller’s pups Elizabeth had previously attempted to gift to Travis, but was spurned in her intentions and then bequeathed to Arliss instead. Picking up the mutt by the scruff of its neck, Travis recognizes certain similarities, the moment dissolving to a not so distant future, with Yeller’s now grown offspring indulging in the same pursuits as Yeller once did; accompanied by Travis and Arliss.
These last few moments of Old Yeller are a jubilant affirmation of Walt’s own morality; his fervent belief in the wholesomeness of ‘family’ entertainment; by his definition, art that elevates the stature of community, the sanctity of the family unit and is treasured with the high ideals that, at least for a time, spoke to every American as a part of their rich and vibrant cultural heritage. Viewed from today’s more cynical vantage, there is a faint whiff of quaintness seeping into this exercise; decidedly unintentional and not particularly damaging to one’s current appreciation of the movie. Chiefly, we can thank Robert Stevenson here; a British-born director who found both popularity and longevity in his association with Walt Disney. Stevenson’s view of this narrow slice of Americana is a cornucopia of homespun values, miraculously never made cloying. In a plot chiefly centered on children and animals, even the cinema novice ought to be aware what a challenge this is to pull off successfully, without veering into cute and cuddly vignettes.
There’s none of this in Old Yeller. In fact, Stevenson’s movie retains a refreshing sincerity from start to finish; a testament to his prowess as a cinema storyteller. There’s exuberance at play throughout this tall tale; more than just a series of bucolic vignettes loosely strung together with some memorable animal stunt work thrown in for good measure. Viewed today, Old Yeller is every bit the warm, relaxed, yet heart-breakingly affecting boy-meets-dog masterpiece that left you uncontrollably sobbing as a child, but eager to share its lasting impressions with your own children and grandchildren ever since. Of all the varied dog-gone stories Hollywood has attempted before and since, Old Yeller remains truly a class apart and a distinct cut above the rest. Walt would, understandably, be so pleased and proud to know we’re all still affectionately talking about his movie today.
Another Disney Exclusive Blu-ray gem, Old Yeller gets a limited hi-def release, presumably, because the present powers running the Mouse House can perceive no earthly reason why the public at large would want to actually own this immortal and beloved studio catalog title. Old Yeller is generally solid in 1080p, though not perfect – and this is a shame. Photographed in Technicolor, most of the film looks spectacular, with robust colors, natural and appealing flesh tones, earthy browns, superbly saturated sky blues and vibrant greens. Old Yeller is ‘yeller’ – with big brown eyes that sparkle in the sunlight. There are a couple of very brief scenes where the color palette inexplicably falters; flesh suddenly registering piggy pink and an inexcusable fading taking place. Film grain is another issue. At times it looks very indigenous to the source, but in a few scenes it leans marginally to a digitized appearance, and still, at other moments, seems to disappear altogether, although, mercifully, without suggesting to have been the victim of untoward DNR liberally applied. ‘Inconsistent’, is the best word to describe what’s happening here. Scenes photographed in broad daylight exhibit exquisite amounts of fine detail, as do most of the stage-bound interiors. Night time sequences marginally suffer and, at times can look as soft. Overall, there’s no egregious tampering going on. While this presentation isn’t perfect, it’s not all that far off the mark either, and light years ahead of the old ‘Vault Disney’ 2-disc DVD release. I wouldn’t chuck that disc just yet, however. More on this in a moment.
Old Yeller gets a 1.0 DTS mono mix; adequate but not exceptional. It would have been fine and dandy of Disney Inc. to go that extra mile and give us a new 5.1 remaster, finer still if they hadn’t jettisoned every last extra feature available on that aforementioned defunct DVD set. We lose the memorable ensemble audio commentary from Tommy Kirk, Fess Parker, Bob Weatherwax and Kevin Corcoran; also ‘Old Yeller: Remembering A Classic’ – the poignant ‘making of’, as well as Kirk’s adult reflections; a 1957 studio album, some ‘lost treasure’ short subjects and the vast production archives, teeming with poster and campaign art; plus, an isolated jukebox scoring option and the original trailer. What you get on this Disney Inc. Exclusive Blu-ray is the movie only. However, given the deplorable video presentation of the feature film on the old 2-disc DVD set, it’s fairly obvious Disney Inc. has instead chosen to spend whatever limited resources have been allocated to this endeavor on actually remastering the feature in true 1080p. Again, the results do not yield a pristine viewing presentation, but they will undoubtedly please most, whose fond memories are derived primarily from this less-than-perfect 2-disc DVD set. Bottom line: recommended with caveats!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)