From Walt Disney Studios
Directed by Robert Stevenson
This is my 45th favorite film and at one time it was probably in second or third place. It transfixed me as a child. I came home and paid even more loving attention to my blonde cocker spaniel and we were pretty inseparable for a very long time. Old Yeller may be one of the few timeless classics I have in my top 50 list. It's as charming and warm and stirring today as it was when I first saw it. I still cry.
I knew when it was going to hit my local theater and checked off the days on the calendar. Other than another animal story, my main reason was my hero-worship of one of the stars of the film, Tommy Kirk. He and another favorite of mine, Tim Considine, had starred in Disney's Mickey Mouse Club serial, The Hardy Boys and I was crazy about it. This would be Tommy's first film. I had no idea Old Yeller would have such an effect on me and that I would treasure it all these years later.
We are introduced to the Coates family in late 1860s Texas. Jim, the father, is about to leave for three or four months to go on a cattle drive and get some money for his family. Katie, the mother, will watch over her two sons, young, sensitive, teenaged Travis and the much younger wild child, Arliss. Jim asks Travis to be the man of the family while he's away. It was good that he did.
After Jim's departure, a big old yellow dog finds its way onto the Coates' property, at first causing much mischief. Travis takes an immediate dislike to him while Arliss claims ownership, seeing a comrade.
Before the film is over, the dog's bad habits are broken and he enjoys one frolicing adventure after another with the boys and wins over the entire family. The dog also saves the family from a couple of mishaps while he cannot be saved.
The family was warned that hydrophobie (rabies... if you don't talk 1860s rural Texas) was in the area and to mind the livestock. Their cow then comes down with the disease and must be put down. The carcass is being burned by the mother and a family friend when they are attacked by a wolf. Yeller, of course, once again comes to the rescue but it will be the last time he does.
Old Yeller is locked in the corn crib to await any signs of the disease. It is beginning to look like things are fine when impish Arliss runs to the crib to let him out. Travis and his mother are in hot pursuit and just as Arliss is opening the door, Katie fiercely slams it shut.
As an audience, we young ones are shocked and saddened to see Old Yeller is now growling and snarling. He has hydrophobie.
He will need to be put down. The mother comes with a gun, ready to do the job herself, when Travis steps up and says the words that broke my heart... No Mama. He was my dog. I'll do it.
And he does.
I had seen many a Disney movie when I saw Old Yeller and even though I was sitting there with knuckles in my mouth and tears in my eyes, I could not believe he killed that dog. I was thunderstruck and sobbed my eyes out. I watched it again today and minus the knuckles, it was history repeating itself. See the scene in its entirety at the end here.
Walt Disney has said he didn't want to change the ending of the book for the film even though he was aware of the hurt it would cause children the world over. He believed Old Yeller was also a vital teaching tool in addition to putting a spotlight on a happy family life and sharing the joys of owning an animal. He felt kids should know about love and loss.
At the film's finale, the father has returned and meets Travis up on North Hill where he is burying Old Yeller. The father has never seen the dog but he has also never seen his son this upset. He says, What I'm tryin' to say is life's like that sometimes. Now and then, for no good reason a man can figure out, life will just haul off and knock him flat, slam him agin the ground so hard it seems like all his insides is busted. But it's not all like that. A lot of its mighty fine. And you can't afford to miss the good part frettin' about the bad. That makes it all bad. Start lookin' around for something good to replace the bad. Generally you can find it.
Words to live by... as vital today as when they were written. And they were written by Fred Gipson who said his inspiration was the tales of his pioneer parents and the dogs they owned and loved.
Yeller's real name was Spike and he was owned and trained by the well-known Weatherwax family of Lassie fame. He was part yellow lab and they believe some mastiff. Spike came from the pound and he was loved by everyone in the cast. Most animal actors have stunt doubles and triples sometimes helping them with various scenes but apparently Spike did all his own work. The tense fight scene with the wolf was all Hollywood illusion. It was really a German Shepherd, both dogs had been muzzled and were play-fighting. Sounds were added later. Judicious editing helped.
This was the film that introduced Dorothy McGuire to me. I was immediately smitten and it never vanished. She is the only actress to be in three of my favorite films and in fact we just got done reviewing one of my others starring her. You'll have to wait until favorite #11 for the final McGuire offering. She was called the quintessential Disney mother. Old Walt saw something in her, a basic goodness and kindness, that he wanted others to see. I saw it.
Kevin Corcoran, who was already a veteran movie actor by the time he made Old Yeller, and Tommy Kirk went on to play brothers in four other films. One of those was again with McGuire playing their mother, Swiss Family Robinson, and then the boys were also in a sequel of sorts to Old Yeller called Savage Sam. The other two were The Shaggy Dog and Bon Voyage. Make a note.
The folks at Disney turned out a mighty fine 2-disc DVD of Old Yeller with wonderful extras on the making of the film, the actors (then and today), the dog, the author.
Just remember that I liked Old Yeller when we get to some future favorites because you will see just how wide-ranging my tastes are.
NEXT POSTING: Review of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen