“Old Yeller” (1957) is a curious revelation. The last time I believe I saw any part of this movie my age was in the single digit range, and I don’t think I was able to stick it out to the end. Yeller’s unfortunate fate was too much for me to bear. Viewing it now through the perspective of world-weary middle age, I have to say this is one rip-snorting good movie.
The minute those credits start rolling and studio singers launch in to the folksy theme song, and Jerome Courtland begins to warble about “the best doggone dog in the west”, whose coat may be yellow but his “bold Texas heart is true blue,” one is suddenly morphed back into a child eager to be told a story. Danged if I know how they did it. The Disney studio was a kind of pied piper to Baby Boomers, that’s all, I guess.
Tommy Kirk is excellent as Travis, a boy in his early teens who takes over the farm chores while his father is off on a cattle drive. His emotions are transparent, genuine, and he is frequently very moving. Kevin Corcoran is very natural as his royal pain in the neck younger brother, Arliss, who throws rocks at people anytime he gets into a temper tantrum, which is often. Kevin is good in the role; he meanders around in a fog of his own imagination as if he is not acting at all, but playing. It’s the character who is annoying. One wishes somebody would drop kick Arliss through a pair of goal posts, but it never happens. Mother Dorothy McGuire is sweetly indulgent to the little brat.
Their frontier family lives hand-to-mouth. While his father is gone, Kirk takes up his father’s burden to support the family with a mixture of zeal and trepidation. It is essentially a coming of age story, and portrays the daily life of the post-Civil War frontier settlers. There is always work and more work, and yet the boys are ignorant about money since that is not a part of their daily lives. Little Arliss has never seen money and wants to know what it is and why it’s so important. Kirk has seen it only once, and has only an inkling of its importance.
Then the stray dog comes into their lives. At first a destructive pest, he becomes Kirk’s sworn enemy until the dog starts saving them from rampaging cows, bears, and wild pigs. Then Yeller is tops with everybody. Chuck Connors has a brief but memorable role as the dog’s former owner who trades him to the family for a horned toad Master Corcoran keeps in his pocket, and for “one big woman-cooked meal.”
Jeff York plays the roguish good for nothing loafer Mr. Searcy with relish, and Beverly Washburn is very sweet as his daughter Lizbeth. Fess Parker has a brief role as the father, even though we are not fooled and we know he is really Daniel Boone and/or Davy Crockett.
But this is not just a boy and his dog story where dog has to be shot because he gets rabies. (Spoiler alerts?! We don’ need no stinking spoiler alerts!)
It’s a story about struggle, and growing, and life that hits everybody different ways at different times, even in one family. The small farm is their entire world. There is nothing else but this, a couple neighbors, an occasional stranger to whom they must not withhold hospitality. Kirk is warned by his father that if he lets the corn crop die, there will be no bread in the winter. The boy hunts deer with a rifle taller than he is.
All the problems that Kirk must face on the farm that summer are problems for which he must find the solution himself. There is no magic, no luck, no fairy princesses, no Jiminy Cricket, no deus ex machina. The ultimate solution for the rabid dog is also one Kirk must do himself. He has not relied on grownups thus far. He cannot back down from his responsibility now.
There is a lot of action, and some wonderful shots in the film: when Kirk lies out in the cornfield at night to chase away raccoons and we see the huge starry sky through the tops of the cornstalks. When Connors demands a one-on-one business conference with the frightened Master Corcoran and the camera shows us Connors looking like Paul Bunyan because the angle is from the height of the little boy. When Dorothy McGuire sympathetically croons, “Ye-e-s-s-s, Yeller,” when she’s sewing up a gash in his side with a sewing needle and strand of hair from the tail of their mule. The scene when Kirk is mauled by the wild pigs. When Master Corcoran shares his cornbread and milk with the new puppy, both of them cheek-to-cheek as they lap it up from a bowl. The shot of Kirk walking away, his back to us, in a cloud of gun smoke, his shoulders sagging, his shattered emotions telling in his body posture, after he shoots his dog.
As realistic as this all is, one glaring anachronism is the utter lack of responsibility taken by his younger brother Arliss. He plays and gets into trouble, while the older brother is about ready to crack up with the pressure of running the farm. Kevin Corcoran is fun for the young kids to watch, his self-involved adventures in the meadow and the brook, strolling across the top of the table where they eat for a shortcut. But Arliss would not have had so much playtime in reality. Dorothy McGuire is a gentle and indulgent mother with a voice like a summer breeze, but Nineteenth Century kids just didn’t have much playtime. If he were a rural boy, he’d be working just as hard and just as much as his older brother on the farm. If he were a city boy, he’d be working in a factory. Only rich kids were without that kind of burden, and these boys are not rich.
That’s why Papa has taken the steers to Kansas, as he says, “Cash money’s all we need to get a tight tail-hold on the world.” We still think that way. We still bust our bums for it.
Another seeming anachronism is the toy Indian headdress and tomahawk Papa brings Arliss back for a present. Even though Kirk collects Comanche arrowheads with fascination as boys did, in the late 1860s Indians were still savages they feared, not the benign cartoon characters they would be come to the 1950s kids watching this film. It would still take another couple of decades and a lot more activism to bring the persona of the American Indian one further step into the realm of human being, and not just benign cartoon character. There is an excellent National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington, D.C., but its very newness tells us what a long road it’s been for that to happen.
The Baby Boomers in the audience, more than Arliss in reality, would have related to the headdress as a toy. They had already been through the coonskin cap phase. They had tomahawks with bendy rubber blades mounted on plastic sticks. They had colorful toy tom-toms and plastic guns. They would have related to a story about a kid and a dog that was not hip or edgy, even if they did not share such responsibilities in a hand-to-mouth existence. Even if they did not need to guard with their lives a patch of corn in their suburban back yards.
There’s still kids today who have a lot of responsibility, from caring for younger siblings or getting meals when parents are working, and much more than that, but their stories don’t seem to make it to the big screen. Only the hip and edgy seems to sell today, often, though not always, with young characters in their teens and 20s whose behavior is shallow and stupid, and sometimes even repugnant.
I read a comment by one fan of this film who wished we could go back to those days represented by this film. I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean the 1860s. He meant the days of his childhood in the 1950s or 1960s, with which this movie tale of the 19th century frontier is unwittingly and inexorably bound. It’s the first thing that hit me when the credits rolled and the song started. I was back on the living room rug watching Disney’s “Wonderful World of Color.”
But the movie didn’t make me want to go back to my childhood. It made me want cornbread. When they’re not eating it, they talk about it. Gonna make me some right now a’fore I die a’ hunger. Winter’s coming.