Old Yeller (1957)

“Old Yeller just saved your life — and Elizabeth’s, too!”

Old Yeller Poster

Synopsis:
When his father (Fess Parker) goes away on a cattle drive, Travis (Tommy Kirk) helps his mother (Dorothy McGuire) care for his younger brother (Kevin Corcoran) on their Texas ranch. A visiting mongrel, “Old Yeller”, soon earns his way into Travis’s heart — but tragedy strikes when rabies begins infesting local animals.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary reveals known spoilers right away in his review of this live-action Disney film, noting that “if you were a kid when you saw this in the fifties, you definitely cried when young Tommy Kirk gallantly shot Old Yeller (played by Spike of TV’s The Westerner)”. Indeed, the film is notorious for giving kids nightmares (despite Bosley Crowther’s casual assertion, in his original review for the New York Times, that the film is a “warm, appealing” and “trim little family picture”). On a personal note, I vividly recall the pain of both reading Fred Gibson’s sensitive novel and seeing its cinematic adaptation in school one day; because of traumatic memories, I actively put off a rewatch until now, but am pleased to say that it’s held up well, and remains fine viewing for adults (or especially hardy youngsters — which I wasn’t).

Peary points out that “Disney’s first film about a dog” — the “best of its kind” — is “well acted by the four stars and the talented Spike” (as well as a fine cast of supporting actors, including Chuck Connors), “sensitively directed by Robert Stevenson, [and] nicely photographed by Charles P. Boyle”. Dorothy McGuire solidly grounds the film, adding a sense of calm assurance to a situation fraught with troubles — including a trampled fence, a bear attack, rampaging wild hogs, and the worthless pseudo-assistance of a lazy neighbor (Jeff York), who gets his sweet daughter (Beverly Washburn) to take on tasks he should be doing himself. Naturally, Old Yeller is there throughout all these misadventures, proving his mettle and earning our loyalty. Easing the burden of the film’s outcome are two additional factors: Old Yeller’s mate quickly gives birth to a son who looks much like him; and Stevenson uses restraint in not anthropomorphizing Yeller through frequent facial close-ups (as is so often done in films with a personable animal as a central character — i.e., Down and Out in Beverly Hills). Yeller is a “smart, brave (fabulous!) dog” — but when he loses his mind from “hydrophobia”, it’s plain to see that Kirk is actually putting the poor animal out of his misery.

Old Yeller is certainly worth a look by all film fanatics — though I can’t say for sure when I’ll allow my own kids to see it… And be forewarned that the catchy title song will stick in your head long after the movie is over.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Dorothy McGuire as “Mama”
    Old Yeller McGuire2
  • Fine performances by the ensemble cast
    Old Yeller Kirk
  • Many memorable scenes
    Old Yeller Coming of Age

Must See?
Yes, as an enduring — if undeniably troubling — childhood classic.

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One Response to “Old Yeller (1957)”

  1. A once-must, for its place in cinema history – and as something for film fanatics to (when deemed appropriate) watch with budding ffs.

    Hadn’t seen this since I was a wee tyke. Once I did see it, I may have seen it again if it was shown on tv, but it’s hard to recall. (Naturally, it was impossible to view things again readily when I was a kid; VHS would still be years away.)

    I’m pretty much in agreement with the assessment given, even if I think the film score is a bit overpowering at times. It’s certainly the last 15 minutes or so that carries the most weight – it’s a tough watch for something in a Disney film, but it’s handled with intelligence and the right amount of pathos.

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