Old Yeller (1957)

20 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Walt Disney’s “Old Yeller” is not merely a movie about the friendship between a boy and his dog. While that is a basic element in the movie, there’s more to it than that. It’s a movie in which a boy takes charge and becomes a man, even if it means to endure upsetting hardships.

“Old Yeller” takes place shortly after the Civil War, centered around the Coates family on a small Texas farm. While the man of the house, Jim (Fess Parker), sets off on a cattle drive for the summer in hopes of bringing back money to support the family, his oldest son Travis (Tommy Kirk) is left to take charge, in exchange for a riding horse—“You act a man’s part, and I’ll bring you a man’s horse,” his father promises. (Although he argues what the boy needs worse is a good dog.) Travis helps his mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire) on the farm and looks after his rambunctious little brother Arliss (Kevin Corcoran), who does nothing except play in the outdoors.

A stray “yeller” (yellow) dog causes some trouble on the farm. While Travis takes a disliking towards “Old Yeller,” Katie and Arliss welcome the canine into the family. But soon enough, Yeller proves to be brave and special to have around after protecting Arliss from a bear, and standing up to whatever other animal that becomes a nuisance. Travis grows to become closer to the dog than he would have imagined.

“Old Yeller” is somewhat episodic—it features the setup in which the father tells his oldest son to take responsibility; the central story in which the family gets the dog and learns that he can be very useful and extremely loyal; and the heart wrenching final act in which everything pays off. This is an effective coming-of-age story centered around this young boy who becomes a man by taking responsibility and having to deal with great loss. It’s no secret that by the time Papa comes home, Old Yeller will have died and Travis will have to learn to move on. He gets some encouraging words from his father—it’s a very strong moment when the father tells Travis, “You can’t afford to waste the good part frettin’ about the bad. That makes it all bad.”

The scene in which Old Yeller must die is one of the most heartbreaking dog-death I’ve seen in a movie of this sort, if not the most heartbreaking. Travis already had to deal with shooting two animals that were sick with rabies—the family cow and an attacking wolf. But Yeller has been infected by the sickness by fighting off the wolf, and Katie knows that eventually Yeller will become mad and endanger the family. Travis can’t face shooting him, and so he keeps him locked up in a wooden shed to wait about a month. Eventually, he sees the awful truth. The dog that was his best friend is now gone and Travis has to perform the unpleasant task of ending his suffering. The reason this is so tragic is because Travis, now learning to become a man, has to face the ultimate responsibility, and also because we as an audience have grown to love Yeller and appreciate his and Travis’ friendship. How can you not whimper when Travis hesitates to go through with it, before ultimately doing it?

Though, for me, it started in the scene in which Travis looks into the shed and sees a completely different Yeller. I know it was supposed to happen, but I was almost as shocked and dismayed as Travis was.

But “Old Yeller” isn’t entirely a downer. The scenes featuring the family and the dog are adventurous, good-natured fun, as Yeller stands up to a stampeding mother cow and aids Travis in marking wild hogs. And there is time for humor, particularly with the occasional visits by two neighbors, Bud Searcy (Jeff York) and his daughter Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn). Searcy is the most unreliable man to ever come across. He’s a lazy bum who does nothing but eat and talk. What’s funny about him is how he says he’s left to take charge of the womenfolk and the “young’ens,” even though he constantly has Elizabeth do everything for him. For example, Katie asks Travis to pick corn for dinner, and Searcy assures her that it’s a two-man job. Pause. “Elizabeth, go along with Travis.” Hilariously lazy.

The cast members deliver first-rate performances (with one exception, but I’ll get to that). Dorothy McGuire is completely convincing and brings warmth to her role as the mother. Fess Parker has a small role, showing up at the beginning and the end, but he makes the most of it and delivers the aforementioned (memorable) speech. Jeff York is a delight, Beverly Washburn is fine as Elizabeth, and Chuck Connors has a nice brief role as a friendly passerby who gives Travis some helpful advice. But the biggest roles go to Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, and of course Spike the dog. Well first, let’s get the dog out of the way (please don’t read that the wrong way). Specially trained to perform the task of stealing scenes as the title character, Spike is completely charming. Tommy Kirk is perfectly believable as Travis, managing to create the transformation from boy to man flawlessly. But the “one exception” I mentioned earlier is Kevin Corcoran as the kid brother Arliss. I don’t say this because he isn’t convincing as a rowdy, excitable little boy, but because he is incredibly annoying. His constant screaming and yelling of every single one of his lines makes him immediately unlikable. I never really liked this little brat in most of the Disney movies he appeared in since then.

But even with Corcoran’s obnoxious performance, you can’t fault the true gem that “Old Yeller” is. It’s a neat frontier-fun movie as well as a very touching coming-of-age story. It’s sincere, good-natured, and delivers some convincing, emotionally-involving drama. It’s far from simple as some think it is. It’s a well-put-together family film with good acting and memorable scenes.

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