My Favorite Movies – Old Yeller (1957)

17 May

By Tanner Smith

Poor Phoebe didn’t learn what happens to Yeller until she was all grown up. (She also didn’t see “Brian’s Song” or “Rocky” until after seeing the ending of “Old Yeller,” which totally breaks her spirit.)

Btw, that’s one of my favorite “Friends” episodes–“[‘It’s a Wonderful Life’] just kept getting worse and worse, it should have been called, ‘It’s a sucky life and just when you think it can’t suck any more it does.'”

I grew up with “Old Yeller.” When I was a little kid, something about it just appealed to me. Whether it was how people lived on the frontier in those days, or the adventures Travis and Yeller went on together, or the trouble bratty Arliss got into playing with wild animals, it was one of my absolute favorites as a kid. As an adult, it’s still one of my top 100 favorites.

The film works wonderfully as a slice of life. There’s no villain, no save-the-farm stuff, nothing like that–it’s just about a family who gets a dog that helps the oldest son, Travis (Tommy Kirk), learn the tough choices of growing into adulthood. That’s all it needed to be, and it succeeds very well as being exactly that.

It’s Travis’ coming-of-age story, as he has to accept the responsibility of helping his mother (Dorothy McGuire) look after the farm and his little sh*t of a brother (Kevin Corcoran). Everyone keeps piling up against him, but he keeps going because he wants the responsibility–he wants to become a man. But he also learns that the road to becoming a man has complicated turns, such as when to be afraid of certain situations so he can know which precautions to take, and…when to fire the gun and when to put the gun down….

Yeah…let’s talk about the ending a bit. SPOILER ALERT! When I was little, it was “Old Yeller’ (and Mufasa from “The Lion King,” which I’ll talk about sometime) that introduced me to death. And as far I know, it makes everyone cry. Every time I watch this film again, I start to get emotional at an earlier point before the inevitable end–it’s when Travis goes to see Yeller, who’s been locked up due to a rabies scare, and Yeller begins snarling at him. This is not Travis’ best friend anymore. That’s what gets me each time: the fact that Travis starts off in denial and then walks off to think about what he has to do…and then he has to do it.

What can we learn from this? What does Travis learn from it? When his father (Fess Parker) comes home from the cattle trail and has a sit-down with him, he lays down the overall meaning of it all for us–there will always be tough, depressing moments and there will always be happy, joyous moments. “You can’t afford to waste the good part frettin’ about the bad. That makes it all bad.” That’s my favorite scene–it’s a wonderful father-son moment.

This is a film about both the joys of life and the difficulties of life, and it’s perfect to show to kids. I wonder if Phoebe ever showed it to her kids…

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