Old Yeller (1957)

Posted by on Dec 20, 2011 in Buddy Movies | 0 comments


Disclaimer: Its famously depressing conclusion has been known to make the toughest souls on the planet weep like infants. There’s some racism as well.  

Even if you haven’t seen the infamous conclusion of this classic Disney flick, chances are you know what happens. If by chance you’ve been cut off from civilization for half a century, then perhaps you should skip down to the next paragraph. Perhaps you know the conclusion because Phoebe’s mother on Friends stopped the movie short so she’d think it had a happy ending, or maybe you’ve heard the speech in Stripes in which Bill Murray’s character asks a group of army recruits, “Who cried when Old Yeller got shot at the end? Nobody cried when Old Yeller got shot? I’m sure. I cried my eyes out.” Slowly but surely, every recruit raises his hand.

The movie takes place in Texas inYeller2 the 1860s, where the eldest boy Travis (Tommy Kirk) must look after his mother (Dorothy McGuire), brother (Kevin Corcoran), and the family ranch after his father (Fess Parker) heads off to Kansas for a cattle drive. Shortly thereafter, a scrappy, thieving yellow Labrador wanders onto the ranch, terrorizing a horse and causing havoc. Almost immediately, Travis’s critter-catching brother Arliss takes a liking to the mutt.

“He’s a purdy yeller dawg,” Arliss says in Corcoran’s signature squeaky voice. But Travis is far from convinced.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” he says, “that ole’ dog better not come around here when I got a gun in my hands.”

Throughout the film, Travis tries to become a man like his father as he takes ownership of the ranch, hunts deer and hogs, threatens to thrash his younger brother, and hopes to own a horse. Eventually, the loyal and obedient Old Yeller grows on Travis as he sees him catch fish at the nearby watering hole, chase pesky raccoons, and protect the family from a charging black bear, wild boar, rabid wolf, and cow. The love that eventually builds between Yeller and Travis is done with such poise and patience, stripped right from the novel and screenplay by Fred Gipson, that Old Yeller is by far the most endearing of all boy-and-his-dog movies.

While the well-intentioned love interest Lisbeth (Beverly Washburn) and father leave little to admire, Kirk delivers a career-defining performance. The relationship between Kirk and Corcoran as bickering brothers proved so convincing that Disney revisited the partnership in Swiss Family Robinson.

The film’s most aged and sour aspect is that of continuous Indian-bashing. At one point the mother asks Arliss to treat Yeller like a sick “Injun,” in another Arliss throws on a headdress and roars around with a hatchet in hand, and the worst instance is their father saying, “You can’t come along, dem Injuns wud scalp ya for sure.” Disney followed Old Yeller with a sequel (big surprise) that follows Yeller’s offspring (called Savage Sam), who tracks the kids after Apaches have captured them. Don’t bother catching it.

Old Yeller is the most depressing children’s film to date, but it’s also a valuable one. Parents have no doubt encountered their quivering-lipped child after an animal has died – presumably their pet – and trying to ease that pain is no easy task. Trying to create a popular movie on the subject is no easy task, either, but director Robert Stevenson managed to do so and has kept Kleenex in high demand for decades.

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