The Yearling (1946)

Posted by on Dec 19, 2011 in Buddy Movies | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: A little bit country, and quite a bit melodrama.

The Yearling is a truly beautiful film, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, noted for its Technicolor beauty and empathetic story about the hardships on the Baxter farm. Though lesser known than Old Yeller or Bambi, The Yearling is more affecting than both films combined (ironically closer in that respect to The Deer Hunter) as all of the lead character’s friends perish, except for his father (who nearly dies twice), and the complicated mother is so harsh the actress’s real-life daughter refused to speak to her for a fortnight after seeing the film. So break out the Kleenex for this Academy Award-winning (art direction and cinematography) tissue-tearer about an 11-year-old boy and his deer.

Following The Civil War, the Baxter family finds a little piece of land to settle on past a thick forest and swampy rivers. We grow to love each member of the family from the kind, hard-working father Penny Baxter (Gregory Peck, in a role similar, though less memorable, to Atticus Finch), to the critter-loving and daydreaming 11-year-old Jody (Claude Jarman Jr.) and mother Orry (Jane Wyman), who is strong on the outside but broken on the inside after three of her children died shortly after birth. “Ma” is by far the most complicated character. At first it’s easy to see her as nothing more than the “nagging woman” stereotype (she’s constantly screaming about something), but as her story slowly unravels we sense it’s her sharp maternal instincts and loving nature hard at work. Wyman’s Oscar-nominated performance of this impossible-to-pull-off character peaks at the end, when we finally see tears.

The film mostly follows Jody Yearling3as he gallivants with animals in the nearby glen, daydreams with his differently abled friend Fodderwing (Donn Gift), or spends time with his “Pa,” who’s closer to a best friend than a father. The exterior shots accentuate the rich color and constant movement, to match Jody’s childish excitement, while at home the dull browns and off-whites match a static camera and Jody’s generally dull feeling about life on the farm. Other than an exciting bear fight, the first hour is a bit slow as we follow the family around and Jody asks to own a pet about every 10 minutes.

It takes a serious turn halfway through when Pa finally gives Jody permission to bring a fawn home. He arrives to the spot in the woods excited as can be, but vultures have surrounded the area where Pa killed the fawn’s mother. With tears starting to creep to the corners of his eyes, he crawls while looking for tracks in the sand. We gaze through Jody’s eyes as he creeps along the sand, slowly looking up and swiping thick brush out of our view. As the music begins to swell (as it does a million other times), we see the beautiful spotted fawn resting on a patch of grass and Jody’s smile illuminates the screen. Another actor, another director, another camera crew could have butchered this brief scene, which is so well executed we remember what it felt like to bring a pet home for the first time. The rest of the film follows Jody and his fawn, which he names Flag, until the horribly morbid conclusion when the family has to make a tough decision in order to survive. If only for his performance at the emotional peak, Jarman deserved the special Oscar for his screen debut. Other nominations included one for Peck, director Clarence Brown (National Velvet), best editing, and best picture.

The only thing more tiresome than the family’s accents, Southern hospitality, and god-fearing nature is the score, which swells more than Pa’s rattlesnake bite. Overall, however, it’s a movie entirely worth seeing if you’re in the mood for a tearjerker. Even the infamously hard-to-please Bosley Crowther (New York Times) hailed it, writing, “It isn’t very often that there is realized upon the screen the innocence and trust and enchantment that are in the nature of a child … but they have caught these rare sentiments and beauties in this picture.”

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