1 The Mickey Mindset: Retro Reviews: Old Yeller

Monday, January 20, 2014

Retro Reviews: Old Yeller

Jason Schlierman- When you think of classic film or tv dogs, what names come to mind first?  Very good odds that names like Lassie or Benji will come to you.  If you are around 30 or younger, you might even come up with names like Beethoven or Marley.  However, one dog stands above the rest, and his name, is Old Yeller.

Old Yeller didn’t start out as a major Disney movie.  At first, Old Yeller was a popular children’s book by author Fred Gipson.  Gipson was born on February 7, 1908 on a farm close to Mason in the Texas Country Hill.  As a youth, Gipson worked on a number of farm and ranch jobs before he would go on to college in 1933 and become a writer, but his raising would always stay with him and very much would influence his later works. 

Old Yeller would not be written and published until 1956, but would end up Gipson’s most beloved work.  Gipson set the story in the area he grew up in, in the Texas Country Hill and very much based much of the story on his own childhood and his own love of the Texan landscape and the wildlife. 
 Old Yeller was also based on a story Gipson’s maternal grandfather once shared with him about a stray dog that would become his family’s dog, with many of the same situations found in the Old Yeller book pulled from the life of Gipson’s grandfather.  The book became an immediate success, and won over the hearts of children the World over.

It wasn’t much longer until Hollywood would come a-calling in the form of Walt Disney.  Disney, who himself was a huge lover of dogs and grew up in a similar setting to Gipson, immediately fell in love with the book himself after it was placed in his hands.  Disney felt the story would make an excellent film and it wasn’t much longer that Gipson was sent up to Hollywood to consult on the film, and that production would begin for Old Yeller.  Disney would end up casting Dorothy McGuire and Disney favorite, Fess Parker, in the roles of the Coates parents; with future Disney stars Tommy Kirk and Tim Corcoran making their film debuts.

Old Yeller himself was played by a Yellow Labrador Retriever named Spike, a dog trained by the famed Weatherwax family, who were big animal trainers.  Besides training Spike, who played the role of Old Yeller, they also trained famous dog Lassie.  The film would go on to be released on Christmas Day, 1957, and would end up to be one of the major films that would define the Disney studios, even to this day.

The Film:
Disney films have always had a good mix of comedy or light hearted moments mixed with drama, and Old Yeller is no exception.  We are right up front introduced to the Coates family, a family living in Texas Country Hill right after the Civil War in the 1860’s.  As was the case many times in that setting and time, the Coates patriarch, Jim (Fess Parker), has to leave his family to join the cattle drive.  As a result, Jim’s wife Katie (Dorothy McGuire), and two sons, Travis (Tommy Kirk) and Arliss (Tim Corcoran), and left behind until he comes back.  In the meantime, Travis is made the man of the house, and put in charge of the chores and safety of the family, which is not always easy as not too long after, Travis meets Old Yeller, a stray dog who has a nasty habit of stealing meat from smokehouses and robbing chickens from their nests.

At first, Travis hates Old Yeller and tries to chase him away, but Travis’s younger brother, Arliss, defends Old Yeller and wants to keep him.  After their mother intervenes, Travis accepts Old Yeller and soon starts forming a bond with the dog.  However, just as the Coates family starts to get used to having Old Yeller around, the dog’s original owner, Burn Sanderson (played by Chuck Connors in an early role before The Rifleman) shows up to claim his dog.  Arliss, not wanting to see Old Yeller leave, protests Old Yeller going away with Sanderson.  Mr. Sanderson, being a good man, decided to leave the dog with the Coates family in exchange for a home cooked meal, and a horned toad that Arliss had in his pocket.  Mr. Sanderson also warns Travis before he leaves that there have been cases of rabies amongst the animal life nearby, and to guard his family against it.
The real drama of the film comes in the second half, which leads up to one of the most gut retching scene in movie history.  If a bond had been growing between Old Yeller and Travis, it was fully cemented after Old Yeller saves Travis from wild boars that Travis had been tiring to capture.  Both Travis and Old Yeller end up seriously hurt from this incident, but it firmly strengthens the bond of boy and his dog.  Thankfully too, none of the boars had rabies.  Sadly, the Coates’ family cow, Old Rose, develops the disease, which leads Travis to have to kill her.  Upon burring and destroying the remains of Old Rose, the Coates family is attacked by a rabid wolf.  Bravely, Old Yeller saves the family, but at a price.

Travis’s mother insists that Old Yeller has rabies now too and that they must put him down, but Travis, who argues that Old Yeller just saved their lives and that it would be wrong to take Old Yeller’s life, just can’t pull himself together to do it.  So, after a compromise, Old Yeller is confined to a wooden shed in the hopes that maybe Old Yeller escaped from ending up with rabies.  For a few weeks, there appears no sign of the disease.  Then one night, Old Yeller finally shows signs that he didn’t escape it after all.  Travis, in pain over the idea of shooting his beloved dog, knows what he has to do.  Katie Coates, realizing how painful this situation is for her son, offers to shoot Old Yeller for him, but Travis makes it clear that Old Yeller is his dog, and that it is his responsibility.
This reviewer has had the pleasure of seeing many Disney films over the years, as well as most of the films starring Tommy Kirk, and I have to say, hands down, this role is his best performance.   It may even be the best performance in a Disney film period. The acting especially seen at the very end when Travis has to shoot Old Yeller is some of the best acting I’ve ever seen in a Disney film of any era, and Disney films are filled with a lot of great performances.  The emotional response Travis shows while doing the deed and right after, is the payoff of this film, hands down.  It is said that there were people at the studio that wanted to “sweeten” the ending of the film up.  Certainly, by the late 1950’s, Disney films had achieved the reputation of having happy endings, and there were many at the studio that worried that the ending of this story wouldn’t fit the mold.  Walt Disney however, very wisely, decided to keep the ending as is, and I think of all the various story decisions Walt would make in his career, keeping the ending of this film intact was if not his greatest choice, at least one of his better choices.

Old Yeller, while at first glance seems to be about a dog and his boy, is really about so much more.  The film is about life.  As was pointed out at the very end by Travis’ father, Jim, life is filled with good and bad moments, but you can’t let the bad ones get in the way of the good ones.  The film has gone on to be one of the most popular films of all time, and is a huge part of popular culture today.  Probably the biggest reason for that is the film’s simple message of love and loss.  Everyone who has ever lived, currently is alive, or will live has or will go through hard times in life.  That simple truth is part of the larger truth of our existence.  However, with the bitter, comes the sweet, and good times always show up after the bad.  Old Yeller, in its simple way, shows us the realities of this truth about life that somehow always, despite the tears that comes, sends us on our way back on the journey, feeling better about ourselves and about life in general.  Life it turns out is not so bad and just like Travis, we can move forward past the darker moments of our lives, and that is a message that we can all spend some time listing to. 

As one who has had his fair share of tragedies in life, this film really resonates with me on many levels, as I’m sure it will with most who watch.  It is possible that you can’t ask more of a boy then what Travis was asked to do to his dog, who despite the rabies turning him mean at the end, proved to be a true hero and a great friend.  Truly Old Yeller’s sacrifice reminds us why dogs are called “Man’s Best Friend.”  For in Old Yeller, he truly was the best friend Travis and Arliss could ever have.
Final Conclusion:
(4 1/2 out of 5 stars total)
This film has gone down in history as one of the defining films in the Disney library, and for good reason.  It’s message of loss and love, and moving on from hurt to enjoy the good life has to offer is one that should resonate on some level with everyone.  It has been beloved for over a half century, and most likely will be around for another half century.  Regardless if it is from a TV viewing, an old VHS, DVD or (hopefully one day) a Blu-ray release, everyone should take the time to see this film at least once in their life.  It really is that good.
Do have a special memory of Old Yeller you’d like to share?  Please feel free below in sharing any and all memories or comments on this landmark film below.  Be sure if you have not done so yet, to pick up a copy of this amazing film on DVD! 

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

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