Friday, January 4, 2013

It's Film Strip Friday! Old Yeller

It’s Film Strip Friday!
Old Yeller
Release Date December 25th, 1957



         When his younger brother adopts a frisky lop-eared stray, 15-year-old Travis (Tommy Kirk), acting "man-of-the-house," tries to shoo him away. But Old Yeller soon proves he is anything but "yellow" when he protects the family farm and saves Travis' life.


Old Yeller is the title character and a 1957 Walt Disney Productions film starring Tommy Kirk, Dorothy McGuire and Beverly Washburn, and directed by Robert Stevenson. It is about a boy and a stray dog in post-Civil War Texas. The story is based upon the 1956 Newbery Honor-winning book Old Yeller by Fred Gipson. Gipson also co-wrote the screenplay with William Tunberg. The success of Old Yeller led to a sequel, Savage Sam, which was also based on a Gipson book.


In 1860s post-Civil War Texas, Jim Coates (Fess Parker) leaves home to work on a cattle drive, leaving behind his wife Katie (Dorothy McGuire), older son Travis (Tommy Kirk) and younger son Arliss (Kevin Corcoran). The family is so poor the children have never seen a dollar bill, other than worthless Confederate dollars.
While Jim is away, Travis sets off to work in the cornfield, where he encounters "Old Yeller", a Black Mouth Cur. Travis unsuccessfully tries to drive Old Yeller away, but Arliss likes the dog and defends him. However, Old Yeller's habit of stealing meat from smokehouses and robbing hens' nests does not endear him to Travis.
Later, Arliss tries to capture a bear cub by feeding it cornbread and grabbing it. The angry mother bear hears her cub wailing and attacks, but Old Yeller appears and drives off the bear, earning the affection of the family. Travis eventually accepts the dog and a profound bond grows between the two.
Old Yeller's owner, Burn Sanderson (Chuck Connors), shows up looking for his dog, but comes to realize that the family needs the dog more than he does, and agrees to trade the dog to Arliss in exchange for a horny toad and a home-cooked meal.
One day, Travis sets out to trap wild boars. On the advice of Bud Searcy (Jeff York), he sits in a tree, trying to rope them from above as Yeller keeps them from escaping. Travis falls into the pack of boars below, one of which injures him. Yeller attacks the boar and rescues Travis, who escapes with a badly-hurt leg. Yeller is seriously wounded as well. Searcy warns the Coates family of hydrophobia (rabies) in the area. Fortunately, the boars did not have hydrophobia, and both boy and dog fully recover.
However, the family soon realize that their cow, Old Rose, has not been allowing her calf to feed, and may have rabies. Watching her stumble about, Travis confirms it and shoots her. While Katie and Lisbeth (Beverly Washburn) burn the body that night, a rabid wolf attacks. Yeller defends the family, but is bitten in the struggle before Travis can shoot and kill the wolf. The family pens Yeller in a corn crib for several weeks to watch him. Soon when Travis goes to feed Old Yeller, Yeller growls and snarls at Travis. After Yeller nearly attacks Arliss, who, not understanding the danger, had attempted to open the cage, a grieving Travis is forced to shoot Yeller. In doing so, he takes his first step towards adulthood.
Heartbroken from the death of his beloved dog, Travis refuses the offer of a new puppy sired by Yeller. Jim comes home with a bagful of money and presents for the family. Having learned about Yeller's fate from Katie, he explains to his son the facts about life and death. When they get back to the farm, the young puppy steals a piece of meat, a trick he learned from his father. Travis adopts the puppy, naming him "Young Yeller" in honor of his sire.

Differences from the book

In the book, Mrs. Coates convinces Travis to shoot Old Yeller shortly after the dog fights the wolf and is exposed to rabies (during the incubation period), whereas in the film, Travis insists on waiting until Old Yeller develops symptoms before killing him. In the book Travis and Yeller had not fully recovered from the wounds they received from the hogs. Mrs. Coates and Bud Searcy's granddaughter Lisbeth had gone to burn the cow carcass and return being chased by the rabid wolf which is kept at bay by Yeller. Travis shoots the wolf as it is about to kill Yeller but in a cruel twist of fate is then forced to kill Yeller because he has been exposed to rabies and will eventually become a deadly threat to the family. There is also the minor difference in that Old Yeller is bob-tailed in the book. Whereas, in the movie, he has a long tail that arches over his back (similar to the tails of Arctic sled dogs). Another major difference is that Old Yeller appears as a Lab/Mastiff mix, while in the book he is implied to be a Black Mouth Cur.

Reception and legacy

Bosley Crowther in the December 26, 1957 New York Times praised the film's performers and called the film "a nice little family picture" that was a "lean and sensible screen transcription of Fred Gipson's children's book." He noted that the film was a "warm, appealing little rustic tale [that] unfolds in lovely color photography. Sentimental, yes, but also sturdy as a hickory stick."
The movie went on to become an important cultural film for baby boomers, with Old Yeller's death in particular being remembered as one of the most tearful scenes in cinematic history. It currently has a rating of 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. One critic cited it as "among the best, if not THE best" of the boy-and-his-dog films. Critic Jeff Walls wrote:
Old Yeller, like The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars, has come to be more than just a movie; it has become a part of our culture. If you were to walk around asking random people, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who did not know the story of Old Yeller, some who didn’t enjoy it or someone who didn’t cry. The movie’s ending has become as famous as any other in film history."

In popular culture

  • In the April 25, 1983 Garfield comic strip, the cat names Old Yeller as his favorite film, stating "I love movies with happy endings."

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