Old Yeller (1957)
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Old Yeller still has the power to make me cry, and I've seen it at least 50 times. It's sentimental and pushes all the right buttons, but I still love it.
Fess Parker, wife Dorothy McGuire, and sons Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran are the Coates family scratching out a living on a small ranch on the Texas frontier. Dad has to drive their herd to market in Kansas and he leaves the other three behind. Parker though he's second billed in the cast has barely fifteen minutes of screen time in the film. He leaves before the main action starts and returns really as anti-climax. Nevertheless he was a big name back in 1957, coming fresh off his triumph as Disney's Davy Crockett. Didn't hurt him at all to come from Texas for this part.
So McGuire is left to cope with the kids, the farm, and a newly found stray yellow dog that both the boys take to. His coloring makes his name a natural and he proves quite a useful dog, earning more than his keep on the ranch.
Sad to say though that Old Yeller provides the saddest moment in any Disney film since Bambi's mother was shot by the hunters. I really can't say too much more, but the Coates boys prove to be made of stern stuff and Dad provides some sound country wisdom as he gets back from his cattle drive.
Because the setting is out in the wilds there are few human speaking parts. All the players here are well cast, but the one who's the best by far is Jeff York as the Coates neighbor Mr. Searcy. York appeared in a whole bunch Disney features and usually stole scenes in every one of them. York's a guy who's full of wisdom in his own right, he'll dispense with advice at the drop of a hat, but when there's work to be done is usually elsewhere. McGuire does remark it's no accident he's not on the cattle drive. When she needs help on the ranch, York delegates his daughter Beverly Washburn to stay behind. She's a sweet kid and a good worker and Tommy Kirk doesn't mind having her around at all.
Chuck Connors is also in this as a visiting trail boss and I wouldn't be surprised if his appearance here in this family feature led to his family television series, The Rifleman.
Fifty years after it was released Old Yeller is still good entertainment and will be making young folks dream about that idyllic boyhood the Coates kids have on those Texas plains.
Disney live-action classic about Old West pioneer family's adopted stray dog, Old Yeller, who provides protection and much needed love all around. One of the most beloved family films and saddest of endings ever (to quote Bill Murray in `Stripes': `Who cried when Old Yeller died? I cried my eyes out!') landmarks this timeless classic
The movie teaches young kids the values of hard work, family love, neighborly support, hospitality and pretty much everything that today's movies seem to overlook as too mundane and banal. I strongly recommend this movie to young and old and give it a rating of 10. In my view the movie should be judged in its genre which is family/kids and not be compared with better adult performances in more serious movies. Surely, Tommy Kirk is not Gregory Peck in "To Kill a Mocking Bird" but his performance is just the same for a kid of his age in a family movie.
Yeller is in fact the protagonist of the story. His personality is well developed and he steals our hearts with no effort. The dog playing Yeller was one expressive canine. You can very clearly see the emotions on his face.
It is romanticized depiction of the old west but who cares. The location is picturesque. There are plenty of animals; lizards, snakes, toads, hogs, horses, cows, bears, wolves and of course dogs. They seem to be well-trained; most of their scenes look extremely natural. Add to that, the characters are all charming as simple, hard-working and good-natured folk. And, you have an enjoyable little movie for both kids and adults.
After a long, long absence, I saw it for the third time in the late1990s on VHS. Since I never forgot the sad ending, I was prepared for that. My attitude was great going in, especially since I had become a fan of Dorothy McGuire since her magnificent performance in "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn."
Anyway - hey, I have to be honest - this time around I was disappointed. I think I expected too much since the film had such strong nostalgia value. Yes, it was still a nice old-fashioned story but the impact was so-so and McGuire looked like she had aged 20 years since "Brooklyn." She didn't look like the same person from the famous 1945 drama.
Tommy Kirk went on to be a star on television and in the movies for Walt Disney while I don't believe Kevin Corcoran, who was just as good as Kirk, did a whole lot after this....some westerns into the '60s. Good 'ole "Davy Crockett," Fess Parker, also is in this movie but has a minor role, being seen only in the beginning and at the end. Chuck Connors also had a small role.
A nice story, no doubt. Perhaps another viewing with lower expectations would make me rate this highly again. Just the name "Old Yeller" is still special to me, however.
Old Yeller is a lost dog that comes across a western set family who's father has headed for money and items for his family. When they find Old Yeller, it's like he's taken the father's position, protecting the family every chance he got. The family comes to love this dog with a passion, even when the original owner comes to claim Old Yeller, he can tell that the dog truly belongs to the family and gives them the dog. But unfortunately, the dog gets rabies... and... sob! You get the point.
I'm not kidding, this movie is so depressing, but this was the kinder version of what Hollywood once was. The story is sweet, just like I said, you'll cry for a few, because almost everyone can admit that they had that dog who was so much like Old Yeller in one way or another. So, I'm not sure if I'd recommend it or not, just for the simple sake of that it brings back old memories. Sob!
Which is something we've learned about children and most kids today have at least a chance at a real childhood. The main character of this film surely is the boy Travis and how he has to do all the man's work in his family when the father is gone and how he hasn't time to be a boy. He does each day's man-sized chores but his relationship with the dog Old Yeller allows him to indulge a little in a second childhood he might not have had to enjoy living on the land. So where perhaps Disney's Bambi robbed viewer's of some information regarding the loss of an animal as more than a pet or wild game, this film really shows how much this dog means to the family and Travis. So there is quite an emotional load of work to do as an actor for little Tommy Kirk who portrays the boy Travis. And if it weren't for both the tender moments between him and the dog, as well as him and the sweet little girl Lisbeth, and him putting his survival skills to the test, we would have Disney fluff. Which is not what Old Yeller is.
Old Yeller is a very powerful film, but more than at the outset, where everyone might think the film is about the dog, it's really about the boy and his amazing duties. It really makes a viewer have to respect the old frontier land, especially farmers and families that shows like Little House on the Prairie made an example out of. The film can be a little hard on the viewer though. What is one supposed to think of the child Arliss? He helps the mother and Lisbeth load up a big wagon of corn and loves and cares for the dog, as well as the dog's puppy, Young Yeller. But too often his role in the film is to be somewhat of a troublemaker. That he does a little too well, and that mixes my feelings about the supporting characters. Though it's really just limited to this boy and his rash attitude. He is told by his mother to mind his older brother's instructions, and he consistently defies Travis. I don't want to sound like a slighted older brother myself, though I am an older brother - it's not an easy job.
The character of the mother, or Katie, is the film's strongest supporting character. Fess Parker was really the King of all of Disney's western and frontier-themed entertainment, but his role in this film accounts for less than 10 minutes total screen time. He's most important in the film in two short capacities, he has to be a good role model for Travis, which he is because he is very aptly able to build up Travis's confidence again, but he also has to leave. Because how can a boy learn how to be a man with a male role model around? I'm not sure many movies have tried to answer that riddle, though movies and television have produced some great father figures, the boy who's job is to become a man, he never seems to be able to do it with a father around. Which is unfortunate, since in reality so many family units are forced to make due without fathers. Or worse yet- good fathers. The mother displays more than enough parental responsibility, which just goes to again make a statement about the central importance of mothers.
Not a lot of westerns give the growing boy this meaty a role, but Tommy Kirk is the star of this movie for certain. And his dramatic abilities are so advanced, I almost worry for what he must have been going through at the time, and at such a young age, that he's able to get to such sensitive and heartfelt territory so effectively.
The premise is so simple that it has become part of cliché. When his dad goes away, a boy, despite some reservations, befriends a haggard-looking dog named Old Yeller, who ends up saving his family more than once. As time goes on, his bond grows for the animal, and so does the threat that he will lose it.
Even if you somehow don't know the ending, you know where this is going. It's a typical, if well-done and tragic, 'Boy and His Dog Story.' This sort of movie has been around for centuries. It wasn't new then, and it certainly isn't new now. But it's not about whether it's new or not. People are so obsessed with new concepts instead of new characters and new ways and new combinations. A good story is a good story. It's really as simple as that.
The 'boy' in this story is Travis, and the actor that plays him, Tommy Kirk, is alright. His delivery is stilted but his facial expressions are well-done; all in all and considering his age, I'd say he's 'good.' The mother is excellent, and not just in comparison to the child actors; she really is played well. The rest of the cast is fine.
There is one character who annoys me to no end, though through no fault of his child actor. The little brother... I'm sorry, I can't stand him. He's not even cute-annoying in the way that a real little boy is. He's just written to have no redeeming qualities, and you're supposed to not harp on him because he's just a little kid, and I'm not gonna let that slide.
Thankfully, he's not in the movie that long, so he doesn't ruin it for me. Neither do the accents and lingo, which seem awfully forced and played up, but are forgivable. The main reason this film doesn't get full marks from me is because I wasn't invested in the characters- I felt for them, but only because they were in a good and well-crafted situation. They themselves do not interest me a bit.
Still, it's a good film, and I can certainly see why so many people love it and why it has lasted this long. The parts of it that work really work. 'That scene' is one of the saddest and most emotional of any 50s movie, and easily the best part of the film. I love how they build it up, and how it (the scene!) is shot. The whole 70 minutes you've already watched flash before your eyes.
That scene, as well as every other in the film, is well built up. The writing is tight here. Nothing is extraneous or overdone. It is only an 83 minute film after all. In fact, I might have preferred a few more character scenes. But tight is tight, and I'm not gonna argue with that.
This is a fifties film through-and-through. I think how transparent it is stops the cheesiness from seeping through (the decade was a cheesy one for film).
Enjoy. There are a lot worse ways to spend an hour and a half.