"Now and then, for no good reason, life will haul off and knock a
man flat," the father consoles his son. The 1957 Disney movie OLD
YELLER is like that. For most of the film, it is a light hearted slice
of life with scenes reminiscent of the old Disney nature documentaries.
Toward the end, the movie takes a sharp turn, transforming it into a
tragedy. It is this concluding portion that wins the show's deserved
reputation as one of Disney's better live action films.
Set in a post-Confederate Texas, the people are all dirt poor, but
happy and resourceful. The Coates family consists of a father Jim
(Fess Parker), mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire), older son Travis (Tommy
Kirk), and younger son Arliss (Kevin Corcoran). The Coates are so poor
that the children have never seen a dollar bill, except a Confederate
one and "it ain't worth nothin'." The father spends almost all the
movie gone on a cattle drive where he hopes to earn money to support
Most of the acting in the film has the depth of a TV movie, but
the simple script by William Tunberg, based on the novel by Fred
Gipson, takes a pleasant little tale and turns it into a moving story
through the gripping conclusion. The acting by Tommy Kirk, as the boy
who has to become a man overnight, is quite good and his character
easily earns the audience's empathy.
The story concerns an "old yeller dog" that comes uninvited to
stay with the family. At first, Travis tries without success to shoo
it off, but Old Yeller eventually gains his respect and his love.
Most of the show is little more that a charming series of animal
incidents. We have bucking horses, raiding raccoons, hiding snakes,
brawling bears, attacking hogs, and charging mother cows. Old Yeller
manages to be a hero in most of these episodes causing the mother to
exclaim, "If that don't beat all. I never saw such a dog."
Director Robert Stevenson understands how lightweight the first
part is and never tries to make it seem more important that it is. His
saves the energy and emphasis for the last act.
The cinematography by Charles P. Boyle produces the most precious
scene of the show. When Old Yeller's real owner, Burn Sanderson,
played with genuine warmth by Chuck Connors, shows up to claim his
animal, Arliss tries to bargain with him. Boyle photographs Sanderson
from way down at Arliss's level then switches to Sanderson's view
looking straight down on little Arliss. A great reminder of how adults
tower over kids in both height and authority.
Toward the end, Old Yeller gets in serious danger twice. Both of
these have real potential to frighten younger viewers, but without
these parts, the film would have been little more than a nice
diversion. With them, the dog's value and bravery become absolutely
clear, and Travis has to face the harshness of his existence. I will
resist the urge to tell you more.
In a show full of homilies, the father's advice at the end is
perhaps the best. He tells his son, "If you go looking for something
good to take the place of the bad, generally you can do it."
OLD YELLER runs merely 1:23. It is not rated, but would be a G.
There is no sex, nudity, or bad language of any kind. Animals do get
attacked, and one boy gets a bloody leg, but there is no human to human
violence. "I loved it!" said my son Jeffrey, age 7 1/2. "I think both
the dogs were really good actors." He gave the show a thumbs up and
recommends the picture to kids 5 and up. I totally agree and award the
Copyright © 1996 Steve Rhodes