Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Live-Action Edition. Old Yeller.

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Old Yeller

Year: 1957

Source materials : The film is based upon the 1956 Newbery Honor-winning book of the same name by Fred Gipson.

Box office: $6,250,000

Plot: Jim Coates leaves his wife Katie, and his sons Travis and Arliss to collect cattle in Kansas. While Jim is away, Travis sets off to work in the cornfield, where he encounters a fat and ugly, lop-eared dog he names “Old Yeller.” Travis unsuccessfully tries to drive the dog away, but Arliss likes him and defends him from Travis.

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Later, Arliss tries to capture a black bear cub by feeding it cornbread and grabbing it. Its angry mother hears her cub wailing and attacks, but Old Yeller appears and drives her off. Travis grows to love and respect Old Yeller. Bud Searcy and his daughter Lisbeth come by for supper one day, and Lisbeth takes Travis aside to tell him Old Yeller has been stealing food all over the county. After she and her father leave, Travis scolds Old Yeller and has the dog sleep in the cornfield with him to chase off raccoons.

One day, Old Yeller’s original master, Burn Sanderson, shows up looking for his dog. Sanderson realizes that the Coates family needs Old Yeller more than he does, so he agrees to trade him to Arliss in exchange for a horny toad and a home-cooked meal. Sanderson later takes Travis aside and warns him of the growing plague of hydrophobia. One day, Travis sets out to trap feral hogs. On the advice of Bud Searcy, he sits in a tree, trying to rope them from above as Old Yeller keeps them from escaping. However, Travis then falls into the group of hogs and is attacked by one. Old Yeller defends Travis as he crawls away with an injured leg. However, Old Yeller is severely injured.

Later, the family see their cow, Rose, stumbling and foaming at the mouth. Travis confirms that she is rabid and shoots her. While Katie and Lisbeth burn her body that night, they are suddenly attacked by a wolf. Katie’s scream alerts Travis, who runs outside with a rifle, just in time to see Old Yeller fighting off the wolf. Travis successfully shoots the wolf, but not before Old Yeller is bitten on the neck. Katie tells Travis that no healthy wolf, not even a loafer wolf, would attack near a burning area and, therefore, the wolf was rabid. Katie then suggests that it may be necessary to shoot Old Yeller, but Travis insists that they instead pen him in the corn crib to see if he shows symptoms of the disease.

After remaining quarantined, the Coates believe that Old Yeller may not have been infected. However, one night, when Travis goes to feed Old Yeller, he growls at him aggressively. Travis suspects that Old Yeller may have been infected but says nothing. Later that night, Arliss tries to open the corn crib to release Old Yeller, oblivious to the danger. Katie slams the door shut as Old Yeller snarls and tries to attack. Katie then tells Travis that Old Yeller is suffering and takes Arliss back to the house. Katie returns with the rifle, but Travis takes it, saying Old Yeller is his dog. Travis then reluctantly shoots Old Yeller and walks away.

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Upset over the loss of his dog, Travis refuses the offer of a new puppy sired by Old Yeller. His father, Jim, then comes home with money and gifts for the family. Katie tells him about Old Yeller, and Jim talks to Travis about it. Upon returning to the farmhouse, Travis observes the puppy stealing a piece of meat, as Old Yeller would do. Travis then accepts the puppy, “Young Yeller,” as his new dog.

Changes from the Source Material: The dog, Old Yeller, although described in the dialogue as a mongrel, is portrayed by a Yellow Labrador Retriever and, in the book by Fred Gipson, is a Black-Mouthed Cur, a similar looking but less bulky breed.

Cast: The cast is filled with many familiar faces such as Fess Parker, Dorothy McGuire, Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, and Jeff York.

Beverly Washburn as Lisbeth Searcy. She apoeared in several television shows such as The Adventures of Superman, Professional Father, 77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, The Texan, Gidget and Wagon Train. Chuck Connors 1 as Burn Sanderson. He is best known as the star of The Rifleman. He is one of only 13 athletes in the history of American professional sports to have played in the MLB and in the NBA. He appeared in many films including The Big Country, Move Over Darling, Soylent Green, and Airplane II: The Sequel. He had a key role against type as a slave owner in the 1977 miniseries Roots, and was nominated for an Emmy Award for his performance.

Critical Reception: 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 said 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.”

Legacy: There is no presence of the film in any of the parks, but I doubt there is anyone who doesn’t know how the film ends. Disney produced a sequel called Savage Sam, which also features Brian Keith, Royal Dano, and Slim Pickens. Disney released both films on DVD as a set.

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My take: It’s a well done film and it earns every tear. It’s well acted and well shot. Now Kevin Corcoran does seem to have only one note, and that note is yelling at the top of his lungs.

Next Week: More dogs. This time a Shaggy one.