Registering the Registry 2019: Old Yeller (1957)

Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Cognress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Hopefully not stepping on Beasterly’s toes, we’ll be looking at Robert Stevenson and Tommy Kirk’s first film under Walt Disney, and the saddest of all Sad Dog Movies, with Old Yeller from 1957.

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Old Yeller‘s legacy is built on a single traumatic moment. So they say, a generation of children and parents sit down to watch the nice dog movie from sweet ol’ man Walt Disney, get exactly the sweet-natured, inoffensive family entertainment they expected from the studio, and then in the final minutes it turns into the most goddamned heartbreaking thing you ever did see. Tommy Kirk has to shoot his beloved dog, and because we, as a general rule, do not want to see the dog hurt or die, the shot of him lining up his sights on the beloved pet turned something horrid and pained by a case of rabies smashed through millions of skulls and embedded itself in the frontal lobe of just as many brains. It’s a tragic moment, a generation-defining moment, a cultural memory so impossibly potent it doubtlessly forms the basis of its inclusion in the National Film Registry. You know it much as you know Rosebud is Charles Foster Kane’s childhood sled, as Norman Bates dresses up as his mother to kill people, as Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father, as Neil Jordan makes an interesting and touching drama about Stephen Rea navigating the aftermath of his IRA compatriots murdering Forest Whitaker and how to relate to the deceased man’s girlfriend into a disgusting attempt to deny a trans woman her autonomy and sense of self for the sake of making Rea’s character a self-martyring savior with a glimpse at Jay Davidson’s member. Old Yeller’s death carries beyond the context of the story, beyond the cultural moment that made the inclusion of so painful a death in a Disney-branded family feature memorable for those who saw it in theaters and later reexperienced the moment on television and video and streaming, on into the realm of things anyone with a whit of cultural literacy just plain Knows. Like a monument to hard choices, a memorial for childhood traumas, it is probably known better than anything else from Old Yeller, a scene with such supposed potency it wallops regardless context.

Context, however, is of immense importance for understanding just why Old Yeller connects with such immediate and lasting intensity for every generation who discovers the film. Perhaps a silly thing to base an entire article round, considering, “a film’s impact is the sum of all its parts,” sounds as obvious and intuitive a statement as, “movies are made of moving pictures,” but in seeking out articles, reviews, and retrospectives for reference, I found barely anything talking about Old Yeller as a cinematic construct. Everything comes down to some notion of it as just your plain, ordinary Disney family film, and then BAM! Death from out’ve the blue! Having watched the film, I say hardly. Stevenson’s film from a screenplay by William Turnberg and original book author Fred Gipson is terribly aware of the disaster lurking in its final reel every step of the way, and endeavors to prepare its audience for what’s to come by building a series of moral parables that acknowledge the difficulty of overcoming such a damaging loss while gently reminding the importance of finding goodness in life anyhow. The movie is smartly constructed as both film for children and film sans qualifier, and I’d like to take a few paragraphs to pick at how and why it functions towards this end.

A viewer aware of the ending will readily pick up on the most obvious of these foreshadowings. When Old Yeller comes lopping onto the Coates homestead to steal food, spook livestock, and annoy Travis by instantly attracting the like of his younger brother Arliss (Kevin Corcoran), Travis’ dislike of the dog is peppered with constant threats to shoot the dog if he makes one false move, or just if he walks cross Travis’ path while the boy’s in a bad mood and has a gun in hand. Consistent displays of Quality Dog Qualities through the first act, such as resisting the temptation of purposefully low-hung meat, proving a handy hunter and guardian for Arliss, and ultimately saving the little boy from an enraged mama bear eventually brings Travis round to Yeller’s side, and the two bond through the hard work and camaraderie necessary to survive and thrive on the frontier. With the elder Coates (Fess Parker in a much smaller role than his top billing would suggest) out on a cattle drive leaving Travis the man of the ranch, however, a series of visitors to the homestead bring with them a series of further, more abstract threats to his bond with the dog. Old Yeller’s known to a slovenly, freeloading ranch hand as a roaming thief in times of doubt, though his daughter wouldn’t dream of identifying the dog; he’s a roving, restless breeder who requires constant minding lest he wander away for good; and at one point his original owner shows up looking for a wayward dog, almost taking what we now, in common parlance, consider A Very Good Boy away from Travis and us alike. There’s rarely a moment when the potential loss of Yeller isn’t at the heart of a scene or sequence, and when we are working in a completely wholesome mode, it’s for the sake of deepening our attachment to the boy and his mongrel so the threat of absence bristles harder. And even when these milder threats are navigated, the film begins laying in mentions of a hydrophobia outbreak and vicious wild hogs what Travis has heard a tricky way of wrangling…

You’re in as safe and tame a wild west as Walt Disney and his crews can provide, but it’s not entirely one transplanted from the true frontier to a California backlot. The demands of adult work on a teen who’s still a boy in attitude remain throughout, the dangers of a casual tongue or lax eyes are repeatedly stressed, and the genuine threat from forces you can’t control, be they men, beast, or happenstance are always somewhere in the tall grass just beyond the flimsy fencing. It does not FEEL a harsh, unforgiving world, however, because there is also the sweetness of family and animal bonding alike whenever Travis interacts with his mother (Dorothy McGuire), and the teaching of value in practicing kindness and warmth and selflessness despite the world. I exemplify with the scene when Chuck Connors’ first master tries to ride out with Old Yeller at his side, and Arliss pelts him with rocks, prompting what’s initially framed as a showdown, the cowboy made an imposing, towering figure against a very small, very impulsive boy who only knows what he wants most in life and isn’t willing to ever give up. Then Connors kneels down, takes an interest in Arliss’ habit of collecting horny toads and frogs, and offers up a deal – he’ll trade Old Yeller for that there beautiful horny toad, and since a horny toad ain’t much in bulk compared to a good huntin’ dog, he’ll take a home-cooked meal from their mother as further compensation to sweeten the deal. We can tell by his manner he understands how much Yeller means to this family, regardless how much the dog means to him, but he also understands what just giving the dog away without the appearance of compromise would do to this child’s view of the world, and so play-barters to underscore a life lesson while still practicing humanizing generosity. Though this is the most notable (and my personal favorite) example in the film, you get much the same in smaller quantities from the scenes of Travis and Yeller cooperating to get tasks done about the homestead, boy and beast working to mutual ends and growing in tandem as a result.

This seems good a segue as any into the more violent third act, wherein Travis’ foolhardy attempt to wrangle baby hogs from a tree with only Yeller’s help results in an accident that almost costs him his hide and damn near costs Yeller his life saving Travis. Subsequent scenes of Travis sheltering Yeller in a shallow cave before running through the fields and contacting his mother for help underline how he’s somewhere between self-sufficient and very much still reliant on adult guidance, an interesting development for a character whose challenges remained fully on his level otherwise – but the sight of Yeller bloodied and badly breathing lands the hardest. Casual threats of violence and and deportation are one thing – seeing a beloved pet wounded by his own selflessness for the sake of saving your sorry skin is another. Of course, it’s not long after until we come to the crux of the matter, a rabid wolf driven mad with cerebral inflammation, who passes the dread infection in a nasty fight that ends with Travis making a crack shot into the wolf’s heart right as it’s entangled with Old Yeller by mere inches. The stubbornness which almost took Travis to an early grave now expresses itself in a quite insidious mode, the boy insisting Yeller might not turn rabid, penning him up for a week, and openly denying reality long as he can, and then even longer. With gun hung prominently over the family table, and Yeller obviously in the grip of a disease with no cure beyond the inevitable, Travis denies Yeller’s condition to his family and himself, leaving the dog to suffer until his unknowing little brother tries to free the snarling, snapping creature once called Old Yeller from his pen. Only when he’s almost lost something precious and dear to his bullheadedness again does Travis take, the gun, say, “He was my dog, I’ll do it,” and steady the sights with shaking hands and bleary eyes to fire the lone shot known to generations the world over.

Watching Old Yeller, you do not get to forget catastrophe can strike at any time. Most any viewer who comes to it knowing what will happen and who keeps their ears perked can observe its mechanics as it presses on, and appreciate what effect they must have on the hypothetical perfect audience, the child who’s no reason to suspect Old Yeller will be in any state come The End save happy, healthy, and whole. Their mind might not consciously register the dangers, they might only actively appreciate the fun dog lopping through open sunny fields with a lively child at his side, only register the growing bond as good and right, the threats as one-offs with no sequence or rhythm to their approach… but at the back of their head, every casual threat, new possible removal, drop of blood, and mention of hydrophobia builds, maintaining terrible secret knowledge of how something must be on its way. Travis shooting Old Yeller is not tragic because it is a sudden inversion of everything golden and beautiful and Disney into the kind of experience no good person should face yet so many must, if not at such close range these days. Travis shooting Old Yeller is tragic because we know it is a possibility with every grip on the rifle and fight with wild creatures, and yet it comes and stands firm and makes us look on its happening anyhow. Harken back to being five and imagine seeing all this; the dog might and absolutely CAN die, and you’ve got to confront it no matter how little you want to. Certainly enough to make the sight quite traumatic.

What’s forgotten amidst this trauma, I think (likely due to a Bambi-esque immediate return to late summer bliss, which artistically works when we return to Travis’ perspective minutes later and he’s still heavily marked, but probably makes it difficult for the emotionally impacted to consider the final sequence as part of the whole too), is how Old Yeller also contains those moments of moralizing amidst the foreshadowed death, and brings them home in its last minutes to guide its viewers through processing and grief. Much as one is left squirming in their seat as Travis delays the inevitable, and aches when he finally has to pull the trigger, the film is kind in returning his father home, and sitting him down for a talk about how facing such a thing and going through with it anyways makes his dad proud of the strength he’s shown at such a young age. It’s not all platitudes about manhood, though, for the sitdown also includes a discussion about the need to keep moving forward, keep your feet active and wheeling in the name of those lost and gone, find some reason to appreciate the gifts of living while carrying the weight of its burdens, for if you only ever focus on the weight and strain of the burden, there’s no reason in the carrying, is there? So it is we find Young Yeller showing the same mischievous habits as his pa, so it is we find Tommy Kirk’s smile returned to his face, and so it is the film closes on a reworking of its opening theme, emphasizing the cyclical nature of things and the appreciation for all the world’s sides one must cultivate to become a proper adult, be it out on the frontier or in relatively comfortable modern times.

I’d call Old Yeller an emotionally complete film, one whose somewhat stiff family film acting style and overwhelming score just begging you to get its tones quickly as possible is readily compensated by an even-handed willingness to explore harsh times with gradual steps, and allow its audience the space to cry their eyes out and find renewal in one. The entire thing matters when considering why so many kids bawled and fell into a depression when Travis shot Old Yeller, for the attachment it forges, the hints it drops, the lessons it weaves into the fabric enhance an already sad image into something that pierced its way into the country and the world’s collective heart and never let go. Robert Stevenson wouldn’t have experienced his career revival under Disney and gone on to become the most financially successful director of the pre-blockbuster era AND the bandleader on Mary Poppins if he weren’t capable of making every second count. Tommy Kirk wouldn’t have served as the company’s favorite fresh-faced youth until his outing as gay and discriminatory firing in 1963 if he couldn’t bring you into a pubescent boy’s struggle between two worlds with a wonderful dog at his dilemma’s heart. It’s all important, it all matters, and it all makes for a comfortable, fascinating experience for a first-time adult viewer like myself. Fresh, vital blood still runs in its veins, and I’m hard-pressed to imagine the soul who can readily dismiss it as empty or manipulative pablum. Trust me, having explored their catalogue, PLENTY Disney films from the 1950s fit that mark 100% – but not this one. This one’s legit, and for the record, it DID make me cry at the end. Same as it does for everyone.

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Who’s ready to argue down in the comments? I sure am! Before we do, though, gotta establish next week’s film! We’re sticking with Disney, heading into 1959 with the animation department’s long-delayed, enormously expensive, yet possibly best-loved Silver Era adaptation of the Tchaikovsky ballet, Sleeping Beauty! Once more, Disney+ has you covered if you’ve got it, and the usual streaming services have it on tap, though only for $20 purchase in this instance. See y’all once upon a dream!

Gargus also writes plenty more reviews over on Letterboxd, and rambles about this and that from time to time over on twitter.