OLD YELLER —anyone who doesn’t mush up a little when this 1957 children’s classic reaches its dramatic crescendo is suspect in the heart department. If you’re too sophisticated to be moved by elemental emotions, chances are not only are you not much fun, but probably won’t be worth beans when the chips are down. After recalling the rollicking title tune with a grin, Boomers who saw it as children can’t help but stir when early in the 83-minute tale young ‘Travis Coates’ vows to his mother “I know one thing. That old dog better not come around here while I got me a gun in my hands.” Well, son…*
The Texas frontier, 1869. After their father leaves for months on a cattle drive, his teenage son becomes man-of-the-house. When a stray dog shows up, the boy is initially suspicious of the critter, but his kid brother is ecstatic and his mother bemused. When the dog proves helpful, even valiant, a bond is formed. But as his father later tells him “Now and then, for no good reason a man can figure out, life will just haul off and knock him flat.”
Though it’s a kid’s movie, it’s done so well—without overdoing cuteness or sentiment—that adults could appreciate it (and recall how they felt about their most cherished pet): no-one who saw it would forget it, and the wrenching “up to me” moment became a cultural touchstone.
The canine hero, a hefty four-year-old Labrador/Mastiff named Spike, performs admirably, romping with the boys, tangling with hogs, a bear and a wolf (a mocked-up German shepherd) at various spots on a 700-acre ranch in Santa Clarita, California pretending to be old Texas. Fess Parker has just opening & closing scenes as the father ‘Jim Coates’, with the warm presence of Dorothy McGuire as mother ‘Katie’. Chuck Connors stops by as Yeller’s former owner, and Jeff York plays comic relief as a neighbor. He brings along his daughter ‘Lisbeth’ (nicely done by 13-year-old Beverly Washburn), who has unrequited sweets for Travis. Walt’s Americana instincts struck paydirt casting the sons. Boisterous 8-year-old Kevin Corcoran plays ‘Arliss’, guaranteeing he’d became Walt’s go-to stand-in for mischievous tykes. The top prize goes to Tommy Kirk, 15, capturing the crucial coming-of-age role of Travis with innate sensitivity and naturalness. **
Fred Gipson and William Tunberg wrote the script from Gipson’s novel, which passed on stories from his grandfathers life on the Texas frontier. Robert Stevenson directed, with Yakima Canutt handling the 2nd-unit action, while Spike/Yeller was guided by trainers Frank and Rudd Weatherwax. The jaunty title song was sung by Jerome Courtland. A box office whopper, 5th place in ’57: a 1965 re-release brought the gross to $21,400,000.
* Walt Disney’s first ‘boy & his dog’ story got a belated sequel six years later in the less successful Savage Sam, with Kirk, Corcoran and York repeating their roles with the now grown offspring of Yeller. Walt’s kid-hound ventures include Big Red, Greyfriars Bobby and The Shaggy Dog. The redoubtable Spike (1952-1962) had been rescued by trainer Frank Weatherwax from an animal shelter. His $3.00 gamble paid off and Spike had a busy and happy career.
** While they’d appeared on Disney TV shows, Old Yeller marked the feature debuts for Kirk and Corcoran. Kirk would do 15 Disney films, Corcoran 9 and two TV movies; they played brothers five times. Boomers will recognize the 6’7″ Jeff York from a batch of Disney projects, several involving Parker, who did one more for Walt (The Light In The Forest) before heading off on his own.