Movie Review – Old Yeller (1957)

There’s nothing more classic than a story about a boy and his dog.

As we know, dogs aren’t merely pets.  They are best friends and members of the family.  A dog will always be faithful and will always be there to protect you, no matter the odds in succeeding.

Based on the book by the same name, Old Yeller tells a story about a frontier family that comes in contact with a stray yellow dog.  They befriend the dog and the eldest boy eventually respects and becomes best friends with the dog.  The dog risks his own life numerous times, even sacrificing himself to prevent a rabid wolf from attacking the family.

Old Yeller (1957) - movie poster

Old Yeller was directed by Robert Stevenson.  The film stars Dorothy McGuire as Katie Coates, the mother of the family.  Fess Parker plays the role of Jim, the father of the frontier family.  Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran play the roles of Katie and Jim’s sons Travis and Arliss.

Supporting them are Jeff York as Bus Searcy, Chuck Connors as Burn Sanderson, and Beverly Washburn as Bus Searcy’s daughter Lisbeth.  Most of the actors here have been in other Disney films at one point or another.  Dorothy McGuire, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran were all reunited for 1960′s Swiss Family Robinson, Fess Parker is better known as playing Davy Crockett amongst other characters in several Disney films, and Jeff York has played the role of Mike Fink in a couple of Davy Crockett episodes.

Old Yeller (1957) - He's just a good dog.

Old Yeller (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Old Yeller begins with the classic song “Old Yeller.”  We see scenes of the dog Old Yeller running through fields and chasing a jackrabbit.

The main part of the film begins in the late 1860s out in Texas.  The Coates are a poor frontier family, and we see Travis (Tommy Kirk) and his little brother Arliss (Kevin Corcoran) talking about money and the items they can purchase it.  Travis admits that the only money he has seen was an old Confederate dollar bill from a while ago.

Inside their home, Jim Coates (Fess Parker) is preparing to leave for a cattle drive.  His wife Katie (Dorothy McGuire) is reluctant to see him leave, but she knows how much they need the money around the home.  Besides, she knows how to run their frontier home, and their eldest son will also help tend to their farm and look after the animals, including little Arliss.

Old Yeller (1957) - Jim has a serious talk with his son before leaving for the cattle drive.

Old Yeller (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

When he leaves for the cattle drive, Jim has a talk with Travis and lets him know that he’s expected to be the man around the house while his father is gone.  That means tending to the chores and taking care of their corn field.  Without the corn they won’t be able to feed their cattle or have any bread to eat that winter.  Travis makes a deal with his father that if he runs the farm, then he’ll receive a new horse when his father returns from the cattle drive this fall.

One day Travis is using a mule to help plow a field when a yellow dog chases a jackrabbit into the farm.  The dog accidentally spooks the mule which then takes off running, destroying much of the fence in the process.  Travis is furious at the dog and he tries throwing rocks at it to scare it away.

Later that day, Katie is upset with the way that Arliss collects frogs, lizards and snakes that he finds in the local area.  She mentions to Travis that Arliss needs a good dog to look after him, the same way that their old dog looked out for Travis when he was younger.  Travis thinks back and remembers their old dog and how much fun he had when he was younger.

Old Yeller (1957) - Katie and Arliss quickly make friends with the yellow dog.

Old Yeller (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Travis goes outside and discovers that some meat is missing.  And there lying on the ground is that same yellow dog that spooked his mule.  He grabs a stick and tries to beat the dog, but Arliss defends the animal.  Arliss has already made friends with the dog and he claims that nobody is going to hurt him.  Katie sees Arliss with the dog and she realizes that that’s exactly the type of dog that they need around the farm.  She insists that the dog can stay with them, infuriating Travis.

Since they’re out of meat, Katie sends Travis out to hunt and bring home a deer.  He does so, and when Travis returns with the dead deer on the back of his mule, he’s furious at what he sees.  There’s Arliss and the dog playing in the family’s drinking water.  He throws a couple of rocks at Arliss and the dog, and Arliss returns fire.  He runs up the path throwing rocks at his older brother.  Katie has to step outside and break up the fight.

Old Yeller (1957) - The yellow dog proves that he's trustworthy.

Old Yeller (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

That night Travis decides to test the dog’s loyalty and willpower.  He hangs a chunk of venison and tells the yellow dog not to touch it, or he’ll shoot him right between the eyes.  Travis awakens the next morning and discovers that the yellow dog is still there, and he didn’t touch the meat.  All of it is still hanging exactly where Travis left it the previous night.  Travis is impressed with the dog’s loyalty.  Perhaps this dog isn’t so bad after all.

Old Yeller (1957) - The yellow dog fights off the black bear and saves Arliss.

Old Yeller (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Later, Arliss tries to catch a black bear cub by feeding it pieces of cornbread.  He draws the bear cub close and then grabs it.  The cub calls for its mother and a large black bear comes charging out of the trees and straight towards Arliss.  The yellow dog races ahead and cuts off the large bear.  He stands his ground and the black bear is forced to retreat.  This convinces Travis that the dog is a true friend, and he’s grateful for the dog saving his little brother’s life.  He even allows Old Yeller to sleep in the bed with himself and Arliss.

Old Yeller (1957) - Lisbeth tells Travis that his dog was caught stealing food at her father's farm.

Old Yeller (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Bus Searcy (Jeff York) and his daughter Lisbeth (Beverly Washburn) come to visit the Coates family and see if they can offer any assistance, though Bus really doesn’t help.  He mainly sits back and enjoys some of Katie’s home cooking.  Lisbeth goes walking through the corn field with Travis, and she tells him that his dog was responsible for stealing food at her father’s farm.  Travis doesn’t want to believe her, but he gives her an arrowhead as a bribe to keep quiet about the dog’s thefts.

While he’s eating his meal, Bus Searcy warns Travis about the brutal nature of wild hogs in the area.  He advises him to stay in a tree and use a rope to snatch hogs, and then simply pull them up so that he can mark them.  Old Yeller can corral the hogs and position them right underneath his tree branch.

That night, Travis and Yeller sleep in the corn field.  They need to protect the crop from the local wildlife, or they’ll likely lose everything.  Sure enough, they hear a pack of thieving raccoons, and Travis and Yeller scare them away from the corn.

Old Yeller (1957) - Yeller saves Travis from the aggressive cow with sharp horns.

Old Yeller (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

The next day it’s notice that one of the female cows is missing.  Katie suspects that the cow wandered away so she could give birth to a calf.  Travis and Yeller head out in search of the missing livestock.  They find the missing cow at the bottom of a hill, and sure enough, the cow successfully delivered a calf.  As Travis tries to get the calf to stand and start walking, the mother cow takes it the wrong way.  She charges at Travis but Yeller cuts her off.  The dog stops the large cow from stampeding and goring Travis with her horns.

They successfully bring the two cows back to the family farm.  The female cow needs to be milked, but she’s too agitated to stand still for Travis.  He simply brings Yeller into the cow’s pen, and suddenly the cow stops fussing.  She’s clearly scared of the dog and stands still while Travis milks her.

Later, a man named Burn Sanderson (Chuck Connors) visits the family’s farm.  It turns out that he’s the rightful owner of Yeller, and the dog clearly recognizes him.  The boys don’t want to see the dog leave, but Katie insists that the dog belongs to Sanderson, and it’s not theirs to keep.  This doesn’t stop Arliss.  He picks up some rocks and throws them at Sanderson, causing him to leg go of Yeller.

Old Yeller (1957) - Arliss has to deal with Sanderson if he wants to keep Yeller.

Old Yeller (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Sanderson sees how much the boys care for the dog.  He makes a deal with Arliss and trades the dog for the boy’s horned toad along with a meal cooked by his mother.  Arliss agrees to the deal and Yeller is allowed to stay with the Coates family.  After the meal, Sanderson takes Travis aside and warns him that animals in the area are coming down with hydrophobia (rabies).  He instructs Travis about how to spot the symptoms, and if he sees any infected animals, then to not hesitate in shooting them.  It’s fatal if people are bitten by any animals sick with hydrophobia.

Old Yeller (1957) - Travis and Yeller are both injured from the wild pigs.

Old Yeller (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Later, Travis heads out with Yeller and they find a pack of wild pigs.  Yeller holds back the pigs while Travis climbs a tree and positions himself on a branch.  He then has Yeller herd the pigs underneath him and he begins snatching them with rope so that he can mark them with his knife.  This works until the tree branch breaks and Travis is attacked by the pigs.  Yeller comes to his rescue, but both Travis and the dog are badly injured.  Travis uses his shirt to wrap the dog and then heads back home to tell his mother what happened.  After she tends to her son’s wounded leg, they head back out and find Yeller.  Katie stitches the dog’s wounds and then takes them all back to the family farm.

Old Yeller (1957) - Lisbeth tries to give a yellow dog puppy to Travis as a gift.

Old Yeller (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Travis and Yeller are both resting at home when Bus and Lisbeth return to visit the farm.  Lisbeth has brought a yellow puppy that was an offspring between Old Yeller and her family’s pet dog.  She presents it as a gift to Travis, but the boy rejects the puppy, claiming that Old Yeller is better.  Lisbeth is hurt from Travis’s rejection and she simply hands the puppy to Arliss who gladly accepts the gift.

Bus learns of Travis and Yeller’s injuries, and he checks on them.  Luckily the wounds are not infected.  The wild pigs didn’t have hydrophobia.  It’s a close scare but both the boy and the dog make a full recovery.  While Travis is recovering, Bus has his daughter stay with the Coates and help work at the farm.

Old Yeller (1957) - Travis shoots the cow that's infected with rabies.

Old Yeller (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Some time later the cow that delivered the calf behaves strangely.  The cow stumbles along the ground and refuses to have her calf feed for it.  Travis recognizes the signs as hydrophobia, and he has to shoot and kill the cow.

That evening they burn the infected cow to help prevent any other animals from eating it and spreading the disease.  While the cow is burning, a rabid wolf sneaks onto the farm and tries to attack Katie and Lisbeth.  Yeller jumps to the rescue and attacks the wolf, keeping it away from the people until Travis can shoot and kill it.  Unfortunately, Yeller was bitten by the wolf and might also be infected.

Old Yeller (1957) - The dog has become infected with rabies.

Old Yeller (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Travis pleads with his mom not to kill Yeller.  She agrees and they put the dog in a quarantined area to see if it becomes infected.  At first Yeller looks like he’s improving, but Katie insists on keeping him locked away for a couple more days just to make sure.  She’s right with her thinking.  That evening Yeller has taken a turn for the worse and tries to attack Travis.  The boy makes it out of the cage and locks the door.

Travis tells his mother what happened, and they discover that Arliss is missing.  The catch the boy before he can unlock the door and free Yeller.  Now they know what must be done.  Yeller is Travis’s dog, and he insists on being the person who shoots and kills the dog.  Travis musters up the strength to aim the rifle and pull the trigger, giving his beloved dog a quick death.

Jim finally returns home from the cattle drive with lots of money and gifts for the family.  He brought Arliss an Indian headdress, and he has a new horse for Travis.  Off in the distance he spies Travis and Lisbeth burying something in the field.  Katie takes her husband inside the house and explains what happened this past summer.

Old Yeller (1957) - Jim has to have another serious talk with his son.

Old Yeller (1957) – (c) Buena Vista Distribution

Jim finds Travis and has another serious talk with his son, this time about life and death.  It’s part of growing up and becoming an adult.  When they walk back to the farm, Travis sees the yellow dog puppy steal a piece of meat, just as his father, Old Yeller, did.  Travis decides to keep the puppy and names it Young Yeller.

Old Yeller ends with Young Yeller running through a field and chasing a jackrabbit, just as his father once did.

FINAL THOUGHTS

So is Old Yeller a good movie?

When it comes to wholesome family films that deliver a powerful message, it’s hard to top Old Yeller.  The fact that the film is dated simply makes it that much more charming.  Perhaps today’s spoiled and self-centered children (and many parents) can learn a thing or two from Old Yeller.

The cast is simple here, but like in Swiss Family Robinson, it works.  You’ll just need to adjust your ears to the Texas accents used heavily by Tommy Kirk, Dorothy McGuire and Beverly Washburn.  Fess Parker does a solid performance as the family’s honest and hardworking father, somebody who continually offers advice to help his son with life’s challenges.

There’s quite a bit of foreshadowing and if you haven’t seen the film, you’ll generally know what to expect later in the story.  Bus Searcy warns Travis about the dangers of wild pigs, and Burn Sanderson warns him about animals being spotted with rabies.  This story is fairly straightforward, and you know that the main characters will be dealing with both of those problems at some point.  Rabies is the most serious of the problems, and that ultimately proves to be the downfall of Old Yeller.  As we know, the dog puts himself in harm’s way to protect the family, unknowingly infecting itself with rabies when he’s bitten by the rabid wolf.

In this film we see a teenage boy trying to grow up and help his family’s farm survive during tough times.  In addition to helping his mother and tending to the farm while his father is away, Travis also has to help keep an eye on his younger brother and keep him out of trouble.  Yeller comes along and proves to not only be a protector of the family and a hard worker on the farm, but also a best friend to the older boy, just as he needed somebody like that in his life.  Yeller inspires Travis to be a better person.

Old Yeller (1957) – movie introduction and “Old Yeller” song

Old Yeller is a classic tale that can still be enjoyed by families in today’s age.  Perhaps if more people watched and learned from the values presented in films like this, then we wouldn’t have as many problems as we do today.

four stars

[after Travis shoots the rabid cow]

Arliss Coates – “Why did you shoot Rosemary?”
Travis Coates – “She was sick.”
Arliss Coates – “Well, you were sick. How come we didn’t shoot you?”
Travis Coates – “That was different.”

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Travis Coates – “He was my dog. I’ll do it.”

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Jim Coates – “Now and then, for no good reason, life will haul off and knock a man flat.”

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