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Old Yeller

Old Yeller(1958)

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It's almost impossible to discuss Walt Disney's Old Yeller without jumping straight into a consideration of the 1957 film's third act raison d'etre the death of the eponymous mongrel at the hands of his grief-stricken young owner (Tommy Kirk). Without this tragic turn of events, the story (based on a novel by Texas prairie writer Fred Gipson) would have made passable entertainment and still turned a profit for the Buena Vista Distribution Company without invalidating New York Times critic Bosley Crowther's assessment of it as "a nice, trim little family picture." With the inclusion of this unexpected and entirely horrific complication, the tale became legend perhaps even a generational rite of passage. Stephen King might never have written Cujo had Old Yeller not become infected with rabies while protecting his adopted frontier family from an afflicted gray wolf; one of the best laugh lines in the 1981 military comedy Stripes is when loose cannon non-com Bill Murray rallies the troops with the truth-or-dare question "Who cried when Old Yeller got shot?" The twist in the wagging tail of Old Yeller has in the half century since its release become a pop cultural punch line for such sitcoms as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Friends (in which it is referred to as a "sick doggy snuff film"), while in the syndicated comic strip Garfield, the lasagna-loving, dog-hating fat cat praises the film's "happy" ending.

Love it or hate it, the death of Old Yeller is thematically consistent with Walt Disney product of the post-WWII era, in which traumatic turning points were key to the studio's aesthetic. Disney's brand of tough love meant that Bambi [1942] had to see his mother gunned down before his very eyes while Dumbo [1941] was torn from his own mother's embrace and sold into a kind of slavery and Pinocchio [1940] and his tearaway chums were turned into braying donkeys.

Some cultural critics have gone so far as to accuse Walt Disney of inflicting unnecessary trauma on a generation of innocents. In a 1993 issue of Bright Lights Film Journal, writer C. Jerry Kutner declared "Old Yeller isn't just about child abuse, it is child abuse." Yet none of the particulars cited to support this argument are Walt Disney's invention and come instead straight from the 1956 novel by Fred Gipson.

Born Frederick Benjamin Gipson in 1908 on a cotton farm in Mason, Texas, Gipson worked his way toward a journalism degree at the University of Texas at Austin as a goat driver. While writing cowboy short stories and novels, he toiled as a reporter for The Daily Texan, the San Angelo Standard-Times and The Denver Post, among other papers. Gipson published his first novel in 1946 - The Fabulous Empire: Colonel Zack Miller's Story - and had his first success three years later when Hound Dog Man was included in Doubleday's Book-of-the-Month Club. His novel Old Yeller was inspired by his maternal grandfather's recollections of frontier life, which included an anecdote of how the family's herding dog became infected with rabies and had to be put down with a musket round. Gipson traveled to Burbank to assist in Disney's adaptation and to bestow his blessing on the project but couldn't wait to quit the noise and congestion of Los Angeles for his native Mason, Texas, where he died in 1973.

Tightly constructed around a series of episodic vignettes and directed with a sure hand by Disney mainstay Robert Stevenson, Old Yeller was filmed at the 700 acre Golden Oak Ranch in the Santa Clarita Valley, thirty miles north of Disney. Utilizing a small cast (as one of the actors put it, "the only extras were chickens"), the film benefits from warm and winning performances by Fess Parker (whose screen time amounts to less than fifteen minutes), Dorothy McGuire, a pre-Rifleman Chuck Connors and gifted child actors Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran and Beverly Washburn. Kirk and Corcoran would play brothers in five films (among them Swiss Family Robinson [1960] and Old Yeller's 1963 sequel Savage Sam) but Kirk's promising career derailed after his homosexuality proved a deal-breaker for Disney. (An arrest for marijuana possession also caused Kirk to lose a choice role in The Sons of Katie Elder [1965].) More successful in transitioning to non-juvenile fare was Beverly Washburn, who went on to feature prominently in Jack Hill's cult classic Spider Baby (1968) and appear as a guest on a number of popular television series (Wagon Train, Star Trek, The Streets of San Francisco) through the next two decades. Purchased for three dollars from a Van Nuys animal shelter, the real star of Old Yeller was a yellow Black Mouth Cur that trainer Frank Weatherwax named Spike. Spike went on to appear in 20th-Century-Fox's 1960 remake of A Dog of Flanders, as well as on the short-lived NBC series The Westerner starring Brian Keith, and sired two more generations of animal actors.

Producer: Bill Anderson, Walt Disney
Director: Robert Stevenson
Screenplay: Fred Gipson, William Tunberg
Music: Oliver Wallace, Will Schaefer
Cinematography: Charles P. Boyle
Editing: Stanley E. Johnson
Art Direction: Carroll Clark
Cast: Dorothy McGuire (Katie Coates), Fess Parker (Jim Coates), Tommy Kirk (Travis Coates), Kevin Corcoran (Arliss Coates), Jeff York (Bud Searcy), Beverly Washburn (Lisbeth Searcy), Chuck Connors (Burn Sanderson), Spike (Old Yeller).
C-83m.

by Richard Harland Smith

SOURCES:
Fred Gipson biographical sketch, Harry Ransom Center/The University of Texas at Austin
Tommy Kirk interview by Kevin Minton, Filmfax No. 38, 1993
The Horror of Disney's Old Yeller by C. Jerry Kutner, Bright Lights Film Journal No. 11, 1993
Interviews with Fess Parker, Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, Beverly Washburn, T. Beck Gipson, Roy Edward Disney and Robert Weatherwax, Old Yeller: Remembering a Classic, 2002

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