Yes, there was Lassie and Rin Tin Tin and Big Red and I'm sure a dozen other famous movie dogs, but I'm betting none of them affected you the way "Old Yeller" did. Come on; admit it: You saw it; you loved it; you cried. OK, maybe it depends on how old you were when you experienced it, but most of us saw it when we were kids, whether that was in 1957 when the film was made, or 1967 in re-release, or '77 or '87 or '97 on tape, or now DVD. There have been dogs in movies and there have been dogs in movies, but there will always be only one "Old Yeller"; that title even now probably evokes a flood of nostalgia and fond memories.
The movie is based on the novel by Fred Gipson, who also wrote the screenplay, and it was directed by Robert Stevenson, one of Disney's A-list directors ("Zorro," "Darby O'Gill and the Little People," "Mary Poppins," "The Absent Minded Professor," "The Love Bug"). The story is pretty simple and straightforward, centering on a frontier farm family living in the Old West just after the Civil War. The fact that the family look and dress like no one who might have actually lived at that time is beside the point. These are clean-kept folks even while they're working, dressed in 1950's style Western clothing, living in a grassy green valley filled with oak trees, with nary a mountain range in sight. They are the Coates, a mother and father and two young sons.
When Pa goes away on a cattle drive, leaving the family to tend the homestead, a stray, yellow mongrel shows up out of nowhere and wreaks havoc in the fields, chasing the mule and knocking over fences. It's dislike at first sight between the oldest boy, Travis, and the dog, but, of course, Yeller's love, loyalty, and intelligence soon win him over. They adopt the dog and before long Yeller is protecting the family against mad cows, angry bears, rampaging hogs, and rabid wolves. (Wolves seem to have always gotten a bad rap from Disney, starting with the Big Bad one.) Anyway, the story line contains no real central conflict, just a series of brief episodic adventures, culminating in one of filmdom's most emotional endings.
Dorothy McGuire plays the mother, Katie Coates. She and Fess Parker (TV's Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone) as the father, Jim Coates, are the kind of parents every kid thought somebody else had back in the fifties. They are perfect beyond compare, the mother gentle and kind, the father strong, soft-spoken, and wise. Tommy Kirk is the star, playing the oldest boy, Travis. He's the best part of the picture, genuinely portraying the angers and heartbreaks of a youngster. Kevin Corcoran is the younger brother, Arliss, and he's another story altogether. I could easily have done without his constant whining and yelling; had I been his parent, I would have gladly traded him for a good horse. Jeff York is probably the film's most memorable character, playing a lazy, freeloading, good-for-nothing neighbor, Mr. Searcy, who sends his daughter, Lisbeth (Beverly Washburn), to do most of his work for him. The last major character is played by Chuck Connors (TV's "Rifleman") as a cattle rancher named Burn Sanderson who happens by one afternoon asking the Coates if they've seen "his" dog. Interestingly, he calls the dog "Yeller," just as the Coates named him. Coincidence, I guess.
Disney had had great success with theme songs in their movies, as they still do, so "Old Yeller" has one by Oliver Wallace and Gil George and sung by Jerome Courtland that's reminiscent of the popular "Davy Crockett" tune. The song begins and ends the movie in proper juvenile fashion. Also, be prepared for the usual assortment of cuddly Disney critters along the way, including squirrels, raccoons, bear cubs, and deer. Interestingly, in keeping with true fifties' sensibilities, Travis can't bring himself to shoot a doe or a fawn but has no reluctance about killing a nearby buck, the doe's probable mate and the fawn's probable father. Life was harsh on the frontier. I found myself growing tired about two-thirds of the way through, but the finish still carries an impact.
Given the movie's forty-plus years of age and all, the video presentation is pretty good, helped along by its being THX certified. The anamorphic widescreen presentation measures approximately 1.74:1 in ratio across a normal television, with decent image clarity and delineation, though not faultless. The picture is very slightly blurred, but not a lot. Colors are very natural, and they're projected in a transfer that is largely clean and free of grain except in the broadest areas. Light and dark contrasts are well handled, but there is some small dulling of detail in areas of shadow.
The sound, which I had always remembered as being in monaural, is here presented in a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Actually, it's pretty good, again considering its age. It has few indications of stereo presence or surround, but it is remarkably smooth, quiet, and wide ranging. In point of truth, it seems like little more than a mono signal stretched across the front speakers with a touch of ambient sound to reinforce the rears. But it's good enough, and if you listen closely it may even turn out to be true stereo after all.
I'm not entirely sure why Disney decided to do up this film and several others in two-disc special-edition sets, but that's what we've got. They're all a part of the new "Vault Disney Collection." On disc one of "Old Yeller" is the widescreen presentation of the film, all eighty-four minutes of it; the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack; English as the only spoken language; Spanish subtitles and English captioning for the hearing impaired; an audio commentary with animal trainer Bob Weatherwax and actors Tommy Kirk, Fess Parker, and Kevin Corcoran; a mere fourteen scene selections (fourteen selections for a special edition?); and the animated feature, "Bone Trouble." By the way, in the tradition of the old theatrical showings of Disney movies, this cartoon precedes the main feature. On the DVD it may be bypassed with the "skip" button.
Disc two contains a few more items of interest. The first is a new, thirty-six-minute documentary, "Old Yeller: Remembering a Classic," featuring interviews with various members of the cast and crew. Then, there is fifteen minutes worth of conversation with actor Tommy Kirk, wherein he reminisces about the filmmaking. A two-minute montage on Disney "Dogs" is next; it's cute but hardly noteworthy. "Lost Treasures: Ranch of the Golden Oak" is a seven-minute film on the location used for shooting. Following that is a three-minute segment, "1957 Disney Studio Album," that chronicles some of the other movies and TV shows Disney made the same year as "Old Yeller." Finally, there is a section of production archives with a theatrical trailer, TV spots, advertising, stills, tributes, documentaries, etc.
Of all the boy-and-his-dog movies Hollywood's ever made, "Old Yeller" remains among the best, if not THE best, of the lot. Well, maybe "A Boy and His Dog" comes close. Just kidding. But where do you think the title of that sci-fi cult classic came from if not from a tearjerker like "Old Yeller"? Is "Old Yeller" the best movie ever made, or even the best movie ever made about dogs? Probably not; everyone has a personal favorite. But I warmly recommend this one to all those folks who want to relive a sweet recollection of their childhood or to those who have children of their own and don't want to deprive them of the same warmhearted experience. For further live-action family fare in special-edition sets, Disney Pictures have also released "Pollyanna," "The Parent Trap," and "The Swiss Family Robinson," in two-DVD "Vault Disney Collection" packages.