Truly memorable family pictures are hard to come by and diminishing in number every year. Consequently, it's a welcome advantage of DVD to be able to see the best family fare of the past transferred so accurately for home use. "The Yearling" from 1946 is a case in point. It's a family "classic" in every sense of the word, a film that heads any number of lists of best family films ever made. And on DVD it looks wonderful. It's an automatic recommendation for anyone with kids, or just for anyone.
Based on Marjorie Rawlings' Pulitzer Prize-winning tribute to American pioneer life, "The Yearling" tells the story of the Baxter family eking out a humble existence in Florida's scrub country in and around 1878. The center of attention is eleven-year-old Jody Baxter, the only surviving child of a couple, Penny and Ory, that lost their first three children. Jody is fresh-faced, precocious, playful, mischievous, and forever wanting a pet to call his own. His mother, sad and embittered over the loss of her previous children, remains stern and practical; a pet is one more mouth to feed on provisions they barely have enough of for themselves. The father is more easygoing and understanding, and when Jody finds a fawn he can raise, the father not only allows the boy to keep it but demands that the mother accept the fact. The story follows the adventures and hardships of the Baxters and especially of Jody's experiences, positive and sorrowful, raising the deer.
By today's more naturalistic standards, the acting in the movie may seem a bit awkward or even stilted, but give it a chance. Gregory Peck stars as the father, at once warm and laid-back yet upbeat, noble, and self-assured, too. He wouldn't play another father this intelligent or sympathetic until "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 1962. It's almost as though he were apprenticing for the later role, winning an Oscar nomination here and the Oscar itself for "Mockingbird."
Jane Wyman plays the mother, and she is also quite good, a part many viewers may find cold and discomforting but a tough-minded, unromanticized part, nonetheless. The frontier was hard and required hard people to survive it. The Baxters all find their own ways of coping with the severities of the land, the weather, and the people around them. Claude Jarman, Jr., plays young Jody, not a pretty boy by Hollywood's mirror but ordinary-looking. His strong suit is holding his own against the strong competition of the largely adult cast around him, and he acquits himself well.
Others of note in the film are Margaret Wycherly and old Clem Bevans as Ma and Pa Forrester, the heads of an ornery tribe of hillbillies living nearby, with Chill Wills as one of the calmer Forrester offspring and Forrest Tucker as the hothead of the group. Finally, there's Henry Travers as Mr. Boyles, a shopkeeper. Travers has only a minor character role here but would find everlasting fame as the angel, Clarence, in "It's a Wonderful Life" the same year.
Among the movie's notable segments is one involving Jody and his father hunting a bear, "Old Slew Foot," early on in the picture, a sequence exciting and tense, with some amazing camera work that puts much of today's MTV editing to shame. There's another nice segment showing Jody and his fawn romping through the forest following a herd of wild deer, the boy and his pet inseparable from the wild country around them.
Be aware that the story of the yearling deer itself takes up only a little less than the second half of the movie. The film is mainly about the family's relationships with one another and their difficulties in remaining strong through often troubled times. As the father says, "That's life, boy: Gettin' and losin'; losin' and gettin'.
Overall, I found the film a little longer than it probably needed to be and more episodic than focused, but such qualms are trifling. It will eventually bring a smile to your face and tear to your eye. Heck, it had me welling up, and I was only halfway through it. "The Yearling" is a wonderful family classic in every sense of the word.
The screen size from the era is, as expected, a standard Academy Ratio of the time, rendered for home televisions at 1.33:1. Viewers can see at first glance why the film won an Oscar for cinematography, the shots are so magnificent. The film is quite handsome to look at, the Technicolor image as alive today as it probably was when it was first shown. Colors are not really bright or brilliant, but in their subdued way they are quite realistic. All-round definition is only average, a bit soft, and there is some wavering of closely spaced horizontal lines, but there is no grain to speak of, even in darker scenes.
The monaural sound of nearly sixty years ago is reproduced via Dolby Digital mastering, and its most salient feature is its clarity. You will have no trouble understanding dialogue. Other than that, it's rather limited in dynamic range and frequency response and a bit hard and steely. It is also fairly quiet except for a small degree of background hiss that is hardly noticeable. Herbert Stothart's musical score, based in part on themes by early nineteenth-century British composer Frederick Delius (and in part on uncredited material from Felix Mendelssohn), is well represented by the audio track, if a bit underwhelming without too much bass or high treble support. Using the music of Delius is especially appropriate because his "Florida Suite" is among his best and earliest works, written only a few years after this movie is set, and, of course, the movie is located in Florida.
Because "The Yearling" was an MGM production now owned by the AOL Time Warner Company, the producers of the disc provide a seven-minute MGM cartoon, "The Cat Concerto," with Tom and Jerry. Next, there's a bit described on the keep case as an "interactive adventure, "Jody's World," which, in fact, turns out to be a few pages of informational, behind-the-scenes text about the film. Then, there's a list of awards the film won and a list of some of the most prominent cast and crew members. In addition, there is a trailer for this film and two more for other WB family features, and a generous thirty-four scene selections. Finally, spoken languages and subtitles are offered in English, French, and Spanish.
"The Yearling" won Oscars in 1946 for Best Color Interior Direction (Art Direction) and Best Cinematography, with a Special Oscar going to Claude Jarman, Jr., for Outstanding Child Actor. What's more, it was nominated for Best Actor (Peck), Best Actress (Wyman), Best Director (Clarence Brown), Best Editing (Harold Kress), and Best Picture. The movie also won Gregory Peck a Golden Globe as Best Actor of the year.
A little more than a decade after "The Yearling" was made, Disney would do a movie in the same vein called "Old Yeller." If you're familiar with that one, you'll appreciate this one, too. "The Yearling" is not only a heartwarming story, it's a heart-wrenching one. I can't even imagine how many children wanted their parents to buy them pet deer after seeing it. The movie is an easy recommendation for adults and a must-see for children.