Today, September 13 (the second Sunday of September), is National Pet Memorial Day, and we can’t think of a single cinematic pet more deserving of memorializing than that ill-fated, long-suffering yellow labrador/retriever mastiff Old Yeller. Thus we exhume C. Jerry Kutner’s paean/lament to cinema’s most tragic pooch for your reading pleasure/horror.
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“Yeller, you’ve been so good to the family but you’re sick now so we’re gonna blow your brains out.”
The story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has always existed at the cusp of fantasy, science fiction, and psychological horror. Indeed, all supernatural or science fictional elements can be removed from the story (as with Tony Perkins’ crackhead Dr. Jekyll in Edge of Sanity) without diminishing its essential archetypal power.
The one element that appears in every version of Jekyll and Hyde — including those not nominally based on the Stevenson story — and that cannot be removed from the tale without destroying it is the big transformation scene, that moment in which someone familiar and beloved turns into something terrifying and strange. Few truly effective exist that do not deal with the fear of transformation in one form or another, and the most chilling are those in which the transformation occurs close to home. Thus, in our cinematic nightmares, we witness the transformation of our parents (Invaders from Mars, The Shining), ourselves (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Cronenberg’s The Fly), our spouses (Cat People), sons and daughters (The Wolfman, The Exorcist), friends and lovers (Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Or even the family dog . . .
Which brings us to Old Yeller (1957), surely one of the most disturbing “children’s movies” in cinema history. While ostensibly a coming-of-age story (by director Robert Stevenson) in the style of a John Ford western, everything in this film is structured around a single horrifying sequence — highly traumatic to the typical child viewer — in which a good dog turned bad is killed by the boy who loved him. Such traumatic moments are not rare in the works of producer Walt Disney. Here are four of the most memorable: (1) A beautiful queen, Snow White‘s stepmother, drinks a magic elixir that by stages reveals her true face — that of a cackling fiend; (2) Pinocchio watches as his friend Lampwick turns from juvenile delinquent to braying jackass, then gazes in horror as the same transformation begins to occur in himself; (3) Dumbo‘s mother, forcibly separated from her freakish elephant-child, turns into a rampaging thing; (4) Bambi‘s mother is mercilessly shot down by the most vicious of all predators: Man.
Together, these four “Disney moments” have probably screwed up more children than any “adult” movie ever made. All but the scene from Bambi are based on the terror of transformation. All but the scene from Snow White involve the violent loss of a parent or close friend.
Continuing in this same tradition, Old Yeller carries the child viewer through an experience of horrifying transformation and violent loss that will be recalled with sadness and dread long after the film’s saccharine “happy ending” is forgotten. The song running underneath the opening credits (written in the same style as Disney’s hit “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”), with its chorus “Here, Yeller, Come back, Yeller!,” immediately establishes the theme of loss. This motif is carried over into the film’s first scene, in which we learn that a father (Fess Parker) will be abandoning his wife and children for three months in order to take part in a cattle drive. The family consists of Dad, Mom (Dorothy McGuire), and two sons: responsible Travis (Tommy Kirk) and bratty little brother Arliss (Kevin Corcoran). They live on an isolated farm in the plains of Texas.
In the first of several dreamlike transformation/substitutions, “that ol’ yeller dog” enters the narrative proper in the scene immediately following the father’s departure. Although it’s not apparent to young Travis, Old Yeller is destined to take the father’s place as Guardian of the Family. Travis’s first impression, however, is that he is a “bad” dog: Yeller tears through the farmyard chasing a rabbit, and frightens Travis’s plow-mule so much that the mule stampedes through the cornfield and demolishes a wooden fence. Travis is furious: “That ol’ dog better not come around here while I got me a gun in my hands!” Ma and Arliss, on the other hand, take an instant liking to the lovable brute. The next morning, Travis discovers that the dog has stolen the “middlin’ meat,” sides of venison that are hung outside overnight to cure. Ma and Arliss are not bothered by this at all. Arliss is now referring to Yeller as “my dog,” and Ma is happy that little Arliss will have someone to play with while Travis is out doing the “man’s work.” Travis attempts to call their attention to the dog’s dark side: “He’s a thief, Ma! He’ll steal us blind!”
Travis contrives a test to prove Yeller’s unworthiness. That night, he deliberately hangs a side of “middlin’ meat” low enough for the dog to steal, and leaves him alone with it outside. He tells the dog, “You touch a bite of this meat and, come morning, I’m gonna shoot you right between the eyes.” (Travis will, of course, have to shoot Yeller before the film is over. It is the law of bad karma in Disney films that what one wishes for, one eventually gets.)
Next comes a scene of excruciating psychological torment, excruciating to the fictional dog and to the audience who, through a brilliant use of Kuleshov-style cutting, is forced to identify with him. We see the dog looking at the meat with hungry eyes. Cut to the meat swinging slowly back and forth. Cut to the dog watching in close-up. Cut to the meat, still swinging. Cut to the dog, settling his head between his paws. Fade to black.
Dissolve to sunrise. Travis grabs his gun, opens the door, and lo and behold, the meat is still there. Yeller has passed the test. “He didn’t touch the venison,” says omniscient Ma, “he’s too smart for that.”
Travis grows to love the dog as he proves himself in combat against various animal adversaries. (Old Yeller was one of the first of Disney’s live-action features, and new animals enter the storyline every two or three minutes as if to make up for the absence of cartoon characters.) First, the dog shows his mettle in defiance of a grizzly bear who charges in anger when she catches Arliss playing with one of her cubs. As a reward for rescuing Arliss, the dog is allowed to sleep indoors with the boys. Says Travis, “He’s a heap more dog than I ever had him figured for.”
At this point, two new human characters arrive on the scene: Mr. Searcy and his daughter, Elizabeth. Mr. Searcy, whose name suggests Circe, the sorceress who transformed men into swine, is fairly swinish himself. He cons Ma into fixing him a free meal, and tells Travis how to catch and brand wild boar by roping them from a tree limb. His daughter, who appears to do all the work in the Searcy household, speaks with Travis alone. It is clear she has a crush on him. Elizabeth warns Travis that the dog is the “varmint” (spoken of by her father) who has been stealing meat and eggs from the neighboring farms, but she promises not to tell anyone because Yeller is also the father of the puppies soon to be delivered by Elizabeth’s dog, Miss Priss. The coy treatment of sexuality in this sequence has a queasy, barnyard quality, consistent with most of Disney’s films from Bambi through The Parent Trap.
Despite what we know of his thieving (which is never shown onscreen), Yeller has become almost too perfect. And because he is so perfect, the audience experiences throughout the film a nagging anxiety that somehow he will be taken away. Beginning with Elizabeth’s warning about the neighboring farmers (who would shoot the dog for thievery), each scene is constructed around a situation in which the relationship between the dog and the family might be sundered. A stranger (Chuck Connors) shows up on the farm asking about an old, lop-eared dog. Yeller, as it turns out, was his dog, but after Arliss goes into hysterics, the kindly stranger allows the family to keep him.
The stranger’s real plot function is to take Travis aside and warn him about the plague — hydrophobia — sweeping the countryside. Hydrophobia is Old Yeller’s “other,” a mysterious force from outside, like the vampirism and werewolfism of horror films, or the atomic radiation of ‘50s sci-fi. And, as all viewers familiar with these movies know, any entity unfortunate enough to come in contact with the “other” runs the risk of becoming (gasp) a monster.
In the next sequence, Travis and Yeller go hunting for wild boar. Following the advice of Mr. Searcy, Travis seats himself on a tree limb and attempts to lasso the hogs with a rope. But the advice backfires, the branch breaks, and Travis falls into the midst of the enraged herd. This gives Yeller another opportunity to prove his courage as a rescuer. But the boy and the dog are both badly mangled. Travis seals the wounded dog in a cave and rides home for help.
Later, after the boy and the dog have had their wounds sewn up by Ma, and they are both recovering at home, Mr. Searcy makes his second appearance. He is full of gossip about the “hydrophobee” and suggests that one of the boars that bit Travis and Yeller might have been infected. He talks about a man, infected by hydrophobia, who “chained himself to a sweet gum tree, and died of the slobberin’ fits.” (This is described vividly enough to give any child nightmares.) The mise-en-scene is very dark at this point, and will remain so until the film’s conclusion. A few nights later, the old cow that Travis and Yeller had tamed earlier in the film comes staggering into the farmyard, obviously suffering from hydrophobia. Travis shoots the cow. Then he and Ma burn its carcass in a huge bonfire so that it won’t get eaten by wild animals who might spread the infection. While the bonfire is burning outside, Travis and his little brother have a brief discussion about death; Arliss wants to know if cows go to heaven. Suddenly there is a scream. A rabid wolf has entered the farmyard, threatening Ma and Elizabeth (whose father left her behind, it seems, for the purpose of appearing in terrified or tearful reaction shots). Yeller once again leaps to the rescue. Travis shoots the wolf, but not before the dog himself is bitten.
Ma wants to put Yeller out of his misery right away, but Travis protests: “We can’t just shoot him like he was nothing!” Travis devises another trial. (It is part of the film’s dream logic that the dog is sometimes the child having to constantly prove himself, and sometimes the good/bad father figure.) They will imprison the dog in the corn crib, and if after a few weeks he fails to show signs of disease, they’ll let him out.
Yeller is fine at first. But inevitably the terrible transformation occurs. Travis walks into the barn at night (of course), and the dog, his face crossed with shadows, snarls at him as if he were an enemy. In one of the film’s most expressive shots, Travis, in close-up, closes the barn door, the door gradually obscuring his face, a perfect visual metaphor for his denial/refusal to admit what has become of his beloved pet. Travis’s not telling his family what he has seen results in near-disaster. Arliss, who can’t wait any longer, almost releases the rabid dog. In a scene played almost entirely in reaction shots (first Travis, then Travis’s finger on the trigger, then the anxious womenfolk, then Travis again), Travis shoots Yeller. The concluding shot of the sequence places the woman in the background against a barn wall, frame-left, while in the background, frame-right, Travis walks away from the camera into the dark and night.
The very next shot, reversing its predecessor, shows the return of the father, ridingtoward us out of the background, frame-right, on a bright sunlit day. What these images tell us is that Old Yeller and the father are alter-egos, or — more accurately — that it is the destruction of the Bad Father (the rabid Old Yeller) that allows the Good Father to return. The film operates like a dream in which Dad, Yeller, Mr. Searcy, and the Kindly Stranger, are interchangeable symbols for one another. The fear of transformation that informs this film (and Walt Disney’s work in general) is a fear of child abuse, specifically a fear of that traumatic moment when the beloved good parent turns into the abusive bad parent. Disney’s biographers have reported how Walt’s farmer father used to beat him regularly with a leather strap. Similarly, the recurring images of imprisonment in Old Yeller (the cave, the corn crib) and other Disney films (the wooden puppet cages and “donkey” crates of Pinocchio) can probably be traced to traumatic incidents in Disney’s rural childhood.
But Old Yeller isn’t just about child abuse; it is child abuse, as any number of viewers who saw it in their youth can attest. Disney was unquestionably one of the most gifted storytellers in the medium, but far too often his storytelling gifts were used to make child viewers experience vicariously the same horrors and losses that had traumatized him. I wouldn’t take a sensitive child to Old Yeller any more than I would deny that child the experience of Fantasia. Yet in most of Disney’s best work, e.g., Pinocchio, the brilliantly imaginative and the disturbingly horrific coexist. Which is perhaps why my generation has never lost its fascination with good Walt/bad Walt and his cinematic progeny.
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Old Yeller: A Survivor Speaks
By Eugenia Blackiston
I didn’t care for birthday parties anyway, but they were obligatory in Clarke County, so there I was in the Royal Theater, Winchester, Virginia, with a little troupe of classmates, watching Old Yeller. There was, for me, just one marginal kindred spirit in our group — the others were all, at the time, alien consciousnesses.
I don’t remember the movie, except for the yellowish-brown colors — the dog? the dirt? I only recall the convulsive grief, the crushing sense of injustice, and the fact that I was too far gone even to worry about withholding my state from the little aliens.
But how much would happier circumstances have helped? I can envision only one situation in which showing this picture to children would not be a moral crime of magnitude — if older kids were involved in helping to create a case against the film, with copious stoppings and startings and note-takings, spotting exactly where and how they were being set up and manipulated into believing in an implacable, malevolent, and incomprehensible universe against which no conscious entity could prevail.