Disney’s Old Yeller: The classic movie about the best doggone dog in the west (1958)

Note: This article may feature affiliate links, and purchases made may earn us a commission at no extra cost to you. Find out more here.

Disney's Old Yeller movie 1957-1958

Note: This article may feature affiliate links to Amazon or other companies, and purchases made via these links may earn us a small commission at no additional cost to you. Find out more here.

Remember why Walt Disney’s 1950s movie “Old Yeller” was one of those classic ‘boy and his dog’ movies — family entertainment made with kids in mind, but that could bring a tear to anyone’s eye.

Old Yeller: A Walt Disney saga about a dog

Adapted from a movie review by Hope Pantell – The Evening Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) February 8, 1958

WALT DISNEY has another likely winner for the moppet and family trade in “Old Yeller.”

It certainly won’t do for sophisticates, but it is a sentimental, homey sort of story told in a homey, simple way that should prove to have wide appeal.

Old Yeller, the “best doggone dog in the West,” is a flop-eared nondescript-looking yellow pooch, who is also a bit of a rascal of the lovable variety.

Tommy Kirk - Old Yeller (1958)

He first makes his appearance on the scene chasing a rabbit across the property of a pioneering family in Texas sometime after the Civil War.

Texas pioneer Fess Parker has to ride off for four months to herd his cattle up the Texas trail to market. Young Tommy Kirk becomes the man of the family, staunch at the side of worried mama Dorothy McGuire.

The situation worries little Kevin Corcoran not at all. Life for him is a constant search for horney toads, frogs, garter snakes, and splashing in a nearby pond.

Vintage Old Yeller movie scenes from the 1950s (2)

Old Yeller shows up as a stray dog, chases Tommy Kirk’s mule, uproots half the corn, and rips down the garden fence.

Good old Yeller hangs around, nevertheless, and soon proves his value. Among other things, he is faithful, smart and brave.

Neighboring rancher Chuck Connors comes to claim Old Yeller, but Kevin’s sorrowful face saves the day.

ALSO SEE: Classic Walt Disney Home Video VHS movies & short collections from the ’80s & ’90s

Chuck Connors in Old Yeller movie

Old Yeller enters into the pioneer family chores. He sleeps with Tommy Kirk in the young corn patch, and together they chase the rogue raccoons away. It takes a fast-moving rabbit to elude Old Yeller.

In the course of the film, he fights a bear, a rabid wolf, chases off a pack of corn-stealing raccoons, and such-like varmints. On at least one occasion, he saves his young master’s life by fending off some mean wild boars — and gets badly chewed up in the process.

MORE: Owney: How the world’s most famous dog traveled the globe (1890s)

Based on a story by Fred Gipson, “Old Yeller” has attractive scenery, photographed in color, and features shots of various animals, photographed in good Disney fashion. The slow-moving plot works up to quite a tear-jerking climax.

Much credit for the film’s appeal should go to a couple of youngsters, Tommy Kirk, 15, and Kevin Corcoran, 7, as the two brothers of the family.

Vintage Old Yeller movie scenes from the 1950s (4)

The older has been left in charge of things while Pappy goes off on a long business trip. The younger is at a lively, rambunctious age and is quite endearing.

Dorothy Maguire is their mother, and Fess Parker shows up in the opening and final reels as the father.

Old Yeller is portrayed by a star named Spike. He does a right fine job, too. Lassie had better look out for her (or his) laurels.

Shots of woodland creatures, scenes of the countryside, and the Davey Crockett kind of guitar-and-background music characterize “Old Yeller,” a real experience to see.


Dog days for Disney’s little gray home in the West

The San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California) January 12, 1958

A MOST depressing comment on the times came last week from the people who produced “Old Yeller,” new Buena Vista (Walt Disney) outdoor action film.

At the risk of divesting the picture of all its enchantment, the studio announced that the log cabin homestead in and around which the story unfolds cost a cool $30,000 to construct.

Very few pioneers could win the West at those prices, so it seems just as well that all that sort of thing was taken care of during the 19th century.

“Old Yeller,” which is due at the Fox sometime in February, is about a dog of that name.

ALSO SEE: Vintage dog food: 40 old ads let you see what’s changed (and hasn’t) over the years

In fact, the movie is alive with animals and birds — so many that the bill for their services came to $40,000, and the feathered and four-legged band was only outnumbered by the corps of handlers, trainers, veterinarians and a platoon-sized delegation from the American Humane Association.

Vintage Old Yeller movie scenes from the 1950s (1)

NEW THEME

If you are leery of dog movies with all their usually garish sentimentality, their canine heroes that can do everything but boil a three-minute egg, the makers of “Ol Yeller” appear to have steered a course free from these impediments.

While the action turns about two boys and the dog, the story is really focused upon the maturing of the elder youngster, Travis Coates (played by 15-year-old Tommy Kirk, a former member of Disney’s televised Mickey Mouse Club).

The act of growing up is a serious one that has provided dramatic fodder for such diverse writers as Ernest Hemingway (whose two much-anthologized short stories “The Killers” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” were based on this theme — also became ration pictures) and Fred Gipson.

Old Yeller movie poster

BASED ON FACT

The latter is the author of the novel, “Old Yeller,” and a gentleman who — with William Tunberg — wrote the screenplay.

Gipson describes the story as fiction based on fact. “My grandfather,” said the writer, “owned a big yellow stray dog who could throw wild range cattle and who once rescued him from a meat-eating hog. Out of these and other true incidents. I wrote the story of Old Yeller.”

ALSO SEE: The amazing Annie Oakley: Meet the legendary American sharpshooter from the old West

The Coates family — settlers on the Texas frontier in the 1880s — consists, in the movie, of Dorothy McGuire and Fess (“Great Locomotive Chase”) Parker, young Kirk, and seven-year-old Kevin Corcoran, also a former Mouseketeer.

Dorothy McGuire and Tommy Kirk in Old Yeller (1957)
DOROTHY McGUIRE, Tommy Kirk and Spike, who plays the title role in the Walt Disney production of “Old Yeller.”

ACTING TALENT

Spike, the Old Yeller of the title, is a 115-pound mongrel that was discovered in a Van Nuys dog pound in 1953 by Hollywood dog trainer Frank Weatherwax. 

“He was all head and feet, but he looked smart,” says Weatherwax of the then-month-old pup. “I thought he might make an actor, so I bailed him out for three dollars.”

The dog’s roughneck appearance and heavyweight build, which had detracted from his appeal in earlier trials, were just what Disney was looking for.

In a group of competitive screen tests, Spike displayed his talents, out acted a dozen other canine aspirants, and trotted off with the meatiest movie dog assignment since “Lassie Come Home.”



Family movie review: Old Yeller (with spoilers)

Adapted from a review in Family Circle – February 1958

It’s a story of a boy and his dog — one of the warmest of human themes. And it will wrench a tear from almost anyone who ever loved a little boy or a nondescript dynamo of a tail-wagging hound-dog.

“Old Yeller” is mostly for the older youngsters. In it, Walt Disney’s latest “live” hero is an “ugly lop-eared mongrel,” played by a dog named Spike, and right at the start he moves in on Texas-settler Fess Parker; his wife, Dorothy McGuire; and their two young sons, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran.

When Old Yeller, chasing a jackrabbit, wrecks a row of fences, Tommy chases the pooch away.

But Old Yeller returns to (1) save Kevin from an angry mother bear, (2) rout raccoons from the corn, (3) round up stray cows and stop a charging one, (4) save Tommy from wild hogs, and (5) fight off a wolf. 

Vintage Old Yeller movie scenes from the 1950s (3)

Hydrophobia finally lays Old Yeller low, but by now there is a Young Yeller.

Fess Parker comes home with some realistic advice: Son, life is bad times and good times. When something bad comes along and knocks us flat, we’ve just got to get up and look around for something good to take its place.


Vintage Old Yeller movie trailer (1957)

If you liked this, please share it! Our small business appreciates it. :-) You can also get our free newsletter, follow us on Facebook & Pinterest, plus see exclusive retro-inspired products in our shop. Thanks for visiting!

More stories you might like

Because the fun never ends

Comments on this story

Leave a comment here!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Choose your next adventure