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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.