Old Yeller (1957)

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If you’re into live-action Disney, then you definitely know the name, Tommy Kirk. Having started out his Disney career as Joe Hardy in a The Hardy Boys serial for The Mickey Mouse Club, Tommy Kirk later went on to star in a number of theatrical and TV films for Disney. Some of these include The Shaggy Dog, Babes in Toyland, and The Misadventures or Merlin Jones. He would act in other non-Disney films later on in his career (most notably in a number of beach party films), but his fame would always be tied to his work for Disney.

Sadly though, on September 28, 2021, Tommy Kirk passed away at the age of 79. To pay tribute to him, I decided to watch and review the very first Disney film that he acted in (and one that I’m surprised nobody up to this point has requested me to review): the beloved classic, Old Yeller! Directed by Robert Stevenson and based on the book by Fred Gipson, this is a film that has made its mark in cinematic history if only for its unforgettable ending! Heck, if you’ve never seen the film before, you already know how this film ends. Without further ado, here’s my review of Disney’s Old Yeller!

And remember, SPOILERS AHEAD!

As the opening credits roll, we’re treated to the Old Yeller theme song sung by Jerome Courtland.

We’re then introduced to the Coates family, a simple family living in Western America in the 1860s. Jim Coates, played by Fess Parker, is heading to Kansas to earn some cash money for the family leaving behind his wife and two kids.

“Probably more like an hour and 20 minutes!”

Katie, played by Dorothy McGuire, is sad to see her husband leave, but knows that it’s for the best and that he’ll return sooner than she knows it.

Wait, so was this before or after he married Darling in Lady and the Tramp?

She does her best to take care of her sons, older Travis, played by the late Tommy Kirk, and younger Arliss, played by Kevin Corcoran. A lot of the responsibility of the house and farm falls on Travis’ shoulders while his father’s away. While plowing the fields one day, he meets the stray dog, Old Yeller, played by Spike, for the first time. Old Yeller upsets Travis’ mule resulting in a chaotic sequence. This angers Travis and he drives Old Yeller off their land.

Sheesh, that’s some foreboding foreshadowing right there!

This doesn’t stop Old Yeller from returning though. One time he even eats the meat that Travis has left outside further enraging Travis. Before Travis can do something drastic, Arliss claims Old Yeller as his own. Katie tells Travis to let Arliss have the dog since he needs someone to play with as the age gap between Travis and Arliss is quite big. Travis relents, but still hates the sight of Old Yeller.

Sheesh, this foreshadowing is hard-hitting!

The hatred doesn’t last too long though as Travis learns to respect and admire Old Yeller when he doesn’t touch anymore meat that Travis has left outside and when he saves Arliss from a bear attack. One day, the Coates receive uninvited guests in the form of “big-talker, less-worker” Bud Searcy, played by Jeff York, and his daughter, Elizabeth, played by Beverly Washburn. While Bud is helping himself to some of Katie’s cooking, Elizabeth tells Travis that Old Yeller is a thieving dog that has stolen eggs and other things from other farmers in the area. Travis is more determined than ever to protect Old Yeller.

Sheesh, can this foreshadowing be more on the nose?

Old Yeller continues to help the Coates, chasing pest raccoons off their land and helping Travis with an ornery mother cow. It’s not long after until the Coates receive another unexpected guest.

We all thought that.

No, this guest turns out to be a cattleman named Burn Sanderson, played by Chuck Connors. He heard from Bud Searcy about Old Yeller and came to claim him as Old Yeller was his dog before going missing. The Coates are devastated to give Old Yeller up, especially Arliss. When Mr. Sanderson sees how much the dog means to them, he lets them keep Old Yeller. Before leaving, he warns Travis about an epidemic of rabies (called “hydrophobia” in the film) that seems to be spreading rapidly amongst the animals in the area. The symptoms only appear when it’s too late and the only solution is to put the animal to sleep when that happens.

The next day, Travis gets injured when trying to brand some pigs, but Old Yeller protects him from being attacked by some of the pigs. Old Yeller himself gets injured in the process. Travis gets his mom to help bring Old Yeller back home safely to treat their wounds. Bud Searcy comes over the next day to pay a visit to the injured Travis and Old Yeller (as well as to get a free meal) and warns them of the spreading rabies epidemic.

If a movie ever got an award for foreshadowing…

Later that night, the Coates’ cow starts to behave erratically. They realize that she’s infected with rabies leaving Travis no choice but to shoot it, an action Arliss doesn’t quite understand.

Kid’s got a good question there!

Bud has left Elizabeth with the family to help out while Travis heals. When Katie and Elizabeth go out that night to burn the cow’s body, a wolf appears out of nowhere. After hearing the women scream, Travis rushes outside with his rifle in hand. Old Yeller is also there protecting the family from the attacking wolf. Travis manages to shoot the wolf dead, but not before the wolf bites Old Yeller. Katie realizes that the reason the wolf attacked was that it was infected with rabies and now Old Yeller might be too and would need to be put down. Travis refuses to believe this and they decide to keep Old Yeller in quarantine for about two weeks just to be sure he isn’t infected.

For most of the two weeks everything seems fine, but at the tail end of the fortnight, Old Yeller starts to behave erratically. It’s clear to Travis that Old Yeller has rabies, but he doesn’t want to believe it. When Arliss is almost attacked by Old Yeller though, Travis knows what he has to do. Travis, with tears in his eyes, takes his rifle, aims it at Old Yeller, and pulls the trigger resulting in the most famous ending in film history probably.

No, I never cried at this scene. Yes, I have no heart.

Not long after, Jim Coates returns home.

“Did I miss anything?”

He’s elated to see his family as they are him. Katie tells Jim all about Old Yeller and Jim does his best to console Travis. He praises Travis on how he handled the situation. Yes, it was a sad thing to do, but it was the necessary thing to do. Old Yeller may no longer be there in person, but his memory will be in Travis’ heart forever. All that’s left to do is move forward. It’s a touching life lesson. Travis knows all this to be true and accepts it. Fortunately, Old Yeller fathered a few puppies before passing away, so the Coates will find happiness again in one of the puppies.

And that was Old Yeller! What can I say that hasn’t been said before? It’s a classic film and one of Disney’s best! It’s a wonderful, powerful coming-of-age film, a genre of film that I’m not particularly fond of. I love the pacing in this film as no scene felt too long or too short; each scene’s length felt just right! The theme song is also really fun to listen and sing along to! Tommy Kirk gave probably the best acting performance of his career in this film! Dorothy McGuire, Jeff York, and Fess Parker were also pretty good. Kevin Corcoran was pretty much the same character we expect of him and I wasn’t fond of Beverly Washburn’s acting although she was trying.

I don’t really have anything much negative to say about this film. Check it out if you haven’t already!

So, my final score for this film is 32/35 = 91.43% (A-) !

The next review will be posted on October 26, 2021.

6 thoughts on “Old Yeller (1957)

  1. Kevin Corcoran died long before Tommy Kirk, passing away in 2015 at age 66. I heard the 2 of them in 1 of 2 commentaries on the DVD release of “The Shaggy Dog”. Tim Considine & Roberta Shore did a different commentary on the same film, and the commentary track switched between both commentaries.
    I’ve never seen “Old Yeller”, mainly because I know how it ends & don’t care much for sad movies. I suppose the film had a few light-hearted moments though.

      1. Yes, not long after reading this review, I found your “Shaggy Dog” review which you posted just after Kevin’s death, and you gave him a good tribute.

  2. I would say I almost didn’t cry at the ending, either, mainly because…I did not like, nor care much for this family. They are fine, I suppose, and I liked Travis, but the mom was just contemporary wife, and Arliss…..hoo boy Arliss….if I were Travis, I would have directed that rifle towards him lmao. But as soon as that scene started, it’s like the tap in my eyes automatically opened up, I couldn’t help it.

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