Sunday 7 September 2008

Old Yeller (1957)

This didn't happen deliberately but there's a certain something in play that has me follow up last night's screening of Cannibal Holocaust at Chandler Cinemas with all its disturbing animal killing footage with Old Yeller, the granddaddy of all saccharine Disney kids and animals movies. Old Yeller is the 'best doggone dog in the west' according to the song that accompanies the title credits, but you wouldn't believe that from his first appearance. He chases a rabbit right through Travis Coates's corn patch, scaring Jumper in the process. Jumper is the mule who runs off and promptly wipes out half the fence. Like any good American boy, Travis wants to shoot him.

Travis is the eldest son of a wild west homesteading family in Texas. Pop is Jim Coates but he gets one soppy goodbye scene before heading off to join a cattle drive for a few months to raise some much needed money. He's played by Fess Parker, not that we see much of him. Mom is the sort of hardworking but happy and wise pillar of strength mother that usually gets played by Dorothy McGuire, and sure enough that's who Disney got for the part. Even though it's these adult actors who get the lead credits, the film is really about the kids and the animals.

Cast for the first time together as a pair of lively kids are Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran, who were so memorable together. Kirk was the elder of the two, the one who got into whatever trouble the film called for but all in the line of duty. Here he's effectively the man of the family while his pop is away and so he takes care of anything that needs to get taken care of: fetching food, marking hogs, killing rabid cattle and on up to the tearful finale with Old Yeller. He's aready taken on ownership of Old Yeller once he realised how useful he is. Before then he's young Arliss's dog.

Arliss is Corcoran's character. He was always the little pipsqueak who fetches home all sorts of odd little critters and is always asking dumb questions ('Ain't there no cows in heaven for the angels to milk?'). He also gets into all the dumb scrapes that headstrong young kids get into, like catching bear cubs by their hind legs or nearly let out rabid dogs. His character was always the comic relief that grounded Kirk's character and the pair of them worked very well indeed together. That's why the pair of them would go on to another five films, including Swiss Family Robinson, which reunited them both with Dorothy McGuire. The other four were The Shaggy Dog, Babes in Toyland, Bon Voyage! and Savage Sam.

We also have Jeff York, Chuck Connors and Beverly Washburn, but it's all about the rite of passage that Tommy Kirk goes through, that and the kids and the animals. This is the sort of thing that made Disney what it is today, not just an animation factory but the de facto place to go for anything to do with children, animals and sentimentality. This sort of thing is therefore what we can blame for starting the downward trail to saccharine nothingness in Hollywood, but at this point in time they were doing it pretty damn well and it stands up a lot better than The Shaggy Dog. No wonder this one's a legend. It's also a rite of passage in itself for at least one generation of Americans.

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