This week, I bring you an animal edition of Maudlin Monday. I can be deeply moved by films about wars or tragic romances, but few things disturb me greater than stories about innocent, loving animals that lose their lives. Animals have brought me so much joy in life, whether I’m running in the yard with my happy-go-lucky dog or cuddling with my affectionate cat. It is my sincere belief that if everyone had an adoring pet in their lives, the world would be a much better place. There have been so many touching films about animals–The Adventures of Milo and Otis (1989), The Fox and the Hound (1981), The Three Lives of Thomasina (1963)–but none demonstrates the loyalty and friendship shared between human and animal quite like Disney’s 1957 film Old Yeller.
The story begins with a Texas frontier family whose father, Jim (Fess Parker), leaves Travis (Tommy Kirk), his oldest son, in charge of the farm and home as he goes to drive cattle. Travis is a young boy who takes on the responsibility of protecting and caring for his younger brother Arliss (Kevin Corcoran) and their mother, Katie, played by the beautiful and serene Dorothy McGuire. As Jim says his goodbyes to his family, his son reminds him that he wants a horse.
Travis: “Now, Papa, you know I been achin’ all over for a horse to ride. Now I told you time and again.”
Papa: “What you’re needin’ worse than a horse is a good dog.”
Travis: “Yessir, but what I’m wantin’ worse is a horse.”
Papa: “Alright boy, you act a man’s part, and I’ll bring you a man’s horse.”
The father has not even been gone more than a day when Old Yeller shows up on the family farm causing trouble. He frightens Jumper the mule while Travis is plowing the field, which causes the mule to drag Travis and knock down the fence. Old Yeller has unknowingly made himself an enemy. Travis is convinced that the dog will be nothing but trouble: “I know one thing: that old dog better not come around here while I got me a gun in my hands!”
When younger brother Arliss meets the dog, he instantly falls in love with the prospect of a new friend. Mama scolds Travis, explaining to him that his younger brother is lonely without a companion to entertain him. She reminds him that he had a dog when he was Arliss’s age.
Younger brother Arliss and Old Yeller become inseparable. Yeller becomes the boy’s companion, swimming, hunting, and even fishing with him.
The faithful dog dives into the pond to catch a fish for Arliss. Arliss thanks the dog, and then proceeds to tell his mother that he was the one who caught the fish in a fantastic tale:
Arliss: “Mama, Mama, look at this fish that I got; ain’t he a whopper?! … I had to dive way down deep under to catch this fish. He was way down deep under … there was this cave and it was real dark and muddy. And there was about a million other fish, and they all tried to eat me! And I had to throw rocks at’ em, and then there was these two big snakes …”
Travis: “Mama, you know them is just big windies Arliss was tellin’.”
Mama: “Now, Travis, let him tell his stories the way he wants to.”
Travis: “But Mama, I just seen that old yellow dog catch this fish.”
Mama: “Arliss is just a little boy with a big imagination. Won’t hurt him to let him use it.”
Travis: “We keep that old yellow dog much longer and it’s going to make Arliss the biggest liar in Texas!”
Travis is not a fan of the dog, believing him to be a bad influence on his younger brother. But Travis finally changes his mind about the dog when Yeller saves Arliss from an angry mother bear. Arliss tempts a young cub with bread, then attempts to capture it. The mother bear hears the cub calling for help and comes charging toward the small boy. Although Travis and the mother come running to Arliss’s aid, it doesn’t seem like it would have gone well for the child had his courageous dog not intervened and fought off the mother bear.
Once Travis realized the dog’s bravery in defending Arliss, he allows the dog to begin sleeping in bed with him and his brother. Unfortunately, it isn’t long after the event that Travis learns from a neighbor, Elizabeth Searcy, that Yeller is indeed the thief that he originally believed him to be. She explains that she has seen Yeller stealing food from her family, but she promises not to tell on him.
Elizabeth: “I didn’t want to tell you at the house … but it was him what done it …what stole all the eggs and bread and meat and stuff … I seen him swipe a pan of grandma’s cornbread, too. But I ain’t gonna tell.”
Travis: “I bet you do.”
Elizabeth: “No, I won’t. Wasn’t goin’ to, even before I knowed it was your dog.”
Travis: “How come?”
Elizabeth: “Because Miss Priss is gonna have pups, and your dog will be their papa, and I wouldn’t want him to get shot for stealin’.”
Elizabeth Searcy isn’t the only person who has heard of Old Yeller’s thievery. At one point, the dog’s former owner comes to claim him. He tells the family that although the dog robs everyone blind, he’s great help to him. Arliss refuses to allow the stranger to take Old Yeller back, throwing rocks at him and demanding that he leave the dog. Luckily for the family, the man is kind and allows Arliss to keep Old Yeller, trading him a toad and a warm meal.
The kind Mr. Sanderson warns Travis that he has seen multiple cases of hydrophobia (rabies) in the region. He instructs Travis that he will have to act quickly in killing any animal that he suspects is infected.
One day, Travis and Old Yeller go on a mission to mark the Coates family hogs. Old Yeller does a fantastic job herding the hogs for Travis, but when Travis falls from a tree, he is viciously attacked by one of the hogs. The hog rips his leg to the bone, but Old Yeller comes running to save him. Travis is able to get away, but poor Old Yeller is injured even worse. The family nurses the pair back to health, and Old Yeller has once again successfully saved a member of the Coates family.
It isn’t long before Old Yeller has saved every single member of the Coates family. While Mama and Elizabeth are standing next to a fire, burning the carcass of the rabies-infected family cow, they are jumped by a rabid wolf. Luckily for the women, Old Yeller comes to their defense. Travis is able to shoot the wolf, but not before it has bitten and scratched Old Yeller repeatedly. Mama believes that no healthy, sane wolf would have attacked them, and therefore she fears that they will have to kill Old Yeller, as he is likely to have been infected as well.
Mama: “I’ll shoot him if you can’t, but either way we’ve got it to do.”
Travis: “Mama, listen, Old Yeller just saved your life, and Elizabeth too, and he saved mine and Arliss’s. We can’t; we don’t know for certain. I’ll pen him up where he can’t get out, and then we’ll wait. We can’t just shoot him like he was nothin’! Don’t you understand?”
Mama: “Alright, son, if you think there’s a chance.”
After two weeks of keeping Old Yeller penned up, he shows no signs of the suspected infection. The family is hopeful that he is not suck. But a few days from when the family plans to release him from his dog prison, Travis brings Yeller some food, only to discover the dog growling maliciously. Travis tries to deny to himself and his family that the dog is ill, but when young Arliss sneaks out at night to try to set the dog free, the family is forced to confront the heartbreaking situation. Mama gets the gun, knowing what painful but necessary event must unfold.
Travis: “No, Mama.”
Mama: “There’s no hope for him now, Travis. He’s sufferin’. You know we’ve got to do it.”
Travis: “I know, Mama, but he was my dog. I’ll do it.”
With a single blow from the shotgun, Old Yeller is gone, and a young boy is devastated.
Following the heart-wrenching scene is a happy reunion, as Mr. Coates returns to his family bearing gifts and affection. His wife relates the story of Old Yeller’s impact on their family, and the father attempts to comfort his grieving son with a speech about loss:
“That was rough, son … but I’m mighty proud of how my boy stood up to it. Couldn’t ask no more of a grown man … Life’s like that sometimes. Now and then, for no good reason a man can figure out, life will just haul off and knock him flat, slamming him in the ground so hard it seems like all his insides are busted. But it’s not all like that. A lot of it’s mighty fine, and you can’t afford to waste the good part frettin’ about the bad. That makes it all bad. You understand what I’m tryin’ to get at? … When you start lookin’ around for somethin’ good to take the place of the bad, as a general rule, you can find it.”
Old Yeller is as maudlin as they come, demanding tears from all viewers, young or old. This was one of my favorite films as a child, and it is no less moving to me today than it was all those years ago. It teaches children about the importance of responsibility, about losing those we love, and about loyalty. It’s one of the saddest movies ever produced, but definitely one of the most important, in my humble opinion.