Old Yeller


1h 23m 1958
Old Yeller

Brief Synopsis

A frontier boy develops close ties with a yellow dog.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
G
Genre
Drama
Adaptation
Release Date
Jan 1958
Premiere Information
Los Angeles and New York opening: 25 Dec 1957
Production Company
Walt Disney Productions
Distribution Company
Buena Vista Film Distribution Co., Inc.
Country
United States
Location
Southern California, USA; Lake Sherwood, California, United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel Old Yeller by Fred Gipson (New York, 1956).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 23m
Sound
Mono (RCA Sound System)
Color
Color (Technicolor)
Film Length
9 reels

Synopsis

During 1869 in Texas, rancher Jim Coates prepares to leave his wife Katie and their two sons, teenaged Travis and young Arliss, for a four-month cattle drive. After Katie bids him a tearful goodbye, Jim tells Travis that he must now assume responsibility as man of the household, promising to reward him with a horse upon his return. The next day, Travis is working the small corn field with the family mule when a stray dog chases a rabbit into the field. The mule, spooked, rears and runs, ruining the crops and felling the fence. Travis is furious with the dog, and grows even more angry that night when the mongrel eats some of their meat. Despite Travis' attempt to beat the dog, which he dubs "Old Yeller," Arliss falls in love with the mutt and Katie, who hopes the dog will protect the small boy, welcomes Old Yeller into the family. The next afternoon, returning home with a deer for dinner, Travis spots Old Yeller in the drinking-water pond and throws stones at him, prompting Arliss to attack his brother and Travis to dislike the dog even more. That night, the boy hangs the venison low in an attempt to entice Old Yeller into stealing it, so he can banish the dog the next day. He is shocked when Old Yeller spends the night guarding the meat without touching it. Later, Arliss traps a bear cub, and when the mother bear charges the boy, Travis and Katie witness Old Yeller leap to his protection, fighting off the much larger animal. That night, Travis, finally impressed with the dog, allows him into the boys's bed. Soon after, neighbor Bud Searcy visits with his daughter Lisbeth, who has a crush on Travis. Katie tolerates Searcy despite his extreme laziness and tendency to brag, offering him dinner when he refuses to leave. While helping Travis pick corn, Lisbeth reveals that she saw Old Yeller stealing food from neighboring farms, but will never report the dog because he has impregnated her dog, Miss Priss. Pleased, Travis gives Lisbeth an arrowhead, which she treasures, and determines to keep Old Yeller with him at all times, to prevent the dog from stealing. That night, he sleeps out in the field with Old Yeller, hoping to catch the raccoons that have been eating the corn. Travis falls asleep while thinking of his father, but wakes to see Old Yeller faithfully chasing off a raccoon family. In the morning, Katie informs the boy that their cow, Rose, is missing and has probably given birth in the hills. Travis and Old Yeller set off to find the cow, but when Travis discovers the newborn calf and tries to carry it, Rose charges him, prompting Old Yeller to knock her over until she calms. At home, Travis attempts to break the cow, but cannot until Rose spots Old Yeller and becomes docile. Having proven his mettle beyond a doubt, Old Yeller becomes Travis' constant, devoted companion. One day, cowhand Burn Sanderson arrives, revealing that Old Yeller is his runaway dog. Although Travis is devastated, Katie knows she must let Burn take the dog. As he leaves, however, Arliss explodes in anger, throwing a rock that makes Burn's horse rear and throw him. Burn is at first angry but then takes Arliss on his knee and agrees to trade Old Yeller for one toad and a home-cooked meal, which Katie supplies with pleasure. Upon leaving, Burn informs Travis that a plague of hydrophobia, or rabies, is affecting local animals, with telltale signs that include staggering, viciousness and unprovoked attacks. Later, Travis takes Old Yeller, and they follow wild pig tracks until they find a herd. The dog ably corners the pigs, allowing Travis to climb a tree and swing a lasso down to rope one. When the pig falls, however, it pulls Travis down from the tree, where a boar bites into his leg. Old Yeller swiftly attacks the boar so Travis can run to safety, but the dog is severely wounded in the process. Travis hides the dog in a cave and limps home, where Katie dresses his wound and at first refuses to let him return to Old Yeller. When she sees her son's distress, however, she relents, and takes Travis by horseback to find the dog, who is already being circled by buzzards. Although Old Yeller's wounds are deep, she tends to him and brings both home to recuperate. Soon after, the Searcys visit. Lisbeth presents Travis with one of Old Yeller's puppies, but, unimpressed, he hurts her feelings by telling her to give the dog to Arliss. Searcy then informs Katie about the rabies plague, terrifying her that Travis may have been infected and prompting her to demand that Searcy leave. He does so, but leaves Lisbeth behind "to help." Days later, Travis is nearly recovered when Rose falls in a fit. Katie hopes it is a mere fever, but Travis recognizes the symptoms as those of rabies, and shoots the animal, after which Katie and Lisbeth burn the carcass. When a wolf attacks, their screams alert Travis, who runs outside with a gun and sees Old Yeller fighting off the wild animal. Travis is able to shoot the wolf, but not before it bites the dog, and Katie sadly informs him that the wolf, which attacked without provocation, was mad. At the boy's pleading, she agrees to keep Old Yeller penned for a few weeks to chart his progress, hoping he will remain unaffected. At first the dog seems healthy, but one night he growls viciously at Travis, who tries to hide the affliction from the family. When Arliss attempts to release Old Yeller, however, Katie closes the pen just in time and sees that the dog is ill. She prepares to shoot him, but Travis insists on handling the terrible chore himself. His rifle shaking, he finally manages to shoot his friend, putting him out of his misery. The next day, Jim returns home. After greeting an elated Katie and Arliss, he approaches Travis, advising his son to start looking for something good to take the place of the bad turn life has dealt him. Although Travis remains despondent, when the family retires for dinner, he notices Old Yeller's pup attempting to steal venison. Recognizing the puppy's strong resemblance to his father, Travis admires him for the first time, and in return the puppy licks his face joyfully.

Photo Collections

Old Yeller - Movie Poster
Here is the American one-sheet movie poster for Disney's Old Yeller (1957). One-sheets measured 27x41 inches, and were the poster style most commonly used in theaters.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
G
Genre
Drama
Adaptation
Release Date
Jan 1958
Premiere Information
Los Angeles and New York opening: 25 Dec 1957
Production Company
Walt Disney Productions
Distribution Company
Buena Vista Film Distribution Co., Inc.
Country
United States
Location
Southern California, USA; Lake Sherwood, California, United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel Old Yeller by Fred Gipson (New York, 1956).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 23m
Sound
Mono (RCA Sound System)
Color
Color (Technicolor)
Film Length
9 reels

Articles

Old Yeller


It's almost impossible to discuss Walt Disney's Old Yeller without jumping straight into a consideration of the 1957 film's third act raison d'etre – the death of the eponymous mongrel at the hands of his grief-stricken young owner (Tommy Kirk). Without this tragic turn of events, the story (based on a novel by Texas prairie writer Fred Gipson) would have made passable entertainment and still turned a profit for the Buena Vista Distribution Company without invalidating New York Times critic Bosley Crowther's assessment of it as "a nice, trim little family picture." With the inclusion of this unexpected and entirely horrific complication, the tale became legend – perhaps even a generational rite of passage. Stephen King might never have written Cujo had Old Yeller not become infected with rabies while protecting his adopted frontier family from an afflicted gray wolf; one of the best laugh lines in the 1981 military comedy Stripes is when loose cannon non-com Bill Murray rallies the troops with the truth-or-dare question "Who cried when Old Yeller got shot?" The twist in the wagging tail of Old Yeller has in the half century since its release become a pop cultural punch line for such sitcoms as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Friends (in which it is referred to as a "sick doggy snuff film"), while in the syndicated comic strip Garfield, the lasagna-loving, dog-hating fat cat praises the film's "happy" ending.

Love it or hate it, the death of Old Yeller is thematically consistent with Walt Disney product of the post-WWII era, in which traumatic turning points were key to the studio's aesthetic. Disney's brand of tough love meant that Bambi [1942] had to see his mother gunned down before his very eyes while Dumbo [1941] was torn from his own mother's embrace and sold into a kind of slavery and Pinocchio [1940] and his tearaway chums were turned into braying donkeys.

Some cultural critics have gone so far as to accuse Walt Disney of inflicting unnecessary trauma on a generation of innocents. In a 1993 issue of Bright Lights Film Journal, writer C. Jerry Kutner declared "Old Yeller isn't just about child abuse, it is child abuse." Yet none of the particulars cited to support this argument are Walt Disney's invention and come instead straight from the 1956 novel by Fred Gipson.

Born Frederick Benjamin Gipson in 1908 on a cotton farm in Mason, Texas, Gipson worked his way toward a journalism degree at the University of Texas at Austin as a goat driver. While writing cowboy short stories and novels, he toiled as a reporter for The Daily Texan, the San Angelo Standard-Times and The Denver Post, among other papers. Gipson published his first novel in 1946 - The Fabulous Empire: Colonel Zack Miller's Story - and had his first success three years later when Hound Dog Man was included in Doubleday's Book-of-the-Month Club. His novel Old Yeller was inspired by his maternal grandfather's recollections of frontier life, which included an anecdote of how the family's herding dog became infected with rabies and had to be put down with a musket round. Gipson traveled to Burbank to assist in Disney's adaptation and to bestow his blessing on the project but couldn't wait to quit the noise and congestion of Los Angeles for his native Mason, Texas, where he died in 1973.

Tightly constructed around a series of episodic vignettes and directed with a sure hand by Disney mainstay Robert Stevenson, Old Yeller was filmed at the 700 acre Golden Oak Ranch in the Santa Clarita Valley, thirty miles north of Disney. Utilizing a small cast (as one of the actors put it, "the only extras were chickens"), the film benefits from warm and winning performances by Fess Parker (whose screen time amounts to less than fifteen minutes), Dorothy McGuire, a pre-Rifleman Chuck Connors and gifted child actors Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran and Beverly Washburn. Kirk and Corcoran would play brothers in five films (among them Swiss Family Robinson [1960] and Old Yeller's 1963 sequel Savage Sam) but Kirk's promising career derailed after his homosexuality proved a deal-breaker for Disney. (An arrest for marijuana possession also caused Kirk to lose a choice role in The Sons of Katie Elder [1965].) More successful in transitioning to non-juvenile fare was Beverly Washburn, who went on to feature prominently in Jack Hill's cult classic Spider Baby (1968) and appear as a guest on a number of popular television series (Wagon Train, Star Trek, The Streets of San Francisco) through the next two decades. Purchased for three dollars from a Van Nuys animal shelter, the real star of Old Yeller was a yellow Black Mouth Cur that trainer Frank Weatherwax named Spike. Spike went on to appear in 20th-Century-Fox's 1960 remake of A Dog of Flanders, as well as on the short-lived NBC series The Westerner starring Brian Keith, and sired two more generations of animal actors.

Producer: Bill Anderson, Walt Disney
Director: Robert Stevenson
Screenplay: Fred Gipson, William Tunberg
Music: Oliver Wallace, Will Schaefer
Cinematography: Charles P. Boyle
Editing: Stanley E. Johnson
Art Direction: Carroll Clark
Cast: Dorothy McGuire (Katie Coates), Fess Parker (Jim Coates), Tommy Kirk (Travis Coates), Kevin Corcoran (Arliss Coates), Jeff York (Bud Searcy), Beverly Washburn (Lisbeth Searcy), Chuck Connors (Burn Sanderson), Spike (Old Yeller).
C-83m.

by Richard Harland Smith

SOURCES:
Fred Gipson biographical sketch, Harry Ransom Center/The University of Texas at Austin
Tommy Kirk interview by Kevin Minton, Filmfax No. 38, 1993
The Horror of Disney's Old Yeller by C. Jerry Kutner, Bright Lights Film Journal No. 11, 1993
Interviews with Fess Parker, Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, Beverly Washburn, T. Beck Gipson, Roy Edward Disney and Robert Weatherwax, Old Yeller: Remembering a Classic, 2002
Old Yeller

Old Yeller

It's almost impossible to discuss Walt Disney's Old Yeller without jumping straight into a consideration of the 1957 film's third act raison d'etre – the death of the eponymous mongrel at the hands of his grief-stricken young owner (Tommy Kirk). Without this tragic turn of events, the story (based on a novel by Texas prairie writer Fred Gipson) would have made passable entertainment and still turned a profit for the Buena Vista Distribution Company without invalidating New York Times critic Bosley Crowther's assessment of it as "a nice, trim little family picture." With the inclusion of this unexpected and entirely horrific complication, the tale became legend – perhaps even a generational rite of passage. Stephen King might never have written Cujo had Old Yeller not become infected with rabies while protecting his adopted frontier family from an afflicted gray wolf; one of the best laugh lines in the 1981 military comedy Stripes is when loose cannon non-com Bill Murray rallies the troops with the truth-or-dare question "Who cried when Old Yeller got shot?" The twist in the wagging tail of Old Yeller has in the half century since its release become a pop cultural punch line for such sitcoms as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Friends (in which it is referred to as a "sick doggy snuff film"), while in the syndicated comic strip Garfield, the lasagna-loving, dog-hating fat cat praises the film's "happy" ending. Love it or hate it, the death of Old Yeller is thematically consistent with Walt Disney product of the post-WWII era, in which traumatic turning points were key to the studio's aesthetic. Disney's brand of tough love meant that Bambi [1942] had to see his mother gunned down before his very eyes while Dumbo [1941] was torn from his own mother's embrace and sold into a kind of slavery and Pinocchio [1940] and his tearaway chums were turned into braying donkeys. Some cultural critics have gone so far as to accuse Walt Disney of inflicting unnecessary trauma on a generation of innocents. In a 1993 issue of Bright Lights Film Journal, writer C. Jerry Kutner declared "Old Yeller isn't just about child abuse, it is child abuse." Yet none of the particulars cited to support this argument are Walt Disney's invention and come instead straight from the 1956 novel by Fred Gipson. Born Frederick Benjamin Gipson in 1908 on a cotton farm in Mason, Texas, Gipson worked his way toward a journalism degree at the University of Texas at Austin as a goat driver. While writing cowboy short stories and novels, he toiled as a reporter for The Daily Texan, the San Angelo Standard-Times and The Denver Post, among other papers. Gipson published his first novel in 1946 - The Fabulous Empire: Colonel Zack Miller's Story - and had his first success three years later when Hound Dog Man was included in Doubleday's Book-of-the-Month Club. His novel Old Yeller was inspired by his maternal grandfather's recollections of frontier life, which included an anecdote of how the family's herding dog became infected with rabies and had to be put down with a musket round. Gipson traveled to Burbank to assist in Disney's adaptation and to bestow his blessing on the project but couldn't wait to quit the noise and congestion of Los Angeles for his native Mason, Texas, where he died in 1973. Tightly constructed around a series of episodic vignettes and directed with a sure hand by Disney mainstay Robert Stevenson, Old Yeller was filmed at the 700 acre Golden Oak Ranch in the Santa Clarita Valley, thirty miles north of Disney. Utilizing a small cast (as one of the actors put it, "the only extras were chickens"), the film benefits from warm and winning performances by Fess Parker (whose screen time amounts to less than fifteen minutes), Dorothy McGuire, a pre-Rifleman Chuck Connors and gifted child actors Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran and Beverly Washburn. Kirk and Corcoran would play brothers in five films (among them Swiss Family Robinson [1960] and Old Yeller's 1963 sequel Savage Sam) but Kirk's promising career derailed after his homosexuality proved a deal-breaker for Disney. (An arrest for marijuana possession also caused Kirk to lose a choice role in The Sons of Katie Elder [1965].) More successful in transitioning to non-juvenile fare was Beverly Washburn, who went on to feature prominently in Jack Hill's cult classic Spider Baby (1968) and appear as a guest on a number of popular television series (Wagon Train, Star Trek, The Streets of San Francisco) through the next two decades. Purchased for three dollars from a Van Nuys animal shelter, the real star of Old Yeller was a yellow Black Mouth Cur that trainer Frank Weatherwax named Spike. Spike went on to appear in 20th-Century-Fox's 1960 remake of A Dog of Flanders, as well as on the short-lived NBC series The Westerner starring Brian Keith, and sired two more generations of animal actors. Producer: Bill Anderson, Walt Disney Director: Robert Stevenson Screenplay: Fred Gipson, William Tunberg Music: Oliver Wallace, Will Schaefer Cinematography: Charles P. Boyle Editing: Stanley E. Johnson Art Direction: Carroll Clark Cast: Dorothy McGuire (Katie Coates), Fess Parker (Jim Coates), Tommy Kirk (Travis Coates), Kevin Corcoran (Arliss Coates), Jeff York (Bud Searcy), Beverly Washburn (Lisbeth Searcy), Chuck Connors (Burn Sanderson), Spike (Old Yeller). C-83m. by Richard Harland Smith SOURCES: Fred Gipson biographical sketch, Harry Ransom Center/The University of Texas at Austin Tommy Kirk interview by Kevin Minton, Filmfax No. 38, 1993 The Horror of Disney's Old Yeller by C. Jerry Kutner, Bright Lights Film Journal No. 11, 1993 Interviews with Fess Parker, Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, Beverly Washburn, T. Beck Gipson, Roy Edward Disney and Robert Weatherwax, Old Yeller: Remembering a Classic, 2002

Quotes

If that don't beat all. I never saw such a dog.
- Katie Coates
Now and then, for no good reason, life will haul off and knock a man flat.
- Jim Coates
Papa, you ain't forgetting the horse.
- Travis Coates
What horse?
- Jim Coates
Now Papa, you know I've been aching all over for a good horse to ride. I've told you time and again.
- Travis Coates
What you're needing more than a horse is a good dog.
- Jim Coates
Yes sir, but what I'm wanting most is a horse.
- Travis Coates
Alright, you act a man's part and I'll bring you a man's horse.
- Jim Coates
Now Arliss, you ride back here with Yeller.
- Katie Coates
On a count of he's a sicker Injun than me?
- Arliss Coates
Yes.
- Katie Coates
What's Papa gonna sell our steers for?
- Arliss Coates
For money, of course.
- Travis Coates
What's money?
- Arliss Coates
That's what you buy things with.
- Travis Coates
What do you mean by buy things?
- Arliss Coates
Why did you shoot Rosemary?
- Arliss Coates
She was sick.
- Travis Coates
Well, you were sick. How come we didn't shoot you?
- Arliss Coates
That was different.
- Travis Coates

Trivia

Notes

An opening sequence showing "Old Yeller" chasing a rabbit is mirrored by the closing sequence, which portrays the dog's pup as a worthy offspring. Although the opening credits read "and introducing Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran," both of the child stars had appeared in earlier television programs and feature films. Daily Variety reported in July 1956 that Walt Disney had purchased Fred Gipson's novel for live-action filming. At that point, the story had been serialized in Collier's (8 June-6 July 1956) but had not yet been published in book form. The following information was gathered from studio press materials: In 1953, Spike, the dog who played Old Yeller, was discovered in a Van Nuys, CA animal shelter by famed movie animal trainer Frank Weatherwax. He spent weeks getting acquainted with Doug, the trained bear owned by Byron Nelson, and the other animals in the movie, which were shipped in from various states. A January 31, 1957 Hollywood Reporter news item states that some scenes were shot on location at Lake Sherwood, CA. Although a March 4, 1957 Hollywood Reporter news item adds Slim Duncan to the cast, his appearance in the film has not been confirmed. A November 20, 1957 Disneyland television program, entitled "The Best Doggone Dog in the World," served as a promotion for the feature. Old Yeller received wide praise, with the Hollywood Citizen-News reviewer calling the film "the best 'family picture' I've seen in years." Modern sources report that the picture grossed $8 million in its first domestic release.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States Winter January 1958

Released in USA on video.

Released in USA on video as part of Walt Disney's Family Film Collection.

Released in United States Winter January 1958