Best Doggone Dog in the West
Based on the best selling children's novel by Texas journalist/author Fred Gipson, Old Yeller is an endearing family film in the classic Disney tradition. The "Vault Disney" team has gone above and beyond the call of duty in preserving this beloved film for generations to come.
Facts of the Case
Set in the mid-1800s, the story centers on the Coates family, homesteaders in the wilds of Texas. Their life is a happy one, tending their fields and herds, while living off the land. However, cash is becoming a valuable commodity in the nearby settlements and this is the one thing the family is lacking. To continue providing for everything his family needs, father Jim (Fess Parker) heads off with other local ranchers on a three month cattle drive to Kansas. Leaving his family alone for the first time, it's up to eldest son Travis (Tommy Kirk), barely a teenager, to care for his mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire) and younger brother Arliss (Kevin Corcoran). Everything goes well until a stray dog shows up and turns their life upside down. It doesn't take long before this "old yeller" dog is adopted as a member of the family and repeatedly proves his love and loyalty.
Two years after publishing his best selling story, author Fred Gipson translated it for the big screen. While some of the detail may have been lost, the power of the story remains strong. We quickly become as emotionally invested in this story as Travis, Arliss, and Katie become attached to that "old yeller" dog. His presence in their lives is tremendous. Through him, we watch Travis evolve from a timid boy into a confident young man—Arliss mature from a wild and angry child—and Katie grow increasingly more comfortable running a home and family on her own, knowing a four legged protector is always looking out for them.
Walt Disney was a master when it came to bring true life animal adventures to the screen. While he wasn't often directly involved in the filmmaking process, he did hand pick the experts who brought these stories and images to life. British director Bob Stevenson, best known for the 1944 masterpiece Jane Eyre and later as director of such television series as Gunsmoke and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, was brought on to helm Old Yeller. Paired with the Weatherwax family, the crown princes of Hollywood animal trainers, Stevenson gives life to Gipson's canine with some beautifully choreographed and filmed animal interactions. At times, the dog is even more convincing than the actors themselves.
Old Yeller was also the birthplace and reunion for many members of the Disney Studios family. Actors Tommy Kirk (Travis) and Kevin Corcoran (Arliss) made their leading role debuts with this film and went on to star in numerous other Disney features, playing brothers again in The Shaggy Dog (1959) and Swiss Family Robinson (1960), also starring Dorothy McGuire (Katie) as their mother. All three do fine work in conveying the impact this mangy mutt has made on their lives. Actor Fess Parker (Jim), little more than bookend filler here, was already an established Disney legend for his portrayal of Davy Crockett. Comic relief is provided by character actor and resident scene-stealer Jeff York, as the lazy, good-for-nothing neighbor Bud Searcy. York was a cohort of Parker's playing Mike Fink in the Crockett films.
On the technical side, the transfer exhibits a fine grain but is beautifully preserved in 1.75:1 anamorphic widescreen, capturing the grandeur of the famed Golden Oak Ranch, which served as the backdrop for the Coates Texas homestead. The colors are muted, matching the landscape, with no evidence of digital tampering. Enhanced by a luscious musical score brought forth in Dolby 5.1 Surround, you will appreciate this film far more than you ever could have on television's Wonderful World of Disney.
But wait…there's more! As if you weren't already getting a deal with the remastered print complete with painstakingly crafted animated menus using video, music, and dialogue, this two-disc set is loaded with extras for Disney-philes and film buffs alike. First up, the original Pluto cartoon, Bone Trouble that preceded the film's first theatrical release. Not a paramount of great animation, but a nice treat. Next, an interesting albeit unorthodox commentary by stars Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, Fess Parker, and animal trainer Bob Weatherwax, son of Spike's (Old Yeller) trainer Ron Weatherwax. While the insights and stories are great to hear, the presentation is somewhat unusual—this is actually three separate commentary tracks edited down into one. Tommy Kirk and Bob Weatherwax were together for one session, while Corcoran and Parker each recorded their own. I have to admit, while a nice attempt, it is a bit distracting at times.
For film history fans, there is a great 15-minute featurette on the Golden Oak Ranch, the most active outdoor studio property in Hollywood. Averaging 180 days of filming per year, it has been used for such films as Independence Day, Wild Wild West, and Big Top Pee Wee, as well as television series and specials like Zorro, Bonanza, and Roots. The Production Archive offers us a wealth of material including a full 52 minute episode of Walt's Disneyland television series. As you might expect, the focus is on dogs with a behind the scenes look at the upcoming film Old Yeller, a segment on dogs around the world, a documentary on border collies, and a sneak peek at next week's episode "Goofy's Guide to Relaxation," all hosted by Walt and his family's pet poodle. Going deeper into the archive we find a seven minute news segment on the Mason County, TX memorial to Old Yeller; a video production gallery complete with music, trailers, and TV spots; production stills; cast and crew bios; advertising; production documents; and screenplay excerpts.
But there's still more, including an audio archive complete with radio spots, a sound studio, Foley demonstration, and story album. The deeper we go, the more we find—a three minute Disney Studio album on the year 1957 (video with music), a 36 minute retrospective on the film—interviewing cast members and repurposing clips used in other segments (skip it), a 15 minute conversation with actor Tommy Kirk (interesting), a two minute musical montage of famous Disney dogs, and a slew of studio previews for upcoming theatrical and Video/DVD releases. Whew! We pause while readers allow their eyes to rest.
I may be one of a handful of people on the planet who has, until now, never seen Old Yeller. To be honest, I'm glad I was able to do so through this amazing presentation. It is an American classic and should be valued as a piece of our history. In a sense, there is much we can learn about ourselves and our relationship with nature from the simplicity of life as it used to be.
Old Yeller is hereby acquitted of any and all charges. This film is ordered held as an example for the power of DVD in bringing treasured films to new generations. This court now stands in recess.
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Scales of Justice
• Feature Commentary by Actors Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, Fess Parker, and Animal Trainer Bob Weatherwax
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