Disney Film History: Old Yeller

old yeller

The mid-1950s were chalk full of western films from Disney, mostly starring Fess Parker who had made the role Davy Crockett the most famous character in television and film. The western film genre in general had been a big hit amongst audiences in the 1950s and as Walt was capitalizing on the rugged shoot-em-up genre, he looked at another semi-western in 1957. He wanted to make a film based on the best selling book by Fred Gipson titled Old Yeller.

Old Yeller was a 1956 children’s novel that was a best seller and had won a Newbery award. It mixed Post-Civil War Texas life with a family story. It was the perfect blend of western and family film making that Disney was looking for. Disney brought Fred Gipson into to co-write the screenplay which allowed the film to be true to the novel, which was a risk for Disney as many of his films had been sugar-coated for audiences.
old yeller 1
The film also starred two of the Mickey Mouse Club cast members, Tommy Kirk and Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran, who had made a name for themselves as playing the Hardy Boys on the hit kids show. Fess Parker plays a small roll in the film as the boys father, but with so many of the past few films I have researched starring the actor, I’m glad to see that he only plays a small part and that the Mouseketeers get most of the glory here, at least as far as human characters are concerned. Old Yeller is a wonderful dog himself and steals the show as a stray dog who winds up being taken in by the family.

Over the course of the film, we learn that the bond between children and dogs is endless and family is truly one of the most important things we have in life. As Old Yeller becomes a part of the Coates family, we connect with him as if he had always been a part of the family. When Old Yeller is infected from a wolf bite and has to be penned due to fear of him having rabies, we feel for this family being torn apart. Then, we get to the ending, when a rabies infected Old Yeller snarls at the boys. The older boy, Travis, played by Tommy Kirk, is forced to put down his dog that he had grown so attached to. It’s one of the saddest moments in film history. It’s strange to think that Walt Disney allowed for such a brutal ending, but he must have known that it would be for the best.

old yeller 2

The film was released on Christmas Day 1957 and was an instant hit with both critics and audiences. The film ended up grossing over $6M in it’s initial release and would go on to make over $21M in later releases altogether. It was within the top 5 films of the year. The film has gone on to be part of pop culture. It is referenced for it’s death scene on shows like Friends. It’s legacy far surpasses many of the live action films Disney had put out in the 1950s, and it may be one of the greatest live action films, the Walt Disney company has ever put out period!

Josh Taylor
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Posted on May 7, 2015, in Articles, The Whole Picture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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