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When Jim Coates (Fess Parker) has to leave the family farm for three months to go on a cattle drive, his 15-year-old son Travis (Tommy Kirk) becomes head of the spread while mum (Dorothy McGuire) imparts infinite wisdom and cooks the meals. When Travis' mischievous young brother Arliss (Kevin Corcoran) adopts an old mongrel stray they call Yeller, the dog is at first a nuisance to Travis but he comes to love the dog when he proves himself a loyal friend and fierce family protector. In tangles with bears, wolves and a pack of wild hogs Yeller shows his courage, but one of these encounters turns tragic, forcing Travis to make the most heart-rending decision of his young life.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
In the United States in the mid 1980s a test audience voted an all but forgotten 1957 film, The Day They Gave Babies Away (aka All Mine To Give) as the saddest ever made. With a title like that you might almost disqualify it for having an unfair advantage over Old Yeller and Bambi, but these two kids' classics were right up there where they belong... and I'm not ashamed to admit that I bawled my eyes out as a boy when I first saw Old Yeller (and other canine contemporaries, Goodbye My Lady, Heart Of A Child and Dog Of Flanders) and again when I previewed the DVD the other night.

They simply don't make films like these anymore, or if they do, they appear cloying and artificial in a world that has so lost its innocence that only films made in less cynical times seem sincere. Adapted by Fred Gipson from his timeless bestseller and set in Texas 1869, Old Yeller is a bittersweet tale of love, loss and loyalty in which tenderness teeters on the tough edge of reality. The title hero was a big yellow labrador / mastif cross, who strays onto the Coates farm and after wreaking havoc on the first day, has the temerity to stay. Travis would happily shoot the dog, a notorious "eggsucker" and "no account thieving rascal," but when Yeller saves the corn crops from ravenous racoons and then proves his courage in death defying scrapes with enraged bears, wild hogs and rabid wolves (in which he doesn't escape unscathed) Travis comes to love Yeller as his own. Yeller becomes "the best doggone dog in the west," as his title theme goes.

For many a youngster, Disney's first boy and his dog tale may represent their first exposure to grief and I've always felt that a parent should be there for the child when the tears begin to flow...about the time when Jim Coates urges his crestfallen son to think of good things to replace the bad. Old Yeller could not have been more perfectly cast... McGuire, whose soothing voice and soft features radiate warmth and wisdom; Parker, so sturdy and solid that he made a career of playing American heroes like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone; Corcoran, a pocket dynamo with mischief in every squirm and Kirk, thin and wiry with a soulful face and stubborn streak that makes him ideal as a boy who embraces a man's responsibility and grapples with the most grievous duties when they need to be done. There's amusing support from Jeff York as a lazy lump of a neighbour so shiftless that the menfolk leave him behind to take care of the women when they go on the cattle drive and Beverly Washburn as his sweet-faced daughter Lisbeth who has a crush on Travis that mostly leaves her teary-eyed.

As for Yeller, his real name was Spike and for the price of four dollars the 63kg giant was rescued from a pound. In the nostalgic documentary, Remembering A Classic, which is the highlight of the Special Features bundle, the surviving cast, Parker, Kirk, Corcoran and Washburn all recall what an exceptional canine he was. Of course there was no contest when the Patsy Awards, the animal equivalent of the Oscars was handed out that year. Spike won it paws down. By now you might have guessed that Old Yeller is the "must see" movie for the generations that missed out on its sentimental charm, its solemn reality and its simple affirmation of "life goes on." I know I am a better person (and dog-owner) for having experienced Old Yeller and the world still prospers beyond all its poisons for Yeller's endurance, its dignity and its memory.

Published May 20, 2004

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(US, 1958)

CAST: Dorothy McGuire, Fess Parker, Tommy Kirk

DIRECTOR: Robert Stevenson

SCRIPT: Fred Gipson, William Tunberg. Based on the book by Fred Gipson.

RUNNING TIME: 80 minutes

PRESENTATION: Widescreen 1.75:1 Dolby digital 5.1. Subtitles: English, Spanish, Finnish, Portuguese, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Old Yeller: Remembering A Classic (documentary). Dogs! And 1957 Disney Studio Album (featurettes). Production stills and gallery. Screenplay. Advertising, trailers and TV Spots.

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Buena Vista Home Entertainment

DVD RELEASE: March 17, 2004

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