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Robert Stevenson
Dorothy McGuire, Fess Parker, Jeff York, Chuck Connors, Beverly Washburn, Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran
Fred Gipson

All the heart, all the excitement of a great frontier adventure!
Rated G.

Widescreen 1.75:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
English; Closed-captioned

Runtime: 84 min.
Price: $29.99
Release Date: 5/7/2002

• Audio Commentary from Actors Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran and Animal Trainer Bob Weatherwax
• “Bone Trouble” Animated Short
• “Old Yeller: Remembering a Classic”
• “A Conversation With Tommy Kirk”
• “Dogs!”
• “Ranch of the Golden Oak” Featurette
• Production Gallery
Old Yeller Memorial News Segment
• Trailers and TV Spots
• Galleries
• Audio Archives
• Sneak Peeks
• THX Optimizer


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Old Yeller (1957)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

As a dedicated dog lover, I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to see 1957’s Old Yeller. I’d never given it a screening in the past, but I decided to finally take the plunge when it hit DVD. I’ve known of its plot and conclusion for eons, and I thought the latter might be uncomfortable to watch. To be sure, I rarely shy away from something that provokes a strong emotional response; in fact, I usually like that kind of flick, even if it’s not a positive feeling.

But when it comes to dogs, I admit I’m a total sap. If my pups could speak, they’d lobby long and hard for me to watch only canine-oriented flicks, for those viewings inevitably lead me to dote on my girls. If loving dogs is wrong, I don’t wanna be right!

So you can understand my reluctance to check out Yeller. The film takes place in mid-19th century Texas. Jim Coates (Fess Parker) leaves the family ranch for an extended period because he needs to participate in a cattle drive. This leaves early adolescent Travis (Tommy Kirk) as the man of the house, and he needs to take over most of his father’s chores on the property he shares with his mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire) and younger brother Arliss (Kevin Corcoran).

Eventually the family gets a new member when a big yellow stray dog causes some minor havoc on the ranch. He scares a mule - which then drags Travis through a field - and also steals food. However, Arliss immediately warms to the pooch, and the babyish Mama’s boy gets what he wants, despite Travis’ intense disdain of the mischievous canine.

That attitude doesn’t stay for long, as the dog - named Old Yeller - quickly proves his worth. He proves to be an excellent caretaker on the property, and he also rescues Arliss from danger presented by a mother bear. (Possibly the most hyperactive child ever seen on film, Arliss constantly gets into different predicaments caused by his impulsivity. The boy needs some frontier Ritalin!)

Eventually Travis grows to love Yeller, and the dog even manages to save the boy’s life when he falls in amongst some wild pigs. Yeller also protects the family when a sick wolf attacks them, which then creates the fear that the dog contracted hydrophobia. From there… well, I won’t reveal the ending, but most people already know where this story will go.

Actually, it’s exceedingly difficult to discuss Old Yeller and not talk about its conclusion. That portion of the film is its most memorable part and largely offers the reason the film remains in the popular consciousness. Not that the rest of the movie isn’t good, though. Although Yeller really doesn’t offer much of a story, it’s an entertaining piece of work, largely thanks to Spike, the amazing dog who played Yeller. He contributed such a charming and distinctive personality that it’s tough not to adore him as much as Travis does.

The animal trainers also accomplished some startlingly effective action sequences that involved Yeller and the other critters. Particularly amazing was the bear fight, which really came across as convincing and vicious. The movie generated a number of other scenes that seemed almost as powerful, and those sequences definitely were its highlights.

With a lesser dog, Yeller wouldn’t have worked as well; Spike helped forgive a lot of other flaws. Not only is the plot almost non-existent, but Yeller moves at a pretty slow pace. Character development seemed fairly weak. Only Travis really goes anywhere, and while it’s an effective journey that symbolizes his march toward manhood, he suffers because he exists in something of a void. His mother and brother are little more than bland generalities, and his father barely exists. Parker makes little more than a cameo in Yeller; his lead billing seems to occur solely to pull in viewers due to his Davy Crockett fame.

Nonetheless, Old Yeller remains a fairly memorable experience thanks to the presence of one amazing dog. Unlike famous pups like Benji and Lassie, Old Yeller existed only in this one film, but he succeeded so well that he became arguably the most popular of the bunch. While the movie clearly had its flaws, the title character allowed it to be a generally effective and compelling piece of work.

Trivia note: Old Yeller reunites two Davy Crockett veterans - almost. Fess Parker starred on that series, and Jeff King - who plays shiftless Bud Searcy here - appeared on a few episodes as keelboat king Mike Fink. However, though both featured in Yeller, they never shared the screen in it.

The DVD Grades: Picture C+ / Audio B- / Bonus A

Old Yeller appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.75:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall, the picture looked decent but unexceptional.

Sharpness caused some moderate concerns. At times, the movie seemed somewhat fuzzy and soft. Those issues didn’t appear terribly excessive, and most of the film was acceptably clear, but I thought the image sometimes seemed less tight than I’d like. Jagged edges and moiré effects presented no issues, but I did see a little light edge enhancement. In regard to print flaws, grain offered the highest level of distractions. While I witnessed a few small hairs as well as a few nicks, marks and some grit, it was really the grain that created the most concerns.

While I didn’t expect an earthy drama like Old Yeller to provide a dazzling Technicolor palette, I still felt the image presented colors that seemed somewhat too drab. The tones often seemed somewhat flat and faded, and they lacked much vibrancy. Again, this wasn’t a huge concern given the design of the film, but I did think that the colors failed to be as distinct as I’d expect. On the other hand, black levels seemed nicely deep and dense, while shadows came across as clear and appropriately opaque. Given the age of Old Yeller, the picture still remained slightly above average, but it wasn’t one of Disney’s better efforts.

Somewhat more successful was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Old Yeller, though it gained most of its points simply due to the lowered expectations that come with older flicks. As will become common with its fellow “Vault Disney” releases, the soundfield seemed to be 5.1 in name only, as the track generally presented broadened monaural. Actually, the film’s score showed reasonable breadth. While the music displayed no real delineation of instruments, it did spread acceptably well across the front, which accentuated its presence.

Otherwise, however, the mix seemed totally anchored in the center channel. All speech remained there, and I detected no effects that emanated from the sides. The surrounds did nothing more than contribute exceedingly light reinforcement. The track stayed heavily in the front; the rear speakers acted as very passive partners.

Audio quality was dated but acceptable. Speech seemed somewhat flat and thin, but the lines appeared consistently intelligible and lacked any concerns related to edginess or other issues. Effects were also bland but reasonably accurate, and they came without signs of distortion. The music fared best of the bunch, as the score actually portrayed some decent fidelity at times. It presented modest but passable low-end response and seemed pretty solid given the age of the recording. Ultimately, the soundtrack of Old Yeller was a decidedly unspectacular piece, but it functioned appropriately considering its vintage.

All four of the initial “Vault Disney” releases come as two-DVD sets, and the majority of the extras reside on the second platters. However, each of the first discs include some good pieces. For Yeller, we start with an audio commentary from actors Fess Parker, Kevin Corcoran and Tom Kirk as well as Bob Weatherwax, nephew of Frank Weatherwax, the owner and trainer of the film’s lead dog. Weatherwax and Kirk were recorded together while the other two were taped separately. It appeared that all four actually watched the film as they discussed it, so while the piece required editing, it generally took a fairly screen-specific tone.

Overall, I thought this was a fairly good commentary. Not surprisingly, Kirk dominated the track. That made sense since he was the film’s lead actor, and he provided some good insight into the movie. Amusingly, he criticized his poor enunciation at times, and he gave us a nice look at the creation of the flick. Weatherwax offered some helpful remarks about the use of animals in the movie; I especially appreciated his material, since I really had no clue how they got much of the more violent shots. Corcoran added the perspective of the youngest cast member, while Parker appeared only fitfully. That’s not a complaint, as it made sense; Parker showed up in too few scenes for him to be an active participant here. Ultimately, Yeller didn’t provide the best of the “Vault Disney” commentaries, but it offered a generally satisfying look at the film.

In addition to the audio commentary, DVD One provides a classic Disney short. In this case, we find a Pluto offering called Bone Trouble. One of the better cartoons for that character, this one runs eight minutes and 40 seconds and offers a fairly clever and enjoyable piece. Note that this short can be viewed on its own or at the start of the film; to replicate the manned in which Disney flicks used to be shown, the cartoon appears as a “preview” feature before the movie itself begins.

When you start the DVD, you’ll find the usual complement of advertisements. Here we get a preview of the upcoming theatrical release Lilo and Stitch as well as commercials for Max Keeble’s Big Move and Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch. From the main menu, you’ll discover a Sneak Peeks area that includes all of these promos plus trailers for the upcoming DVD releases of Monsters, Inc., Return to Neverland, and Beauty and the Beast.

Lastly, DVD One features the THX Optimizer. Also found on many other DVDs, this purports to help you set up your system for the best reproduction of both picture and sound, ala stand-alone programs such as Video Essentials. I’ve never tried the Optimizer since I’m happy with my settings, but if you don’t own something such as Essentials, the Optimizer may help you improve picture and audio quality.

From here we move to DVD Two, which provides a full platter of extras. First up we discover a new documentary called Old Yeller: Remembering a Classic. This 36-minute piece offers a mix of film clips, archival materials - including TV bits from Walt Disney and actress Dorothy McGuire - and new interview segments with studio Vice Chairman Roy E. Disney, author’s son T. Beck Gipson, animal trainer Bob Weatherwax, and actors Kirk, Corcoran, Parker and Beverly Washburn. The show provides a nice little look at the production. Gipson covers the roots of the book and the effects of its success, while the rest offer a snapshot from the production. At times it seems rather puffy, as we hear a lot about how wonderful everyone and everything was, but it still manages to give us a lot of information. It repeats little from the commentary, and the focus on the animal training is quite interesting. Overall, it doesn’t offer one of the best documentaries, but it works nicely nonetheless.

More material in this vein appears in A Conversation With Tommy Kirk. Taken from the same sessions used for the documentary, this 14-minute and 40-second piece naturally focuses totally on Kirk, but it doesn’t stick with just Old Yeller. In fact, that film fills only a minor portion of the show, which makes sense, since Kirk discusses that material so heavily elsewhere. Instead, this program largely concentrates on Kirk’s career as a whole, and he goes into his experiences with other Disney projects. It’s a good little chat about that part of his life, especially when he relates the difficulties he went through when he worked with Fred MacMurray; it’s not “warts and all”, but it’s more blunt that usual for this kind of thing.

Dogs! is pretty much a throwaway piece. The 100-second montage simply provides a music video style mélange of movie clips that feature famous pooches, both live-action and animated. It’s cute, I suppose, but insubstantial.

More interesting is Ranch of the Golden Oak, found in the “Lost Treasures” area. This seven-minute and 20-second program tells us about the Golden Oak Ranch, the location used for Yeller and apparently a billion other movies. We hear a little from Kirk, Corcoran and Washburn about their experiences there, while Roy E. Disney also comments on it. Ranch manager Steve Sligh details the location and provides a lot of good notes about the place. I liked the show, though someone needs to tell Sligh there’s no such movie as Pee-wee’s Big Top Adventures.

The Disney Studio Album gives us a montage. It runs for three minutes and 22 seconds and provides a snapshot of the studio circa 1957. We find out what they did during that year, and the information covers a wide range of topics; in addition to movies, we look at TV, the theme parks, and even projects then in developments. It’s a cool little bit.

When we move to the Production Gallery, we get a two-minute and 33-second running program that shows a mix of photos. This section is solely for the lazy, as the material it contains appears elsewhere in stillframe form. Watch this one only if you don’t like to bother with frame-by-frame access.

A News Segment shows the dedication of an Old Yeller monument in Texas. The seven-minute and 14-second program features T. Beck Gipson among others. He covers some of the same material heard during the DVD’s documentary, but this offers a moderately compelling look at the history of the novel and its author. It’s also possibly the weepiest thing I’ve ever seen; apparently Gipson can’t discuss the book or his father without becoming teary-eyed, and the monument’s sculptor is so overcome with emotion someone else has to read his speech for him!

After a section with two trailers and two TV Spots, we find Best Doggone Dog In the World, an episode of the Disneyland TV series from the Fifties. Hosted by Walt, this show concentrates on Yeller, which - through some amazing coincidence - was then soon to hit movie screens. In addition, Walt discusses different breeds of dog, and we see a short documentary about border collies and their work. For historical purposes, this is a nice addition, but frankly, on its own the show seems fairly dull, mainly because it so heavily promotes Yeller.

Next we locate scads of stillframe materials. In the Galleries area, we find 55 “Production Stills”. There’s some good stuff here, and most - if not all - of it gives us a clearer version of the footage in the “Production Gallery” montage. “Publishing” provides 13 frames of an Old Yeller comic book adaptation, and we also get “Biographies” for actors Kirk, McGuire, Parker, Corcoran, Washburn and Chuck Connors. Basically, these offer annotated filmographies; they lack much depth. Curiously, this area omits one of the cast members; I don’t know why it includes no mention of Jeff King.

Within the Advertising domain, we locate nine “Lobby Cards”, three “Posters”, and five shots of Yeller “Merchandise”. In Documents, we see 12 examples of “Fan Letters” sent to author Gipson, three “Invitations” for early screenings, and 15 frames from the movie’s “Press Book”. Lastly, the Screenplay Excerpt offers the final scene between Travis and his father. The text runs 13 screens, and the scene itself can be viewed from here.

Within the Audio Archives we get some cool material. First up are six “Radio Spots”, all of which come from a reissue of the film when they paired it with The Incredible Journey. More compelling are two “Sound Studio” demonstrations. These let us hear a couple of scenes from the film in different ways. You can watch “Travis Meets Yeller” and “Bear Attack” in their final form or with just dialogue, music or effects. This kind of feature isn’t unique, but it’s unusual to find it with such an old movie, and it’s a lot of fun here.

The “Foley Demonstration” offers a very basic look at that field of work. Hosted by Wayne Allwine - the current voice of Mickey Mouse - the two-minute and 10-second piece recreates the effects audio for one scene from the movie. It’s nothing special, but folks who don’t know much about Foley might find it interesting.

Finally, the “Story Album” provides a very cool archival item. It offers a record from the period that told the tale of the movie. The 33-minute and 20-second program features audio excerpts from the film, and Fess Parker narrates the piece. As you listen, you can watch production and publicity stills, though these get a little stale, as they repeat after a while. Despite that minor flaw, this is the kind of thoughtful extra that isn’t all that interesting on its own - I certainly doubt I’ll ever listen to it again - but it shows the tremendous depth of this collection.

Although nothing more than basic tale about a boy and his dog, Old Yeller remains popular due to its heartfelt telling and generally solid execution. It also provides one of the all-time great movie dogs, a critter who seems virtually irresistible. The DVD features decent but unremarkable picture and sound that seem fine for a film of this vintage but don’t surpass that standard. However, the DVD package contains a wealth of supplements that make it a fairly remarkable set. Fans of this kind of family fare should definitely give Old Yeller a look.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.424 Stars Number of Votes: 191
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