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RUNNING TIME: 84/104 min.
• Original Theatrical Animated Short “Bone Trouble”
• Remembering a Classic
• Lost Treasures- Ranch of the Golden Oak
• Conversations with Tommy Kirk
• 1957 Studio Album
• Production Archive
You can tell a lot about someone by their personal Disney trauma– by that one movie that dented their little brains forever when they were seven years old. Different flicks affect people different ways; for my parents, it was Bambi— that movie scarred a generation but never made much of an impression on me. Growing up, I knew Black Hole kids, Escape from Witch Mountain kids, even an Unidentified Flying Oddball kid. Think of any picture, and there’s some kid who ended up watching it before he was ready to process the darker issues at hand. But there’s one Disney movie that messes everyone up, no matter who they are. And they’re the better for it.
It’s 1860s Texas, not long after the Civil War. The Coates family is starting over from scratch on a small farm. When a cattle drive takes Dad (Fess Parker) away from home for several months, young Travis (Tommy Kirk) is the man of the house, with only his wise mother (Dorothy McGuire) and wild kid brother Arliss (Kevin Corcoran) to help keep things running. Then along comes this big yellow mutt. Old Yeller (Spike) is no ordinary stray– it soon becomes apparent that he’s got some valuable training and is probably worth more than the family could ever afford. But he’s chosen them as his family, and he will change all their lives. Travis’ most of all.
"Woof. I get a percent of the gross. Woof."
Get past the corny title song, and this is one timeless movie about growing up. Travis’ first steps toward manhood are expertly signified, with role models both bad (Bud York’s lazy Searcy) and good (Chuck Connors as Yeller’s sympathetic rightful owner) passing through at key points in the story. There’s nothing phony either, about Travis’ awkwardness and initial hostility towards Lisbeth (Beverly Washburn), a neighbor girl with a crush on him. Corcoran makes for an extremely authentic little brother, underfoot and fearless.
Sure, no animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture…
Then there’s the trauma. I guess it’s absurd to observe spoiler etiquette when talking about a 48-year-old movie, but if even one of you out there doesn’t know how this thing ends, or missed that great Friends episode where Joey put a book in the freezer, I’m not blowing it for you now.
Old Yeller benefits greatly from being made at a time when Disney Studios had a world-class nature-documentary unit going full swing. Some of the animal action is astonishing for its realism. Check it out: dog vs. bear? Maybe they were just playing with each other, but still.
"CUT! Goddamn bear’s upstaging me! I’ll be in my trailer!"
The most amazing thing about this movie, especially from a modern filmgoer’s standpoint, is that it doesn’t have any villains. Message? Life: plenty hard enough. Can’t argue with that.
Old Yeller: 10 out of 10
Six years later, Disney threw together a sequel of sorts, also based on a Fred Gipson book. In Savage Sam (1963), Kirk and Corcoran return as Travis and Arliss, but there any real continuity ends. The dog of the title, now unaccountably a blue tick coonhound, barely has anything to do with the story, which quickly devolves into offensive and stereotypical Cowboys-and-Indians action.
Savage Sam: 4 out of 10
"Now that’s how you mark your territory."
The 2002 “Vault Disney” release of Old Yeller was a single-disc set, whereas this edition moves all the bonus material to Disc Two. I’m guessing this is the same transfer and that the compression level is about the same since Disc One now contains two full-length features.
Old Yeller is presented in anamorphic widescreen, cropped to 1.75:1. It looks pretty good for a mid-budget film from 1957: there’s some noticeable grain and occasional flicker. Colors are muted and flesh-tones are unreliable, but this scrappiness somehow suits the story. It would be distracting if these dirt-poor farmers lived in a glowing, perfect Technicolor world.
Savage Sam is presented 1.33:1 full-frame. Dirt and scratches are occasionally visible, and the image is harsh and contrasty.
Old Yeller: 8 out of 10
Savage Sam: 6 out of 10
"I skin ‘em myself."
Both films have been fitted out with 5.1 remixes. The music is the main beneficiary. I really wish editions like this would retain the original mono tracks as a listening option, if only for historical purposes.
Both: 7 out of 10
As with the recent 2-Movie edition of The Parent Trap (read my review here) the supplements have been recycled from the 2002 disc, minus the cast commentary track. As far as I can tell, no new content has been added, and there is no material documenting the second film.
"Woof. I wish I was dead. Woof."
While the supplements aren’t original, they are exhaustive. The Production Archive includes galleries of stills, posters, and promotional materials; a complete vintage Disneyland TV episode spotlighting the film; an audiobook version of the story narrated by Parker, and lots more.
8 out of 10
Busy. In an interesting switch-up, we get younger brother Corcoran on the cover instead of Tommy Kirk, who usually headlines editions of this film. He looks uncomfortable balancing the title logo on top of his head, but Ol’ Yeller is content to blend into the background. I’ll take original poster art any day.
5 out of 10
Overall: 8 out of 10