The Yearling, which is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, is a hard movie for me to review. It’s a beautifully filmed picture, and is a great example of just how good the sometimes-gaudy Technicolor process could look.
But it’s also one of the saddest “family” films I’ve ever seen. I would certainly never show it to a child under the age of 12, and would only show it to a child 12 or older if they knew the basic story and specifically requested to see it. I’ve seen The Yearling called “heart-warming,” but I found it emotionally draining and depressing.
I don’t know why so many animal stories for young people involve a beloved pet dying, but they do. Unlike The Yearling, however, the animals in Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller at least die after a heroic struggle of some kind. In The Yearling, the 12-year-old protagonist is forced to shoot his beloved deer, whom he raised from a fawn, because it’s eating their cash crops. The message, obviously, is that life is hard, and growing up and becoming a man involves unpleasant tasks, but it still left me feeling more dejected than inspired.
Young Jody Baxter (Claude Jarman, Jr.) is a dreamer — sweet and sensitive despite his hardscrabble life in the Florida scrub country in the late 19th century. He has an easy rapport with his father, Ezra “Penny” Baxter (Gregory Peck), but a more difficult relationship with his mother, Orry (Jane Wyman), who is as hard and unforgiving as pioneer women come. Early in the film, Penny tells his wife, “Don’t be afraid to love the boy.” The film cuts to a scene of Wyman standing in front of the graves of all her dead children, David Baxter, who died at the age of 1 year, 3 months, Ora Baxter, who died at the age of 2 years, 4 months, and Ezra, Jr., who was stillborn, and we see precisely why she is afraid to let down her guard around her only son.
Jody yearns for a little pet of his own, but his parents never let him have one for practical reasons. After Penny is bit by a rattlesnake, however, he shoots a doe for its heart and liver, which can pull the poison from his wound. (I’m pretty sure this is what we would now call “unscientific.”) The doe leaves behind a little fawn, which Jody’s parents allow him to adopt. Jody names the fawn “Flag.”
But why? Why do they finally relent in that situation? The Baxters are practical people who could have seen the handwriting on the wall. When you’re a family that depends on every last penny of income your meager crops provide, having a domesticated deer living on your farm is bound to cause trouble.
And trouble Flag causes. Jody’s parents are patient after the year-old Flag eats a large portion of their cash crop of tobacco. Penny and Jody plant a new crop of corn to help make up for the loss. But when Flag eats most of the corn, Jody promises to erect a fence so tall that Flag won’t be able to get over it. His father injures his back, and can’t help him, even though he wants to.
If this was just a story about learning responsibility, then Jody toiling far into the night, in the rain, over the course of several days, all alone, just to build a fence (which appears to be more than six-feet tall) to not only save his family’s crop but also the life of his beloved pet would be enough. But the moment Flag easily jumps over the fence and goes back to work on the corn, my heart dropped. I knew what was coming next, but still couldn’t quite believe it when it happened.
There are plenty of positive interpretations of The Yearling. Death is a part of life, and we all must learn this sooner or later. It could also be seen as a young boy coming to understand his mother’s pain and hardship. Like her, he has now lost something fragile and beautiful that died too young. But these were all things my head understood after watching the movie. My heart felt empty, as though I had just been shown the utter futility of cherishing anything frivolous or out of the ordinary.
The Yearling won three Academy Awards; one for Best Color Interior Direction (Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse, and Edwin B. Willis), one for Best Color Cinematography (Charles Rosher, Leonard Smith, and Arthur Arling), and one honorary Oscar for the young star of the film, Claude Jarman, Jr., who was given an award for “Outstanding Child Actor of 1946.” I thought that Jarman’s performance was good, but I didn’t believe him during two scenes in which he registers horror and disbelief. Peck is good, as always, but he seems miscast. He registers earnestness and decency, but his accent is never quite right. Wyman, I thought, gave the best performance in the film, which was impressive, considering how unsympathetic her character was for most of the running time.
Oh, and there’s a disclaimer at the end that all scenes involving animals were supervised by the American Humane Association. We’re used to seeing this now, but it was fairly new in the ’40s. After several horses were killed during the making of Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and Jesse James (1939), there were numerous audience protests, which led to supervision by American Humane of most Hollywood films involving animal performers. This said, I’d really like to see behind the scenes for the amazing sequence in which Penny and Jody hunt a bear, and their dogs attack it over and over. I guess the bear was just hugging the dogs before it tossed them safely away, but it looked pretty damned real to me.