Remembering Old Yeller
A tale of tenderness, toughness and heartache
Baby boomers grew up with wonderful stories of dogs we loved in books and on the screen: Lassie, Rin-Tin-Tin, White Fang. But no story tore at our heart strings more than “Old Yeller.” Not only is it a story of the coming of age of a boy growing up and the backwoods adventures of his little brother boy and a dog, it is a saga about the wilderness and a pioneer family trying to carve a home in the frontier. New York Times famous film critic wrote that “Old Yeller” was a “warm, rustic tale” of tenderness and toughness. It is America’s creation story, as surely as many frontier families had dogs for sensible reasons as well as sentimental ones.
“Old Yeller” is a story about a little boy and an old stray dog in post-Civil War Texas. After the war, cattle drover Jim Coates leaves his wife Katie, his teen son Travis, and young son Arliss on his Texas homestead for a cattle drive to Kansas. While the father is away, Travis is working in the family corn field when a stray, yellow dog shows up. Travis tries to drive the dog away but his little brother, Arliss, immediately bonds with the dog and wants to keep him. But the dog steals meat and robs hens’ eggs, which make him persona non grata with Travis.
“Old Yeller,” as Arliss names the old cur, begins to prove himself worth keeping around, despite his bad habits. When Arliss tries to capture a baby black bear by feeding it cornbread, the mother attacks but Old Yeller protects the little boy.
Soon, the dog’s owner shows up, a gentle cowboy, played by Chuck Connors in the movie, who would later star in the popular Western series, “The Rifleman.” But he sees that the family is isolated and the little boy has already fallen in love with the dog. In a wonderful scene, Connors offers to trade “that lop-eared, theivin’ old yeller dog” for a horny toad Arliss has in his pocket, and a “woman-cooked meal” from his mother. Before the cowboy leaves, he pulls Travis aside and warns him that there is a plague of hydrophobia—rabies—going around the countryside.
The story unfolds with Old Yeller’s adventures: making the cantankerous Rosie the cow stand still while Travis milks her, protecting the corn bin from marauding racoons, exploring with little Arliss, and is badly wounded while defending Travis when he is attacked by wild boars. The mother uses a hair from their horse’s tail to suture Old Yeller’s wounds and he convalesces.
Later, Rosie the cow stumbles into the farmyard, foaming at the mouth. She has rabies and Travis has to shoot her. While the family is burning Rosie’s body to avoid any animals contracting the disease, a rabid wolf attacks the family. Old Yeller fights off the wolf and Travis finally shoots it. But Old Yeller was bitten badly in the neck. Katie and Travis know that no healthy wolf would attack, especially near a big fire and they know that it was probably rabid. Travis quarantines Old Yeller and they watch for signs he did not contract hydrophobia from the wolf bite. He appears to have escaped the disease, but then one night the dog tries to attack Arliss when the little boy visits him locked in the corn crib. Katie goes out with the rifle but Travis takes it from her and says Old Yeller is his dog. He must do it.
Later Travis and Arliss are bereft. A neighbor girl brings a little yellow puppy that Old Yeller had fathered. Travis refuses the puppy, but when the puppy steals a piece of meat, a habit Old Yeller had, he holds the puppy in his arms and names it “Young Yeller.”
The 1956 book by Fred Gipson and the 1957 Disney movie were wildly successful. Gipson’s book won the coveted “Newberry Award” for literature and the movie was one of the top grossing films of 1957. The movie starred Fess Parker and Dorothy McGuire, Chuck Connors, and two unknown child actors who had their debut in the film: Kevin Corcoran as the rascally little Arliss and Tommy Kirk as the older brother, Travis.
In Fred Gipson’s book, Yeller was a Black Mouth Cur, a regional hunting breed popular in the South known for its loyalty, bravery and protective nature. He wrote the book based on some of the tales his Texas pioneer grandfather had told him. And Yeller was modeled after his wife’s feisty family dog, “Rattler,” named because he would kill rattlesnakes. In the movie, Yeller was played by Spike, a 115-pound Yellow Lab / Bull Mastiff mix that was rescued from a California shelter in Van Nuys by Hollywood animal trainer, Fred Weatherwax. The movie depicts Spike as Old Yeller chasing squirrels, jackrabbits, and buzzards, interacting with newborn calves and Rosie the cow, as well as more rugged depictions of fights with a huge bear, a vicious wolf and a pack of wild hogs. The wolf scene was actually shot with a German Shepherd/Wolf mix. Both dogs were taught to play fight.
Author Fred Gipson grew up on a farm in Texas hill country near Mason at the dead center of the state. Early on, he wrote for small Texas newspapers, then Western and hunting-and-fishing magazines before writing novels always about dogs, including: “Hound Dog Man” (1949), then “Home Place” (1950), “Big Bend: A Homesteader’s Story” (1952), “Cowhand” (1953), “The Trail-Driving Rooster” (1955), then “Old Yeller” (1956) and later its sequel, “Savage Sam” (1960). “Little Arliss” and “Curly and the Wild Boar” were published posthumously in 1978 and 1980.
Bosley Crowther in the December 26, 1957 New York Times wrote that the film was a "lean and sensible screen transcription of Fred Gipson's children's book." He said that the film was a "warm, appealing rustic tale [that] unfolds in lovely color. Sentimental, yes, but also sturdy as a hickory stick." Another writer in the New York Times called his writing, “rawhide style larded with phrases out of the West vernacular.”
Mr. Gipson described his own books as appealing to “the primitive in both children and adults,” adding “they are physical stories about wild animals, the beauty of an unspoiled landscape, and the implacable and often cruel forces of nature. My feeling is that man has only recently emerged from the savagery of the primeval to enter the savagery of civilization.”
Today, the movie remains a popular classic, is a perennial on the Disney Channel, Animal Planet, and old movie networks and has a 100% rating among film critics on the popular Rotten Tomatoes movies site.
In 2016, the American Humane Society awarded “Old Yeller” America’s most popular all-time animal movie based on a national online voting contest. The film was honored at its annual “Pawscars” to honor animals in films, held each year shortly before the Oscars. "Old Yeller" was one of the first movies to ever focus on the human-animal bond, the AHA said. During the award ceremony, the media analyst Paul Dergarabedian, said: "Old Yeller is a baby boomer classic. It's funny how in the rearview mirror of our collective consciousness, certain movies continue to resonate and stir emotion even 60 years later. Old Yeller does just that."
Even in the popular television series, “Friends,” there’s an episode called "The One Where Old Yeller Dies.” Phoebe said her mother always turned off the movie after Old Yeller saved the family from the wolf. She never saw the scene where Travis had to shoot Old Yeller and never knew the true ending of the film until she saw Monica, Rachel, Ross and Richard watching the movie and crying.
Film Critic Jeff Walls wrote: “Old Yeller,” like “The Wizard of Oz,” has come to be more than just a movie; it has become a part of our culture. If you were to walk around asking random people, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who did not know the story of Old Yeller. The movie's ending has become one of the most famous in film history."
More than 60 years later, the spirit of Old Yeller is still alive and thriving in the author’s hometown of Mason, Texas. It holds an annual “Old Yeller Day Celebration” that has become immensely popular. As a child, Fred Gipson attended school in the two-story sandstone building that is now the Mason County Museum. Inside the museum is the Fred Gipson Exhibition hall with Old Yeller memorabilia and the author’s cowboy boots and hat, donated by his son, as well as a large bronze monument of Old Yeller and Travis sculpted by Garland Weeks of Lubbock, Texas, a nationally known artist and past president of the Texas Cowboy Artist Association. The Old Yeller Day Celebration has been held annually in September by the Mason County Library since 1999. It features Old Yeller look-alike contests, a pet parade, historical re-enactors, food vendors, old fashioned games, celebrity trick ropers, cowboys, sharpshooters, and other attractions.
One area Texas rancher named Stephen Mutschink grew up a mile from the author’s farm and saw the premiere of Old Yeller in 1957 as a little boy at Mason’s historic Odeon Theater. In 2008, one of his Yellow Labs, Cooper, won the “Old Yeller Look-A-Like Contest.” The rancher said his dog resembled Old Yeller in another way. “When I need them to chase wild hogs, they’re handy. But they can be a pain in the neck sometimes, too. Just like Old Yeller.”
Perhaps another Mason resident said it best: “Oh, yes, I cried at [Old Yeller], but it’s not just about a dog dying. It’s about the hardships of living back then. Families had to rely on their children to survive.” And their loyal dogs...
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"Remembering Old Yeller" was first posted December 3, 2019 on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com
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PHOTOS: (1) The 1957 Disney movie, “Old Yeller,” was an instant success and became an American classic. (2) The movie starred a 115-pound, Lab/Bull Mastiff mix named Spike, who was purchased at a Van Nuys, California shelter for $3 by a Hollywood animal trainer. (3) Fred Gipson of Mason, Texas, wrote Old Yeller in 1956, based on his pioneer grandfather’s frontier tales and his wife’s family dog, named Rattler. Shown in photograph. (4) The 1956 book won the coveted “Newberry Award” for literature and Disney immediately purchased the film rights. (5) A scene from the 1957 movie, Old Yeller, featuring Spike the dog as Yeller, unknown child actor Kevin Corcoran, whose acting debut was in the film, and Dorothy McGuire, as the mother, Katie Coates. (6) A scene from the movie. Spike weighed 115 pounds and was a big yellow Lab / Bull Mastiff mix that could carry actor Kevin Corcoran, as Arliss, on his back. (7) One of several fight scenes with animals. Old Yeller protecting Arliss from a mother bear when Arliss was feeding her cub with cornbread and trying to take him home. (8) A promotional poster for the movie Old Yeller. (9) While Old Yeller and Travis are convalescing from being attacked by wild boars, a neighbor girl brings a little yellow puppy to show to Travis. The puppy looks just like Old Yeller, his father.