Old Yeller: 2-Movie Collection DVD Review
Theatrical Release: December 25, 1957 / Running Time: 84 Minutes / Rating: G
Director: Robert Stevenson
Cast: Dorothy McGuire (Katie Coates), Fess Parker (Jim Coates), Jeff York (Bud Searcy), Chuck Connors (Burn Sanderson), Beverly Washburn (Libseth Searcy), Tommy Kirk (Travis Coates), Kevin Corcoran (Arliss Coates)
Theatrical Release: June 1, 1963 / Running Time: 104 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated
Director: Norman Tokar
Cast: Brian Keith (Uncle Beck Coates), Tommy Kirk (Travis Coates), Kevin Corcoran (Arliss Coates), Dewey Martin (Lester White), Jeff York (Bud Searcy), Marta Kristen (Libseth Searcy), Rafael Campos (Young Warrior), Slim Pickens (Willy Crup), Rodolfo Acosta (Bandy Legs), Pat Hogan (Broken Nose), Dean Fredericks (Comanche Chief), Brad Weston (Ben Todd)
From a basic outline of its simple plot, it's tough to pinpoint just what exactly makes Old Yeller the great and emotionally involving film it is. Disney's 21st live action theatrical outing, Yeller is a sweet melodrama involving the Coates family, who are living on a Texas farm shortly after the end of the Civil War. The tall, mustachioed paterfamilias Jim (Fess Parker, best known as Disney's Davy Crockett) sets off on a cattle drive in the hopes of bringing back money to support the family. This leaves the remaining three members on their own: thoughtful and knowing mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire), the playful little Arliss (Kevin "Moochie" Corcoran) whose pockets are usually filled with at least a couple of critters, and young teenager Travis (Tommy Kirk) whose age and gender have him believing he's on the cusp of manhood and the man of the house while his father is away. Until Dad returns, it's up to Dorothy to handle parenting, Travis to tend to the family crops, and Arliss to...fool around in the outdoors. The trio carry out that business at their modest home, which is plenty isolated from neighbors due to the vast surrounding landscape.
During their father's absence, the Coates only receive three human visitors. But before any of those show up, the family welcome their most important guest, a stray yellow dog who takes on the name of "Old Yeller." Arliss is excited by the dog's arrival on their front porch, but Travis has already met the dog and taken a disliking towards him for causing the complete destruction of a crop fence. While it pleases Mom for Arliss to have a new friend of the canine variety, the tough-talking Travis vows to shoot Yeller between the eyes if he causes any trouble, even taking a tempting piece of meat dangling above him overnight.
Travis has a gradual change of heart when he sees how brave and special the dog can be. Yeller wards off an irate parent bear, stands up to a stampeding mother cow, and protects the family from any other unwelcome four-legged visitors they may have. Arliss remains fond of his pet, but Travis becomes closer to the dog than anyone could have imagined. Of course, this is Old Yeller and by the time Dad returns, you likely know that Yeller has already died, in a most heartrending manner.
Somewhat episodic and certainly compact (clocking in at just 84 minutes),
At the film's core is a touching coming-of-age story Fred Gipson, who co-wrote the screenplay. One needn't have ever had a dog or any other pet to appreciate the central friendship or break down in tears when it all falls apart. Many boy-and-dog movies have come since Old Yeller, but I have yet to see one as endearing. This exceptional drama hasn't lost any of its sincerity or wisdom in the passing of almost fifty years.
The widely-held belief among today's disenchanted Disney fans is that the company's namesake did not believe in sequels. To argue the pointlessness of the studio's current, critically spotty direct-to-video sequel market, many have called upon Walt Disney's quote about being unable to top pigs with pigs. The truth of the matter is Walt did usher in three follow-ups to The Three Little Pigs and two feature film sequels, both released in 1963: Son of Flubber and Savage Sam. Despite six years having passed since Old Yeller was made, Disney would seem to have started off on the right foot by the sheer fact that Savage Sam brought back the two young stars of the original film (Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran) and was based on another book and screenplay both penned by Fred Gipson.
Unfortunately, while Savage Sam is passable entertainment on its own merits, I can't think of a less compelling adolescence facing Travis (Kirk) and Arliss Coates (Corcoran) than the adventures this sequel presents. When the film opens, we learn that this time the boys' mother and father are both out of town (a convenient explanation for the non-appearances of Dorothy McGuire and Fess Parker). The profound parental wisdom glimpsed at in the previous outing must have been a fluke, for Travis and Arliss are still fighting as if they have not matured a day. Arliss is throwing rocks and Travis is unconvincingly arguing that he is the one in charge. Enter Disney veteran Brian Keith (best known as the father from The Parent Trap) who plays Uncle Beck Coates with a little charm and slightly more authority.
The title character, an ugly mongrel who bears no resemblance to either Old Yeller or the puppy in the previous film, plays a very minor role and almost all of the boy-and-dog friendship angle has been abandoned for some cowboy-and-Indian action. This is sparked by the kidnapping of Travis, Arliss, and Lisbeth Searcy (Travis' annoyingly attracted visitor in the last film, who is now played by Marta Kristen) by a tribe of unscrupulous Apache Indians who have in their number one slightly wiser Comanche. Substantial amounts of time are devoted to sequences involving the Indians abusing the three white folk (and Sam) for no apparent reason and the Brothers Coates eating what they think is their horse Jumper. In case it's not already apparent, there is far less appeal to Travis and Arliss' grander scale adventures than the domestic drama of the last film or even the bacon-and-mush / milking debacle that opens this one.
Despite repeated escape attempts, only Travis gets separated from the Indians and he is picked up by Beck and "the good guys." Among this group is Bud Searcy (Jeff York), Lisbeth's unkempt, demanding father who so tactfully wormed a dinner out of Mrs. Coates in the superior film. While his beard appears to have been dipped in a vat of hydrogen peroxide, he's still the same buffoonish loudmouth, though laughs don't exactly flow from his Indian-shooting actions the way they did from his goofiness in Old Yeller. The rest of the horse riders don't really receive any memorable personality; one is deemed an Indian-lover, another is clearly an Indian-hata (due to his family's mass murder/scalping), but in short, they're not a particularly compelling lot.
Nor is it easy for the viewer to throw support behind the bratty Arliss and weakly-defined Lisbeth, despite their unjust and unfortunate plight. (It doesn't help that Corcoran's voice cracks on nearly every one of his lines.) The Indians are depicted by bronzed whites in a surprisingly negative and rudimentary light, even when considering the film's long-predating-PC production era. There is no motivation to the antagonists' acts of transgressions, nor any discernible traits to lend them a touch of the rampant humanity that marks the first film.
In short, Savage Sam would be an unsatisfying film when viewed alone, but that it is a sequel to such a wonderful work makes it particularly disappointing. All it seems to have in common with its predecessor is a handful of returning characters and the Old West setting. The changes it introduces in tone, spirit, and style assure that it is not a retread with a new dog, but also that it is never as good as Old Yeller at any time or in any way.
THE HISTORIES OF OLD YELLER and SAVAGE SAM ON DVD
Old Yeller made its DVD debut in May 2002 as one of four films that launched the double-disc "Vault Disney" series. The group received high praise for what was clearly the best DVD presentation the studio had given any of its live action films, but the sets were underpromoted and are widely believed to have underperformed in sales. A second wave of the line was released in May 2003 with the more generic title "Special Edition" (while the "Vault Disney" name was relegated only to the menus) and three additional films followed suit in September 2003 (albeit pared down to single-disc format).
The notion that the Vault Disney line did not meet sales expectations seems supported by the fact that this fall Disney has discontinued the previous releases of The Parent Trap and Old Yeller to repackage them with their sequels as two-disc "2-Movie Collection" DVDs. That made some sense in September, as The Parent Trap II had never before been released to home video in the United States and with a $19.99 list price, its debut essentially provided its predecessor and nearly all its existing bonus features at no extra cost. It makes less sense for Old Yeller, since this set carries a list price of $29.99 (ten dollars more than what its fine Vault Disney set had been reduced to) and since Savage Sam had already been issued on DVD in April 2003 (and later reduced to a bargain bin SRP of $14.99). Standard discounting on new releases might get someone who had not purchased either Yeller or Savage (but wanted to) to save a few bucks getting them both in one shot. But they'll miss out on one of the standout bonus features of Old Yeller's initial DVD -- the cast reunion audio commentary -- and not even get anything new; Savage Sam is again presented in a non-theatrical fullscreen aspect ratio and accompanied by no extras whatsoever. The release of this 2-Movie Collection entails that both films' previous DVDs are being discontinued, and as was true for The Parent Trap's repackaging, that fine retrospective commentary is leaving general retail with them.
VIDEO and AUDIO
Both Old Yeller and Savage Sam look about the same as their past DVD incarnations. Like most of the other Vault Disney DVDs, Yeller is presented in 1.75:1 anamorphic widescreen. This may have been the aspect ratio of its theatrical exhibitions (and actually, documents on Disc 2 clearly state theaters were to display the film in 1.85:1), but it's pretty noticeably overmatted, as certain elements (or parts of elements) get cropped out of the top or bottom of the frame with some regularity. Whether it was framed for only slightly taller dimensions or the full Academy Ratio aperture (the way we were told the slightly more recent Darby O'Gill and the Little People was), for the most part, the matting doesn't make things look too badly unless you're looking for it. As part of Disney's prestigious Vault Disney line, Yeller has been treated to a digital restoration that makes it hold up pretty well for its age. The print stays cleaner than you'd expect for a film approaching 50 years old and grain rears its unsightly head with little frequency. The biggest problem with the picture quality is that colors tend to waver at times, losing consistency and attracting your attention. Softness also tends to creep up on occasion, be it in breaking up the clear blue sky or somewhere else. Despite additional compression accounting for a loss of nearly one Mb of average bitrate (this one weighs in at 5.58 Mb/s versus the Vault Disney's 6.36 Mb/s), Yeller doesn't appear to be noticeably weaker than before.
On the other hand, Savage Sam is presented in 1.33:1 fullscreen and it would have certainly been displayed at a wider ratio theatrically. A few shots do seem to cry "cropped", such as one late in the film where half of Tommy Kirk's face is missing. But even if it is purely cropped, it's unlikely the film would have been framed for anything wider than 1.66:1 or 1.75:1, so most shots retain decent composition even with the possibility that 20-25% of the picture has been lopped off. Less care has been bestowed upon the sequel and the print shows more wear and tear; artifacts turn up with some frequency, reel change markers appear every 20 minutes or so, and softness and grain show up as well. Like its predecessor, this film occasionally relies on stock animal footage (perhaps content used for Walt's "True Life Adventures" series?) which, when employed, always stands out as weaker in quality than its bookending footage. Savage may be a brighter transfer than Yeller, but it is lacking in picture detail, color range, and clarity. Visually, the follow-up doesn't fare as badly as you might fear - there's nothing present that a Yeller-type restoration / 16x9 enhancement couldn't fix - but it's disappointing that the perfect opportunity for improvement that this re-release presented went unfulfilled.
Both films are encoded in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, but as can be expected from their origins, they really don't come across as anything more elaborate than broad mono. Both are fairly flat and anemic when compared to modern film soundtracks, but can be labeled as serviceable in consideration of their age. After its opening song, Yeller's
Despite appearing on all of the studio's announcements for this DVD, the most substantial supplement from Old Yeller's 2-disc Vault Disney set (in terms of running time, at least) has not been ported over here. That was a feature-length audio commentary with stars Tommy Kirk, Fess Parker, and Kevin Corcoran and the dog trainer's son, Bob Weatherwax. Such a bonus is bound to hold great appeal for fans of the film and its disappointing absence here is almost certainly the result of having newly-added foreign language tracks and just over three hours of feature film video on Disc 1, as opposed to the 84 minutes plus cartoon short that comprised the Vault Disney's first platter.
Everything else from the Vault Disney DVD has been retained in its entirety and can be found on Disc 2, beginning with the 1940 animated short "Bone Trouble" (8:40) that played before Old Yeller in theaters and on the previous DVD release. In this cartoon, an empty bowl sets Pluto on a quest for a bone that leads him to encounter his unamused bulldog rival Butch and later a carnival fun house. Naturally, this amusing jaunt is rich with the visual humor that typically marked the dog's shorts.
"Old Yeller: Remembering a Classic" is a splendid 36-minute making-of documentary. It covers Fred Gipson's story and, more substantially, Walt Disney's filming of it from a number of different angles. The four living cast members (Kirk, Parker, Corcoran, and Beverly Washburn) reflect on their production experiences, from Parker's glued-on mustache to Washburn's first date with Tommy Kirk. Also appearing are the author's son, the animal trainer's son (who has gone into the family business of teaching dogs to act), and Roy Disney. There are glimpses of other bonuses included in the set from the Texas statue unveiling to the special "Disneyland" episode and plenty of relevant film clips. While naturally everyone has positive things to say, there's a lot of insight lent from the insiders' perspectives. It's a wonderful retrospective like this which makes one wish that Disney tried to produce new DVD supplements for more of their live action films.
Removed from the Vault Disney line where such a feature was a staple, the montage "Dogs!" (1:21) may seem a little odd and pointless to some. It is merely a series of clips featuring animated and live action canines from the studio's canon of animal films set to upbeat fiddling music. Among the characters highlighted are Pluto, The Shaggy Dog, Pongo and Perdita from 101 Dalmatians, Oliver & Company's Dodger, The Ugly Dachshund, and the dogs of Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey.
The "Lost Treasure" (7:18) of this disc is a profile of California's Golden Oak Ranch, the last remaining movie ranch in L.A. County. The ranch has been used by Disney and other studios to film countless movies and TV shows over the years. With a modern tour guide and comparisons between photography of the land today and stills/clips from Old Yeller and other Disney movies, the piece informs us visually and aurally of this land's cinematically significant history. Many of the interview participants in the general making-of featurette reflect on filming there. Seen in everything from Disney's "Zorro" and Follow Me, Boys! to Pee-wee's Big Adventure and Independence Day, the subject lends itself to inarguably the most interesting movie location featurette on DVD.
Another Vault Disney staple, the Disney Studio Album for 1957 (3:19) holds up on its own a little better. It's basically a video yearbook which highlights all the things happening in the world of Disney the year Old Yeller came to theaters, with clips and stills from cartoon shorts issued (like "The Truth About Mother Goose") or reissued, films that were released (Perri, Johnny Tremain) or in production (Sleeping Beauty), new Disneyland attractions, television specials, and so on. The well-paced montage is set to music and is bound to inspire feelings of nostalgia or yearning to see some of the productions that have yet to come to DVD.
"Conversations with Tommy Kirk" (14:40) offers a trip down memory lane with the veteran Disney actor who many would argue gave his finest performance in Old Yeller. The nearly-60-year-old reflects on making Yeller, as well as The Shaggy Dog, Swiss Family Robinson, and in the midst of a 5-movie year, The Absent-Minded Professor. While the piece mostly avoids controversy such as his rumored-to-be-messy parting of ways with the studio and its namesake in the mid-1960s, he does recall how his Groucho impression caused a very heated moment for frequent co-star Fred MacMurray. For fans of live action Disney movies, the handful of "Conversations" featurettes on the Vault Disney DVD are just about the neatest thing for catching up with the actors who Disney oft relied upon in the comedies of yesteryear. If only there were more of these... Kurt Russell, anyone?
Last but certainly not least is the easy-to-look entry "Old Yeller Production Archive", which opens a wealth of archival content divided into six listings. "Production Gallery" (2:30) provides a montage of mostly black-and-white imagery from the film shoot set to a bouncy instrumental of the title theme.
Galleries holds "Production Stills" (containing almost all of the slideshow's images and many more), "Publishing" (13 pages of Old Yeller comics), "Biographies" (background information and film credits for actors Chuck Connors, Beverly Washburn, Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, Dorothy McGuire, and Fess Parker), "Documents" (unattributed fan mail to author Frank Gipson, a trio of stills from a press screening invitation, and campaign material for exhibitors), and a screenplay excerpt which links to the corresponding film clip in fullscreen.
"Advertising" holds a trio of galleries that could have easily been bundled together. There are 8 Lobby Cards, two posters and a poster painting, and five items of merchandise (mostly records). In this section, you'll also find 5 radio spots promoting a reissue of Old Yeller together with Disney's 1963 animal drama The Incredible Journey plus a pair of video previews (one a trailer, one a Disney Sunday Movie TV ad) running 2 minutes.
"News Segment: Old Yeller Memorial" (7:10) reports on a recent gathering in Texas in which many paid tribute to Fred Gipson for his enduring novel. There's a lot of crying (most from the author's son T. Beck Gipson), a little Laura Bush (then First Lady of the state, who gives a short speech), and the unveiling of a statue of Travis and the lop-eared mongrel which is a little bit less than expected, given the heavy build-up.
"Audio Archives" holds four extras. A pair of "Sound Studio" clips illustrate the importance of sound design. They enable you to view open matte versions of the scenes "Travis Meets Yeller" (1:30) and "Bear Attack!" (0:41) in one of four ways (dialogue only, music only, postproduction sound effects, and the final composite) which you can toggle through via the Audio button.
The last listing doesn't give you any clue to how long or cool it is. "Best Doggone Dog in the World" is actually "The Best Doggoned Dog in the World" (52:25), a complete episode of Walt's "Disneyland" anthology series that first aired in November of 1957. Like most installments of the show, this amounts to something of an extended advertisement for Old Yeller -- at least that's true of the middle portions where actress Dorothy McGuire narrates from her dressing room the film's story to black-and-white film clips. But there's also Uncle Walt giving his charismatic introduction, talking to a miniature poodle named Lady, and informing us of dogs around the globe. In a stretch some may find harder to label "captivating television", twenty minutes near the end are taken from Disney's 1955 "People & Places" featurette Arizona Sheepdog. Honestly, if an hour-long program like this were produced today, many viewers (including myself) would scoff at the idea of recycling an old short and heavily promoting a new film. But it's vintage television and Walt was slick enough to get away with stuff like this in the early years of television. Plus, an entire episode is always preferred over an excerpt.
While few would argue that Savage Sam is as good, beloved or as deserving of attention as its predecessor, it's unfortunate that for its second appearance on DVD, no effort appears to have been made to provide a single bonus feature pertaining to it. Even the original trailer would have been a big step up from nothing, but instead, despite the willingness of Corcoran and Kirk to reflect on the first film, not a mention is made of Savage Sam anywhere on Disc 2.
Though I'm sure the temptation was there to merely re-work the Vault Disney's menus, the set actually boasts new menus on each disc. Disc 1's 16x9-enhanced Main Menu doubles up, giving you the ability to play either movie, or access the corresponding chapter selections. It features an excerpt of score and slowly-animated clips from each film. Disc 2's 4x3 main screen offers only music and none of the elaborate "Vault Disney" animation or navigation. At the start of Disc 1, previews automatically play for Lady and the Tramp Special Edition, the Disney Channel Movie Surfers' hard-hitting looks at Antarctica: The Journey Home (or as it's actually called Eight Below) and Glory Road, Valiant, and Toy Story 2: 2-Disc Special Edition.
One of Disney's earliest and best live action films, Old Yeller is a poignant and resonant drama which loses nothing with the passing of time or repeat viewings. It deserves a place in any family's DVD collection. On the other hand, its sequel Savage Sam hardly feels like a worthy follow-up in story, style, or skill, and it is not likely something you'll clamor to revisit much.
The only folks this 2-Movie Collection will please are those who don't have but want both movies. They would have done just as well economically and better supplementally to buy the two movies' existing and now-discontinued Vault Disney and barebones discs, respectively. The difference between those and this is minimal, with this new 2-disc set losing an audio commentary, amplifying data compression, and taking up only one case's space on a shelf instead of three. Picture and sound on Old Yeller are fairly strong for a film of its age, there's room for improvement which frustratingly went unexplored here. At least, it remains accompanied by plenty of worthwhile supplements. The same cannot be said for Savage Sam, which still offers a largely lacking transfer.
Previous DVD Releases of the Films: Old Yeller (Vault Disney) • Savage Sam (1963)
Also Starring Kevin Corcoran: Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks With a Circus (1960) • Pollyanna (1960)
Also Starring Tommy Kirk: The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964) • The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) • The Best of The Mickey Mouse Club
Starring Kirk & Corcoran: Swiss Family Robinson (1960) • Babes in Toyland (1961) • Bon Voyage! (1962)
Starring Fess Parker: Davy Crockett: Two-Movie Set (1955-56) • Davy Crockett: The Complete Televised Series (1954-55) • The Great Locomotive Chase (1956)
Starring Brian Keith: The Parent Trap (1961) & The Parent Trap II (1986): 2-Movie Collection • Those Calloways (1965)
Directed by Robert Stevenson: Johnny Tremain (1957) • Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959) • Mary Poppins: 40th Anniversary Edition • The Love Bug (1969)
Disney Goes to the Dogs:
Greyfriars Bobby (1961) • Big Red (1962) • The Complete Pluto, Vol. 1 • Snow Dogs (2002)
101 Dalmatians (1961) • The Ugly Dachshund (1966) • The Biscuit Eater (1972) • White Fang 2: Myth of the White Wolf (1994)
Other Vintage Live Action Disney Films:
Summer Magic (1963) • The Three Lives of Thomasina (1961) • Treasure Island (1950) • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) Reviewed November 17, 2005.