Although I never saw Old Yeller when I was a child, my husband distinctly recalls the day it was shown as a special treat in the rural elementary school he attended. A newcomer from the city, he sites that moment as the one where he lost all hope of maintaining any sort of manly image in the eyes of the seasoned farm kids who were now his peers. Right after Bambi, it was the most traumatic movie experience of his young life.
For all his embarrassment, I suspect he wasn't the only one to shed a few tears. Tugging on the heartstrings of anyone who has ever felt puppy love, this Disney film tells the story of a stray, yellow-haired mongrel that takes up residence on a Texas frontier ranch.
Helping himself to their provisions, the thieving mutt is at first not welcomed by fourteen-year-old Travis (Tommy Kirk). However, the brown-eyed brute manages to steal the affection of little Arliss (Kevin Corcoran), and solicit sympathy from the boys' mother (Dorothy McGuire), who would like the animal's protection while her husband (Fess Parker) is away. Before long the disheveled dog proves himself so indispensable that the family (and especially Travis) don't know how they ever got by without him. But complaining neighbors, run-ins with wild creatures and an epidemic of hydrophobia (also known as rabies), may put an end to the happy relationship.
Cherished as a family classic for close to fifty years, the movie still presents some concerns for children (citified or otherwise), who might not be as comfortable with hunting and killing wildlife, or the harsher realities of dealing with livestock. Moments of peril and depictions of bloody wounds also play a part in this drama of 1860s western life. (Not to mention some moments of political incorrectness.)
Yet, I suspect what has endeared several generations to this film may be its themes of love and loss. Based on a novel by Fred Gipson, this coming-of-age story demonstrates the qualities needed to make a boy a man -- hard work, a willingness to shoulder responsibility and a determination to do what needs to be done -- even if it breaks your heart (and makes you cry in front of your whole class).