You have to be a real curmudgeon not to be entranced, or at least moved by The Yearling. True, it's got every quality that brought L.B. Mayer to tears of greedy joy: simple ig-gorant country folk, mother love, a kid with a heart ready to be broken in Technicolor tears. But thanks to the sensitivity and taste of Paul Osborn (Portrait of Jennie, On Borrowed Time), and Clarence Brown, what the MGM factory created was a glowing emotional portrait of childhood dreams and disillusion as a boy faces up to life's harsh realities. It's also one of the best Technicolor films ever shot.
Clarence Brown attacks the magical center of Jody Baxter's life as a 'yearling' with all the visual tools that served him from the silent days - and his gentle way with actors that brings out good performances from his star leads, and a miraculous one from Claude Jarman Jr. Jody is a dreamy, excitable, 'gee whiz' kind of kid who wouldn't last an afternoon on a tough street corner, yet has an inner light that we can almost see reaching out to embrace Nature at its core. Any boy (or girl) who has ever felt the amazing invulnerabilty of being young, healthy, and happy in Nature is going to respond to the story told here.
This must have been a banner year for Gregory Peck - Mister family-wonderful here, right after impressing everyone with his nasty creep Lewt McCanles in Selznick's Duel in the Sun. Whether Peck's acting pleases has always been a matter of taste (I think he's right 4 times out of 5), but he made some kind of record here by being the first film hero to be felled by something as lowly as an hernia.
The events of Rawling's book were later dramatized in a movie called Cross Creek with Mary Steenburgen, that served as a reminder that, yes, the life of the Baxters was softened and sweetened for this big-budget MGM effort. Our cultural mythology still perpetuates the notion that brutal frontier life creates honest, virtuous natural Americans. The Baxters have some negative psychology working, what with Ma's bitterness, but overall, they're rather idyllic, God-fearing types who'd make perfect neighbors for the Birdwells of Friendly Persuasion. The Baxter farm looks awfully clean in Technicolor, but The Yearling doesn't avoid the fact that, unlike the prosperous and civilized Birdwells, Penny, Ma and Jody Baxter are living like hand-to-mouth savages. The Birdwells have religous and political differences with their neighbors, while the Baxter's neighbors are likely to steal or poison their livestock, just to exercise a grudge. The Baxter's farm is in what is practically a primeval setting - there are dangerous animals out there, not to mention deadly vermin and malaria. The punishment is strongly felt in Ma, who has borne several children in the primitive setting (a testament to bravery right there) and only has one boy to show for it. It looks like the only future for Jody is to continue the grinding life they've started. The futility of it all makes Ma resentful and bitter against her own better nature.
The Yearling's sentimental scenes are all tied to basic & universal emotional problems, and therefore free of the mawkishness that L.B. Mayer encouraged in his 'family' pictures. Jody lives through his best friend dying, his father becoming a cripple, and the object of his affections being taken away from him. There are plenty of kiddie tears shed here, but they're all earned. The yokels fight and act like hicks, but the reality that they're all living a rough life with a future that cannot be counted upon is well-presented. Jody has an Uncle Oliver who's a sailor with a new wife (June Lockhart) who represents a dream of freedom and the outside world to Jody, but the necessity of helping his parents simply survive, has determined Jody's future for him.
MGM really pulled out the stops in this 'victory' production, and technically it's the highest mark Hollywood could achieve in 1946. The location shooting in what appears to be real scrub and swamp country must have been a nightmare, with all the intricate tracking shots - the full-sized Technicolor camera has been likened to an iron Volkswagen, that crushed unreinforced stage floors. The stage work matches well, even though it has that artificiality to it. The cameramen manage some fussy but dazzling Americana shots, like the boy bringing home his recovered fawn, or a group sleeping around Penny's sickbed, that for character and warmth outdo Norman Rockwell.
Some action scenes, like shots in the battle with Old Slew-foot the Bear, seem to have been accomplished by taking Technicolor printing separations from Kodchrome 16mm, as was done with battle footage in WW2 (The Fighting Lady). The rest of the film combines drop-dead Rembrandt lighting, beautiful scenery, and expert special effects to sell its story.
Right in the middle of the movie are a number of scenes where Clarence Brown's direction, some amazing second-unit effects work with a herd of running deer, and ethereal music adapted from Delius create a tangible universe of Natural mysticism. The prophet-like poetic prose of Jody's dying friend Fodderwing (Donn Gift) about a magical relationship between humans and wild animals becomes real, as Jody and his pet fawn Flag join in a robust race through the forest. It's part Bambi, and part A Midsummer Night's Dream, and it weaves a spell that any fantastic film would envy.
The Yearling's sentimental honesty overrides considerations of MGM gloss, or ethnographic distortion - yes, yes, Florida backwoods scrub farming and Delius overtures don't have much to do with one another. I find Clarence Brown's drippiest weepy films, like The Human Comedy, to be more honest and less cloying than Frank Capra's. And where latter-day favorites like E.T., The Extraterrestrial engage our emotions to worry about Our Selfish Problems against Nasty Government Bad Guys, The Yearling has one foot solidly in a universal human reality. Not every old-fashioned sentimental studio film is a dated embarassment.
Warner's DVD of The Yearling is a very welcome title from the list of MGM classics. Overall the color and encoding are terrific, although a few shots poke through where the intermediate composite element's three colors are all misregistered, as in a defective magazine photo. At least one of these is a closeup of Jody, but they're few and far between and obviously unavoidable, unless the film were to be completely re-engineered from original elements (which may or may not have survived the years).
The Oscar-winning Hanna-Barbera MGM cartoon The Cat Concerto is included as an extra, and it looks great. It's a mental reminder to ask when Warners is going to put out all the zillions of Tom & Jerry and Tex Avery cartoons on DVD, the ones that did so well on laserdisc. Now Warners should be able to compile an all-encompassing Avery filmography, combining his Warner Termite Terrace output, with his later MGM mind-warpers.
The trailer is a grainy 1970s reissue that tries to make the movie look like "Flag, the Flop-Eared Fawn", or somesuch thing. Trailers for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and The Wizard of Oz are included under a separate menu heading. Jody's World Interactive Adventure sounds like a game for kids but turns out to be several graphics and text pages with behind-the-scenes information. A generous set of language tracks allow you to watch the show in French or Spanish as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Yearling rates: