“When I was a child I spake like a child…” ~ 1 Corinthians 13
Like the previous year’s Valley of Decision, The Yearling opens with an establishing shot paired with Gregory Peck’s voice, this time in a folksier register. Aside from being unoriginal, one can hardly condemn director Clarence Brown for an act of plagiarism.
However, what it does go to exemplify is a certain amount of unspoken structure supplied to Old Hollywood films. This shorthand, along with needlessly informational title cards, feel very much like the bane of the era’s filmmaking. It’s as if with the age of the talking picture, film’s forgot about the primacy of the image and as such, they dumbed down movies for their audiences. After all, it’s so easy for dialogue to become a constant crutch to fill in any ambiguities.
Even despite this aspect, The Yearling still has innumerable elements going for it. Gregory Peck is a fine actor, even making ho-hum voiceover moderately palatable, and the gorgeous Technicolor tones of nature within the film are breathtakingly resplendent. In fact, the movie proves a well-situated follow-up to Brown’s earlier success, National Velvet. It is a portrait of pioneering before the days of Old Yeller, joining together such lucrative elements as adolescence and animals.
The adolescent in this tale, adapted from Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s eponymous novel, is Jody (Claude Jarman Jr.), and the fauna deserves mentioning later on (although you probably already know what it is).
For now, the amiable Penny Baxter (Peck) and his boy form a bit of a good-natured partnership, sticking together as the men of the house. Their chemistry is undeniable making their onscreen pairing as father and son ripe with all kinds of affection. None of it feels like a fake veneer plastered on for the benefit of the audience.
The third member of the Baxter household is Ora (Jane Wyman), the no-nonsense wife and mother who’s both homely and severe, completely different than her kinfolk. Still, there’s something within her that Wyman does so well to intimate through her characterization. Thus, despite all she says and does that under normal circumstances might make us dislike her, most will find it within themselves to give her the benefit of the doubt. So much of it is understated and unspoken even as she never gives an inch. Her maternal heartbeat is undeniable although it maybe periodically obscured.
The Yearling really is fable-like by providing an impression of a way of life focused on a frontier family and more directly, the young boy who grows up right before our very eyes. While there is a narrative of sorts — all the events can be strung together as subsequent rungs in the journey — it’s mostly a vignette-driven piece meant to reflect the vicissitude of life.
One moment father and son are streaking through the forest with the family dogs to subdue ol’ Slewfoot, the ornery bear who mercilessly slaughtered one of their livestock. It becomes a lively jaunt and the first lesson in the boy’s nascent repertoire.
Due to the utter uselessness of his firearm in the tense encounter with the bear, Penny takes it upon himself to acquire a new weapon, and he manages quite ably through a bit of horse-trading with the nearest neighbors. One of the bunch is an ornery fellow also easily duped. By the end of the confrontation, he’s given up a beautiful rifle for an underperforming pooch.
Then there are the momentous trips into town to pick up materials at the general store. Mama is still dreaming of a well someday, and the obliging shopkeeper (Henry Travers) offers the boy a mouth organ as he comes face to face with a girl his own age. It’s hardly young love.
Instead, father and son get involved in a right neighborly brawl in the center of town, which is yet another of the film’s more jocular moments. It’s not afraid of the humor to punctuate the drama of life.
Because the next scene of note is really the turning point. Out in the forest, Penny is bitten by a rattler and fortuitously he’s able to shoot a nearby doe using the bodily organs to draw out the poison. It’s a scary incident leaving the man of the house weak and his son aims to take the orphaned doe as the pet he’s always been begging for.
The rapturous crescendo of angelic audio grandeur introducing our true main character is laid on a bit thick. However, if your heart is ready to be melted and you have held onto a shard of childhood innocence, The Yearling can remain a powerful tale of youth. No scene is more emblematic than this one.
The film’s title comes front and center once again as we watch the parallel characters of a growing boy and his growing companion. He dotes over the little deer taking him to bed and imploring his mother not to take his pride and join away from him. Though the animal ruins them on multiple occasions trampling their crops.
If it’s not the fault of a creature, then nature whips up its own retribution. Their next tribulation is carried out by a torrential downpour decimating their hard-earned crops and sending emotions to a fever pitch. Evoking the sufferings of Job hardly seems a welcomed antidote to their plight.
But then, something begins to happen. A boy is becoming a man as he begins bearing the load of toil normally carried by his obliging father. He builds a fence to keep his deer out while fixing up their camp.
Then, they must say goodbye to a newlywed bride and groom. We don’t know them well but the family is deeply affected. Their exit by sea is a bittersweet departure, and as they ride back home Jody glumly notes, “I don’t like people going away it’s like they were dying.” His father only condolence is an honest observation, “That’s life boy. Getting and losing.” He must come to accept it. Death, goodbyes, trials; they never exactly get easier, but we must do our best to push through them with the support of our loved ones.
The Yearling might seem lightweight compared to some similar stories, but one must try and recall our own childhoods, where any number of thoughts and feelings experienced for the first time became monumental markers of life. That first pet you had. The death of a friend. The first girl you ever had a crush on. Each takes on varying degrees of importance in The Yearling and even for a story rich in sentimentality, these really are moral parables at their core.
Because it strikes some balance between maintaining a child-like wonder and zest for life while also understanding sometimes we must literally put to death our former ways. Finding that balance just might be one of the keys to a meaningful existence.