June 19, 2014

The Yearling (1946)
Grade: 50/100

Director: Clarence Brown
Stars: Claude Jarman Jr., Gregory Peck, Jane Wyman

What it's about. Based on the 1938 bestseller by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. A technicolor family drama set in the Florida wilderness circa 1878. Good-natured Ezra (Gregory Peck) is a Confederate veteran of the Civil War who has built a small farm with his comely but dour wife Ora (Jane Wyman). They have had four children, but the only survivor is pre-adolescent Jody (Claude Jarman Jr.).

The family ekes out only a modest living, and has encounters with the farm closest to theirs, the Forresters. There, Buck (Chill Wills) is the patriarch, Lem (Forrest Tucker) is the antagonist, and crippled preteen Fodderwing (Donn Gift) is Jody's best friend. In the closest village, Boyles (Henry Travers) is a storekeep and her insulting preteen daughter Eulalie (Joan Wells) is a potential future sweetheart of Jody.

Fodderwing and Jody are animal lovers. Jody pines for a pet of his own, and because it is a movie, has no interest in any of the family dogs, horses, or cows. He adopts a fawn, and the two remain close even as the deer grows into a yearling and threatens the family crops. Ultimately, Ezra orders Jody to shoot his beloved deer, which compels young Jody to run away from home.

How others will see it. A childrens' weeper in the Old Yeller mode, The Yearling received A-list attention from MGM. Director Clarence Brown had a recent big hit with National Velvet (1944), Gregory Peck was a rising star recently in Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945), and Wyman was the leading lady in an even better film from that year, The Lost Weekend (1945). Jarman was an unknown, but cast from thousands of candidates.

The Yearling was a box office hit for MGM. Curiously, it received only a single Golden Globe nomination, Gregory Peck as Best Actor. He won. The movie did better at the Oscars, garnering eight nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Director. However, it won Oscars only in two technical categories, color cinematograhy and art direction, excluding Jarman's special juvenile award.

How I felt about it. It's difficult to determine exactly what has gone wrong with The Yearling. The various family tragedies are surprisingly unmoving. We are glad when Jody is rescued by the river boat, of course, and we are also pleased that Ezra survives his snakebite. But it is hard to work up tears for Jody's pet deer. After all, their hogs are slaughtered each year. We feel more sorry for the stuntman in the bear suit that has to fight two furious dogs.

The script is unassailable, and the direction is competent. Some stories get such short shrift that they might as well be omitted entirely, such as the arrival of manly man family friend and adventurer Oliver (Jeff York) and his fight with the Forrester brothers over Oliver's gal Twink (June Lockhart).

Despite his upbringing on the remote family farm, Jody is wimpy and mostly useless, except for the final reel effort in planting and fence-building. Otherwise, he is a soft dreamer spoiled by his father. We find it hard to believe that Jane Wyman has been wed for a dozen years, has had four children, lives on a deep country farm, yet looks like she is one sheer dress away from working as a New York City fashion model.