Review: The Yearling
Claude Jarman Jr. is Jody, an 11 year-old only child to loving Pa (Gregory Peck) and the more distant, hardened Ma (Jane Wyman). Living in the 19th century Florida wilderness, his existence isn’t rich with friends, but he loves nature and all of its critters. He becomes particularly taken with a fawn, whom he wishes to make his pet. Ma is extremely disapproving of the idea, but Pa helps win her over. However, Jody is about to learn just how difficult it is to look after a pet, especially one that is wild and untamed. Forrest Tucker, Henry Travers, and Chill Wills play townsfolk, whilst Donn Gift plays Jody’s only childhood friend, the ailing Fodderwing.
The weepy, wet performance by Claude Jarman Jr. will be a bit much for some and the cynical and hard of heart need not apply, but otherwise you just can’t hate this 1946 family movie from director Clarence Brown (“Intruder in the Dust”, the underrated “Song of Love”). Adapted by Paul Osborn (“East of Eden”, “Sayonara”) from the novel by Marjorie Kinnan, if you see only one ‘boy and his pet’ movie, make it this one, which also doubles as a coming-of-age story of fathers and sons. One of the best weepies ever made, this might just be the best live-action Disney movie that Disney never made. You’ll be amazed that this one’s from MGM and not the House of Mouse, especially with what sounds like typical Disney choral music in the excellent score by Herbert Stothart (“The Three Musketeers”).
One thing I love about the film is that there’s a slight otherworldly or folktale oddness to it through Donn Gift’s peculiar, sickly Fodderwing. There’s something haunting and oddly touching about him. Some may find the character a touch too much like a heightened author’s construct, but to me it gives the film an extra something beyond what is a pretty simple story. It’s a gorgeous-looking film full of all kinds of animals throughout, and the film has a perfectly captured sense of place and characters.
I said earlier that Claude Jarman’s performance will divide people, and I’m personally not enamoured with his weepy, squirmy performance. However, you have to remember that the character has few friends, and Jarman was a damn kid at the time. Some slack cutting is in order there. Much better is Gregory Peck. Peck almost feels like your dad. His masculinity was different to the Charlton Hestons, Burt Lancasters, John Waynes, Kirk Douglas’, and even Errol Flynns of the world. Although rather large and perfectly capable in a fight, he was generally reasoned, tolerant, wise, paternal, and sometimes even a pacifist to an extent (“The Big Country” specifically). Here he plays a strong, loving paternal figure who is up there with Atticus Finch in being the ‘perfect’ screen dad. Peck may not have had the most range as an actor, but he was damn good at playing Gregory Peck-types, and had an innate decency and quiet authority that just couldn’t be faked. His character is also essential in leading his son on the right path. Otherwise you’ve got the hardened Jane Wyman on the one hand, and dreamer Fodderwing on the other. Peck’s ‘Pa’ is the much needed balance for a kid at such a crucial stage in his development as a man/human being.
Jane Wyman, one of the most beautiful and open-faced actresses in cinematic history is effectively cast against type as the boy’s hardened, cynical, harsh, but ultimately well-meaning mother. This woman has a lot of sadness and jadedness inside her that she just can’t help. It’s a bit of a shame that solid character actors Henry Travers and Chill Wills just play townies here in virtual cameos, but it’s understandable. This is a film about a boy, his parents, and his unwieldy new ‘pet’. All other characters are fairly superfluous. Although it’s known for being a sad film, there are still moments of humour. There’s a genuinely funny bit where the kid catches his father in a rather compromising (or at least unusual and embarrassing) position, that you’ll just have to see for yourself.
A great family movie and terrific weepie, but also a particularly great father-son story. This kid has a great role model to learn from in his father, and Gregory Peck couldn’t be more perfectly cast as the dad we’d all be happy to have as our own. Cynics need not apply.