Old Yeller: A Classic for a Reason

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I recently watched the classic film, Old Yeller, with my nine-year old step daughter. She read the book a few months ago, and when I told her there was a movie, she couldn’t wait for it to reach the top of the Netflix queue and arrive at the house. Last weekend, on a rainy Saturday morning, I snuggled on the couch and prepared to cry.

My husband laughed at the language, saying he’d grown up with people who were always “fixin to go down yonder and rustle up some grub.” 

You all know the story, or, at least, you should.  Travis Coates tends to the homestead when his Pa leaves on a cattle drive in hopes of the family’s first cash money in years. An old yeller dog befriends Travis and his ADD younger brother, Arliss. At first the dog steals food and wallows in their watering hole. Then he saves their lives and wiggles his way into their hearts.

In the end, the dog gets rabies. Texas was a hell of a place to grow up, rocky and dry and full of wild Indians. One night, Old Yeller goes crazy, snapping and growling at Arliss, ready to rip his head off, crazy and rabid. Travis and his mother come running out with the rifle.

As I dried my eyes, my step-daughter looked at me sideways. “You crying?”

I sniffled. “This is a sad movie.”

“Yeah, but. It’s just a movie.”

A few hours later, she and I took a walk to the park. She placed her hand in mine and said, “Old Yeller is a pretty sad movie.”

We talked for a few minutes about what made it sad.

Then she asked me, “Why do people want to watch sad movies?”

I had to think about that one. It was a good question. In the end I told her that the appeal of literature, including memoirs, is that we can live vicariously through the characters. As a reader or viewer we can watch how the characters react, and we can allow ourselves to feel a full range of emotions without any of them really taking root. We know, in our minds, that the characters are fictional, or at least, they aren’t us. Their problems are not our own.

Yet, when Travis lifts that rifle over the fence, tears staining his cheeks, and tells his mother that he’ll shoot Yeller, because he was, after all, his dog, a little fountain of fizzy sadness wells up in even the most jaded viewer. We aren’t lifting the rifle and shooting our own dog, one that has come to befriend a family in need of more than just a little protection. We aren’t the boy trying to prove that he’s man enough to do the job, and man enough to deserve the horse his father promised to bring home to him.  But still.  We feel it.

In the end, it is the bittersweet flavor that rings so true. Real life is bittersweet. It never goes quite as planned, and when it does, it’s never quite as good as we had hoped. Life can be disappointing. Life can be bitter.

But it can also be sweet. When Travis’s father returns and learns the story of Old Yeller, he brings the promised horse to the dog’s gravesite. Travis asks his father how he’s ever supposed the get over something like this. His father’s Disney-approved moral makes the bitter pill easier to swallow. He tells Travis that life can just be like that. He says, “Now and then, for no good reason, life will haul off and knock a man flat.”

But, he allows, it can also be full of sweetness too.

As we walked back to the house, my step-daughter told me she was getting hungry. She looked at me, smiling a little, and asked, “Should we go down yonder and rustle us up some grub?”

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