Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Yearling (1946)

The Yearling (Clarence Brown, 1946) One of the seminal children’s films that still holds much appeal for adults. Based on the novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings,* it is the story of a post-Civil War family (Gregory Peck, Jane Wyman, Claude Jarman Jr.) trying to scrape a living together in rural Florida, it may be one of the most beautiful of the '40's Technicolor films (which is saying something), reflecting as it does a storybook perspective of a child.

But, it is not all sugarplums and ‘coon-hunts for young Jody.  He spends his time, long hours, in nature at one with it.  Back at home, his mother, Ora, is brittle and cold, not only to Jody but to husband Ezra (or “Penny” as he is known). The only woman in a house of child-like males, she is stern at the chances taken by “the boys” and displays no warmth.  As if in compensation, Penny is both father and best friend to young Jody and the demands on him take their toll.  At one point, Penny is bit by a rattlesnake, and shoots a deer to use its liver to draw out the poison, an act that leaves an orphan fawn, which Jody adopts as a pet.
This is all warm and fuzzy and makes for wonderful moments of bonding with no mention of ticks or lice.  But it also provides ample lessons in the burdens of responsibility.  The fawn, named "Flag" by Jody's friend, may act tamed, but it is still a wild animal with wild instincts, including running away, ignoring and defying man-made barriers and even destroying crops which provide the meager livelihood and subsistence of the Baxter clan. With Penny being laid up so much of the film, it is on Jody to take on more duties around the farm, but his focus is on himself and Flag—he has to grow up in many ways: he must take responsibility for his errant pet; he must deal with the death of a friend; he must contend with a Nature that must be worked and tamed, rather than observed and serving as a playground; he must understand the complexities of the human soul and deal with people at their worst, rather at their most playful.
That last one is the most important: much more than the pet he must deal with, he has to understand his Mother on more than the surface level, and empathize with her nature, and understand a person's past to fully comprehend why they are who they are—he must dig a little deeper, just as surely as he must till a field. He can't merely observe anymore. He must understand.
It's a great film. A beautiful film, at times (when big-sky landscapes fill the screen) looking like a muted, rural Maxfield Parrish painting. But it may not be the ticket for very young children who will be captivated by the surface aspects of the film, but traumatized by the subject matter. Bear in mind: this is not a baby-sitter movie. Animals die. And Mom is mean. Adult supervision is required. In fact, it is well worth any adult's time to watch this film...with or without being accompanied by a child.

* The story of the author of "The Yearling," Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, is told in Martin Ritt's very good film Cross Creek, starring Mary Steenburgen, Peter Coyote, Rip Torn and Malcolm McDowell.  Check that one out, too. But it might not be for kids.

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