Thursday, April 12, 2018

Yearling, The (1946)

Director: Clarence Brown


A sensitive coming of age story in marvelous Technicolor coupled with some awe inspiring cinematography of wildlife comes together in the 1946 production of The Yearling. A motion picture that suffered through production difficulties, including a halt to the entire project at beginning of World War II, taking years and a complete turn over in cast and crew, the film would come together to bring audiences an adaptation of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings novel. For a picture that starts slow and meandering, its story comes together in an emotional tale of a young boy’s first steps beyond childhood.

The Yearling is a family drama about a young boy’s relationship with his beloved pet deer and its difficulties it causes the family farm. In 1870s Florida on the farm of the good natured former soldier “Penny” Baxter (Gregory peck) and his wife Ora (Jane Wyman) we follow the tale of their lone surviving son Jody (Claude Jarman Jr.), a lonely boy who yearns for a pet for company. Ora’s hard nature due to having lost all her prior children is against the idea, but the understanding Penny allows Jody to raise a rescued fawn as long as Jody is responsible for it. Overjoyed, Jody and his pet which he names Flag become nearly inseparable, but when as Flag matures into a grown deer he begins to get into the family farm’s crops, threatening prosperity for the farm.

Determined Jody works hard to restore the farm and keep Flag away from the crops, but to no avail. In a state of desperation Penny and Ora tell Jody to put down Flag to Jody’s shock. Unable to do so, Jody frees Flag into the wilderness, however Flag returns and continues to do harm to the crops leading Ora to shoot at Flag, wounding him. Overwhelmed with the task to put his beloved pet out of its misery, Jody attributes the act to his mother lack of love for her son, causing him to run away. Three days later, hungry and understanding more of the unforgiving nature of the world beyond home, Jody returns and reconciles with his parents, learning that he is no longer sheltered by childhood’s innocence, at which Ora breaks down with affection for her only son.

Much of the picture suffers from the slow nature of the book’s source material and the character build up towards the eventual plot that encapsulates the actual drama. The plot explained above merely covers the second half of the actually movie, as the first have simply introduces the characters and takes its time to establish setting and mood in a manner better suited for a written medium than the silver screen. Jody, played by newcomer Claude Jarman Jr., is a tough pill to swallow for much of the picture with his over enthusiastic manner for a boy with very little in material things and no friends beyond his father. Once the actually drama of the picture begins, which is not until after the first hour of the feature when he first meet Flag, that is when the audience begin to actually enjoy the picture, and more importantly Jody becomes relatable, turning the feature into a decent coming of age story.

The film continues to unravel about a boy and his pet deer further into a lesson of personal joys versus responsibility. It all culminates into heavy final act as Jody is faced with the task of sacrifice in the form of a death scene that can be likened to Old Yeller (1957). The best aspect of the story takes form in the nature when Gregory Peck opens up to his son about how he attempted to preserve Jody’s childhood for as long as he could and Flags death was the breaking point in which childhood would begin to fade for Jody. These closing moments with Father, Mother, and Son all come together is an outpouring of emotion become highly relatable for adults looking at their own children, and reminiscing about their own childhood. For a picture that starts out painfully slow, it comes together ultimately in a rather good payoff, as long as you can get past that first hour or so of the picture.

The genesis of The Yearling as a motion picture goes back to 1941 when MGM first optioned the book. Principle photography was being set with Victor Fleming directing and and a cast featuring Spencer Tracy, Anne Revere, and Gene Eckman as the Baxters. Creative disputes on set and behind the scenes led to Fleming’s departure, along with his successor soon after, King Vidor. With delays the rapidity of Eckman outgrowing his role of Jody the studio was losing money, eventually cancelling the production all together at the onset of the United States joining World War II..

Following the conclusion of the war MGM revisited The Yearling as a possible production. In the newly thriving post war economy MGM was able to invest in location shooting in Florida along with Technicolor to capture the beauty the natural beauty of the location, including the cast of hundreds of animals and wildlife that aiding in bringing the film to life. Tasked as director was Clarence Brown, the Oscar nominated filmmaker that brought audiences the Elizabeth Taylor equestrian centered film National Velvet. Brown capture the beauty of nature in very casual form, allowing it to shine that would rival some of the very best nature documentaries with some of its shots.

The originally attached cast for the picture where all long gone ideas as the production started afresh with Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman as the parental figures, both fresh off recent critically acclaimed performances, Peck off his Oscar nominated role in The Keys to the Kingdom (1944) and Wyman from the drama The Lost Weekend (1945). Both their performances here would here as near polar opposites raising their son earned them Academy Award nominations.

To fill the role of Jody, MGM put one of those infamous nationwide talent searches to find the right boy the fill the role. The discovery for MGM was fifth grader from Nashville named Claude Jarman Jr., a toe-headed boy with a mop of hair and southern charm that filled the shoes of our innocent center of the story. MGM loved his all-American boy characteristics, which later viewers can deem as a bit over the top. In fact much of his character’s delivery feels a bit forced, yet his overall innocence and enthusiasm has its charm which pays off handsomely in the emotional conclusion of the picture. Critics of the time loved Jarman and the Academy would award him with one of their juvenile honors, cementing him as MGM’s latest child find. However, is career would not last too long as, like many child stars, he found difficulty in landing serious roles once he reached maturity, leaving Hollywood for college in his home state of Tennessee.

The film was a critical and finical success for MGM, earning seven Oscars nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. The Yearling would be the studio’s highest box office draw for the year, but would not make much of a profit due to its larger budget.

The impact of the picture remains today in the wilderness of Florida, where the film was based and shot. In the Ocala National Forest visitors will be able to find “The Yearling Trial,’ a hiking path that leads to many of the locations that were once used during production of the feature. You will not find any sets or props from the picture there, but the trail pays tribute to the natural beauty the picture showcased.

The Yearling is nice feature from an age where MGM was still the studio for innocent family pictures. It delivers a harmless story with heart that just takes time to get to. Not necessarily a picture many may go out of their way to find, The Yearling is solid enough of a film to watch once, but not one that viewers would feel deserves multiple viewings.

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