Clarence Brown's The Yearling is an immortal film about a boy and his deer. It is also remembered as the film with the first real Gregory Peck performance. Before The Yearling, Peck had been sluggishly cast in films like Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) and King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946), and had yet to find a role suitable to his strongest capabilities as an actor. Though a favorite of producers like David O. Selznick, he was secretly loathed by filmmakers like Hitchcock and Vidor, who both learned--after directing him--that he wasn't meant for roles that were harsh or mysterious. “He's shallow, for one,” complained Francois Truffaut of Peck's Spellbound performance, “but the main thing is the lack of expression in his eyes.” That is true of Spellbound, but it is not true of The Yearling, in which Peck's eyes sparkle--and so do the eyes of the boy with the deer.
Based on the novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling offers what was perhaps the first tailor-made role of Peck's career. Peck plays Penny Baxter, a former Confederate soldier who has retired into Lake George, Florida, to cut away a home in the scrub country. The opening of The Yearling is delightfully lush, as Brown and his cinematographer, Charles Rosher, slowly move us across a calm, misty river at sunset- before taking the camera's point of view and moving head-first into the woods, over the scrub country and out into the Baxter farm. Peck's narration gives us an idea of just how far Penny Baxter has come to where he is now. He is an unusually nice man, a lover of nature, and less concerned about whatever is happening in industrial America on the outside.
But The Yearling is really about Penny's twelve-year old son, the adorable Jody (Claude Jarman, Jr.), who shares his father's appreciation of nature and who longs to claim one of the creatures of the forest as his own. The ten-year old son of a Nashville railroad accountant, Jarman gave what can safely be regarded as one of the greatest child performances of all time. Jarman, unlike Peck, had a lot of rich expression in his eyes, and it is a shame that- with the exception of a notable role in Ford’s Rio Grande (1950)- his career did not take off much after this film, despite winning the Academy Award for Outstanding Child Actor.
Jody thrives in what appears to be a fruitful childhood. On some days, he and his father will go off to hunt for “Old Slewfoot”, the notorious bear that stalks the backwoods; and on other days they will engage in town square fistfights with Lem Forrester (Forrest Tucker) and his gang of drunken rascals. Jody also has a friend his age, Fodderwing (Donn Gift), whom he envies because he owns scores of pets and even sleeps up in a tree house- although Jody doesn't quite know what to make of the fact that Fodderwing once tried to fly like a bird and ended up getting his legs broken. At home, Jody enjoys a friendly relationship with his father but is constantly scolded by his mother, Ora (Jane Wyman), who is bitter at having lost her other children to stillborn deaths. She is cold, but Penny wants to ease the relationship between mother and son. “Don't be afraid to love the boy, Ora”, he tells her with a hand on her knee, after she refuses to allow Jody to keep any pets in the house.
The first hour of The Yearling is devoted to Jody's daily life. It is only in the second hour when we finally arrive at the heart of the picture, when Jody takes advantage of a rare possibility: to find and bring home the orphaned fawn of a deer that Penny is forced to kill in order to stall a venomous snake bite. Feeling sympathy for the boy's desire for some responsibility in his life, Penny allows Jody to go find the fawn, and most everyone who hasn't seen the film is at least marginally familiar with the famous scene in which Jody finds a set of hoof prints in the sand, traces them to a set of plants, weaves them aside and then finds... the deer, nestled safely in a small clearing. Queue the heartwarming Herbert Stothart score. “It's me!” exclaims an overjoyed Jody at the sight of the fawn, whom he will later name Flag. “It's me- Jody!”
Let me stop myself so that I can briefly focus on the performances in the film. Peck, as I mentioned earlier, gives a performance that can only be described as exceptional. “He wasn't exactly credible as a Florida cracker," writes Peck's biographer, Gary Fishgall, "having imbued his character with more dignity and nobility than a nineteenth-century scrub farmer would have possessed in real life, but he made audiences believe in and care about the man”. I cannot improve on that.
But Jane Wyman, as Peck's wife, in some ways has to assume a harder role: this is not at all the well-meaning companion she played to Ray Milland in Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945), but a stern, unforgiving wife and mother who has let the loss of her children corrupt her patience; it is a better performance than that of her previous film, and exceedingly more brave.
And of course, young Jarman has such irresistible excitement in his eyes for an actor of ten years. Consider the scene in which Jody rescues Flag the fawn, carries him over the fields with explosive white clouds setting up the romantic background behind him, and then greets his ailing father at home. Penny sits up in bed, sees his son looking as happy as ever, and then even he has to smile. This, folks, is about as joyous a moment as cinema gets.
As for Clarence Brown, he was a fitting filmmaker for this material. The Yearling, like his Anna Karenina (1935) adaptation starring Greta Garbo, is a film with happy elements that, alas, cannot possibly end well without ending unhappily. In Anna Karenina, Garbo throws away her empty marriage to Basil Rathbone for the love of Frederic March. Then March abandons her, and- worse- Rathbone denies Garbo access to her son. She will lose all hope and throw herself in front of a moving train. In The Yearling, another type of gruesome sacrifice will have to be made, and that brings me to another thing about Brown: he knew how to handle films about sacrifices. He dared to tread along uncomfortable, taboo subjects that other Hollywood filmmakers wouldn't have touched. Though I haven't seen any of his other films, including National Velvet (1944) or his adaptation of Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust (1949), it isn't difficult for me to recognize him as one of the underrated Hollywood greats. I would put him right up there with Preminger, Zinnemann and Kramer as one of the masters of socially liberal literary adaptations- but that's just me.
I admit that I knew, from reading an online summary, that The Yearling was not going to end happily, so I braced myself for what was sure to be inevitable. We realize, as the film rolls on, that Flag is growing up to be a nuisance for the Baxters, and even when Jody commits back-breaking work to building the farm's third fence or so, this does little to stall Flag's ravenous appetite for the backyard garden plants. Even Penny realizes just how costly Jody's pet has become, and finally tells Jody that he must have Flag euthanized. Jody doesn't have the courage to and, instead, releases Flag into the wild. Predictably, this solves nothing, and when Flag returns, Penny and Ora conspire behind Jody's back and have the deer wounded. Jody comes rushing out in panic, and then his parents befall on him the responsibility of having Flag finished off. Jody is betrayed and hurt. “I hate you,” he screams at them. “I hope you die.” And there is a very moving moment after Flag is shot dead, when tears come streaming down Jody's face. It is a painful scene.
I have less admiration for the later scenes, in which Jody runs away from home, falls unconscious during a canoe ride down the river and is picked up by a steamboat captain who returns him to the farm. It's like something out of Mark Twain, and it feels false here. Another problematic scene is the one that comes afterward, when Penny tries to comfort Jody's misery by giving a speech on how life is hard and lonesome, and how a battered man needs simply to “take it for his share and go on.”
Yes, but isn't this a rather banal message for the film? Some would say that The Yearling is another one of those films about the death of childhood, and how death itself leads a boy to become a man. I don't see it that way; I think that The Yearling is about responsibility, and what happens when that responsibility eventually dies out. That's why I appreciate the final moment when Jody goes to bed and dreams of his days with Flag; it reinforces the real point of the film. Fishgall's biography talks about how Boseley Crowther and other film critics at the time were bothered by this last-minute touch of sentimentality, and how even Peck considered it to be a superfluous Walt Disney element- but I would have to respectfully disagree. The Yearling is not really a film about a boy being raised by his parents to become a man and learn the hard facts of life; it is about a boy who adopts a pet, cares for it, and then must come to terms with its death. Fodderwing's demise foreshadows Flag's demise. Someday, Jody will have to witness the passing of his parents as well.
To put it plainly, this is a film about death. Not just the death of childhood, but death entirely. How do you make your way through such an ordeal? The screenplay for The Yearling was written by Paul Osborn, who gives Peck the last word actually in an earlier scene in the film. In this scene, Penny, Ora, Jody and Flag have all managed to survive a raging storm which has destroyed their crops. Ora is breaking down and Jody is at a loss for words, but Penny at least manages to get out something of a decent summary. “Ma, it seems like sometimes a body gets struck down so low, ain't a power on Earth can ever bring him up again,” he says. “Seems like something inside him dies- so he don't even want to get up again. But he does. There ain't much of a world left for us, but it's all we got. Let's be thankful we got any world at all.”