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Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Yearling

One of Gregory Peck's first starring roles was in 1946's The Yearling, which earned him his second Oscar nomination (the first was in 1944 for Keys to the Kingdom, which I can't find in any form). It is unabashedly sentimental family fare, and cynics may well hate it. It takes a simple story and builds it to something universally epic, and at times goes overboard (the choir on the soundtrack should have been cut).

Directed by Clarence Brown, and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling is set in 1878 in central Florida, when it was a wilderness and not a haven for theme parks. Peck, his wife, Jane Wyman, and their son, Claude Jarman Jr., eke out a meager existence as they grow various crops in a cleared out section of forest. They have already lost several children, so Wyman is reluctant to bond with Jarman, and she is a cold fish. Peck, who would play the quintessential movie father seventeen years later in To Kill a Mockingbird, establishes credentials in this film. He loves his son and they have a special bond.

But Jarman wants a pet, and on that Wyman is obstinate. He is friends with a neighboring boy, a kind of odd duck who crippled himself when he jumped off the roof, determined to fly. That boy has a thing for animals, and Jarman is envious.

One day they are out hunting and Peck is bitten by a rattlesnake. He shoots a doe to wash his wound in blood (that's a new one on me). That leaves a fawn orphaned, and Jarman (with Peck's help) takes in the little deer as a pet. Of course, deer eat vegetation, and eventually conflict arises.

The best thing about The Yearling is its appreciation of nature, both in the photography (the cinematography, in Technicolor, won an Oscar) and in the writing. There is a rhapsodic scene in which Jarman and his yearling run through the woods, joining a herd of deer, set to Mendelssohn. While the film is full of cornpone humor and raw emotion, it almost works better as a nature documentary.

For a double-feature of traumatically sad movies about the deaths of animals, throw in Old Yeller, or, sticking to the deer family, Bambi.

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