After I finished Abduction: The Jocelyn Shaker Story, I decided to watch a film that was shown on TCM as a part of the 31 Days Of Oscars. When I started the 1946 film, The Yearling, I thought it was going to be a sweet and heartwarming little movie about a country boy raising a deer. Instead, it turned out to be a rather dark movie about how much it sucks to grow up in the country. I can only imagine how many childen, back in 1946, were scarred for life by this movie.
The movie is actually about two yearlings. The main one is Jody (Claude Jarman, Jr.), who lives in the bayous of 1878 Florida. His family is a farming and hunting family. They live in a small shack and struggle to make ends meet. His father, Penny Baxter (Gregory Peck) is … well, he’s Gregory Peck. He’s stern but warm and speaks with that deep voice that lets you know that you better pay attention to everything he says. While Penny is generally laid back and enjoys a good laugh, his wife, Ora (Jane Wyman), is far more serious and severe. Ora has lost three children and, as a result, she is both overprotective and emotionally distant from Jody.
Jody desperately wants a pet but Ora says that they can’t afford to feed any animals. However, one day, Penny is bitten by a snake. Apparently, the organs of a deer can be used to draw out snake venom. (Seriously, until I watched The Yearling, I had no idea this was the case. I once nearly stepped on a rattlesnake in New Mexico and it totally freaked me out. It’s good to know that if I ever do get attacked by a snake, all I have to do is kill a deer.) Penny shoots a doe and has Jody cut out its heart and liver. After doing so, Jody notices that the doe had a fawn. He begs to be allowed to adopt it and, overruling Ora, Penny says that he can.
After getting his deer, Jody goes to visit his best friend, Fodderwing (Donn Gift) and ask him what he thinks a good name would be. However, Fodderwing’s father informs Jody that his friend has just died. And really, that scene pretty much epitomizes what The Yearling is about. Because it’s told almost entirely from Jody’s point of view, the film may occasionally look like an old school Disney film. But death and hardship are very real in the world of The Yearling. People die, even children. Having a pet may make the reality easier to take but it doesn’t change the reality.
Jody names the deer Flag. As the film progresses, both Jody and Flag grow up. Unfortunately, as Flag gets older and bigger, he causes more and more trouble for both his family and the neighbors. He eats crops and he destroys fences. After Penny is injured, Jody is the one who ends up replanting the corn and fixing all the damage. But, even after all of Jody’s hard work, Flag still knocks down another fence. That’s when Jody is told that he must shoot his beloved pet…
And that’s why I went, “Agck! What type of movie is this!?”
Well, it’s a coming-of-age movie and, unfortunately, Jody is living at a time when growing up means giving up childish things. (That’s always been my least favorite verse in the Bible, by the way.) The Yearling itself is a pretty good film, though I do have one major problem with it. The film looks great and both Jane Wyman and Gregory Peck are expertly cast. If you keep an eye out, you’ll even spot Henry Travers — Clarence the Angel from It’s A Wonderful Life — in a small role.
That said, my main objection to The Yearling — the thing that keeps it from being quite as good as it could be — is the performance of Claude Jarman, Jr. In the role of Jody, Jarman goes so totally over-the-top with his line readings and his facial expressions that it immediately takes the viewer out of the film’s reality. Whenever anything happens — whether its Penny getting attack by a snake or his mother throwing a plate at his deer or Flag knocking over a fence — Jarman responds by standing there with his eyes and mouth wide open. His lines are delivered with a rushed enthusiasm that can’t hide the complete lack of authentic emotion in his performance. Claude Jarman tries really hard but it’s not surprising to discover that, after The Yearling, he only appeared in a few more films before joining the Navy and then subsequently moving behind the camera as a producer.
Then again, the Academy thought highly enough of Jarman’s performance to give him an honorary Oscar. The Yearling itself was nominated for best picture but it lost to another sad film about giving up childish things, The Best Years of Our Lives.