The Yearling (dir. Clarence Brown, 1946) is a soft spot for me. Maybe it’s the Technicolor Maxfield Parrish Florida landscapes, or Claude Jarman’s self-consciously joyous face, or Gregory Peck’s young and upright fatherly ways, or the occasionally wooden dialogue, or any combination of these and other reasons.
Based on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ novel, The Yearling attends to an infrequently noticed part of the American South—the post-Civil War Florida swamps, where pioneers go to settle and struggle to make their lives after the Civil War. With its attention to the difficulties of small time farmers, it reminds us of The Southerner, Swamp Water, and even God’s Little Acre. We sense the influence especially of Renoir’s films about the South here, as well as a touch of John Ford.
The Yearling is an episodic narrative of a boy’s education in the challenges of adult life. It’s also about a dirt farmer trying to get a hold in the swamplands of Florida, and about his wife, scarred by the deaths of three children. She’s cold and apparently unloving to her son, but the film gradually reveals that her reserve is her way of protecting herself against further hurt should her living son die like the others.
Claude Jarman plays Jody in this film. He’s not really a very good actor, but he’s a wonderful presence. The film is in love with his broad smiling face and never misses an opportunity to linger on it. Jody brims with optimism and open spirit, he’s in love with the natural world and its creatures, in love with his fellow human beings and the possibilities of his life, as far as he can understand them. The Yearling offers up a worshipful, almost reverent cult of boyhood and the innocence and joys of preadolescence. His father tries to encourage him in his interests, while his mother, at least at first, tries to discourage them. It’s tempting to see her as a kind of real-life Disney mother, cold and evil like Cruella Deville, or the haughty socially self-conscious mother of the boy in Song of the South. But The Yearling resists such a reading. She is human after all.
This film and Jarman’s character really take off in a scene in which Jody and his deer Flag are running through the countryside, alongside the edges of the lake, through the woods. They startle wild deer that begin running alongside, on the border of the woods, accompanied by music from Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The result is a miraculous cinematic ballet that captures more than anything else in the film the joy that is the boy’s nature.
This film gives us both the frontier as a place of adventure and closeness to nature and also a place of cruelty. The boy loves nature, stares for hours in reverie at running streams and forest creatures. He has little awareness of the hard lives his parents live, or of the siblings he never met, who died before him. Life for him is a long and ebullient romp. This comes to a head when he finds and takes as a pet the little fawn of a doe his father killed for its liver—he’d been snake bit, and he wanted to use the liver to suck out the poison. Even the way he came into possession of the fawn, which he names Flag, should have been a warning to the boy, but he is too young to recognize it. He’s unaware that fawn will one day grow up into something much larger and difficult. Love of Flag, and responsibility to his family are the contending forces for the boy. Up to a point his parents indulge his love for the deer, but when the animal repeatedly eats crops on which the family depends for survival, the decision is made. His father orders the boy to shoot the door. He obeys, in part because he knows his father is right, and then runs away for three days, floating on an old skiff through the swamp and down the river, until he’s found by a riverboat captain and returned home. This is Jody’s dark night of the soul, and he returns from it, presumably, an older and wiser young man.
Because so much of the film comes to us from the boy’s view, it’s tempting to overlook the struggles of the parents—of the mother to deal with the loss of her children, her fear of losing another, of the father’s struggle to be a successful farmer and feed his family. The fact that three children have died is evidence of the harshness of their lives. Because we see her through the boy’s eyes, the mother may seem a cold and harsh person. It becomes clear as the film moves along that the father understands the reasons for her apparent coldness.
Frontier life in the film, especially once we’re off the farm, is a bit more hackneyed. There are disputes with the neighboring Forresters, the death of the Forrester boy Fodderwing, Jody’s good friend, fights in town, rattlesnake bites, injuries, and so on. The father trades one of the Forresters a worthless dog for a new rifle. This leads to bad blood and the Forresters stealing from the boy’s family. Such episodes come at us at an unrelenting pace, but they vary sufficiently so that the film retains its charm and never falters. Fodderwing is especially interesting. A frail boy of Jody’s age, he permanently injured himself in a fall while trying to fly off the top floor of his family’s house. He speaks in poetic haunting phrases about animals and spirits and it’s clear from his earliest appearance that he is a fated lad. His death is one more step in Jody’s cruel education.
All of these elements congeal in a vision of the Florida frontier and its past that is if not entirely realistic at least coherent and engaging. Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman are excellent in their roles as Jody’s parents. Both were nominated for Best Actor Oscars. Director Clarence Brown won a nomination for directing. The film won Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction Oscars. Peck won a Best Acting Golden Globe award. Acting, cinematography, the story itself, effective editing and appropriate music, all make this an entrancing and charming film of the sort we rarely see anymore.
In 1949 Brown directed Claude Jarman in another film about a boy’s initiation into adulthood: Intruder in the Dust, an adaptation of the novel by William Faulkner.