…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!
Based upon Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, The Yearling is the story of Ezra ‘Penny’ Baxter (Gregory Peck) and his wife, Orry (Jane Wyman), who have built a farm in rural Florida. The film takes place shortly after the end of the American Civil War, and follows primarily the escapades of the Baxter’s young – and only surviving – son, Jody (Claude Jarman Jr., in a role that won him the juvenile Oscar). Jody is a true animal lover, and despite his parents efforts to break him through hard farm work and responsibility, he is a dreamer with a soft heart. They eventually permit him to take in a fawn as a pet, after the fawn’s mother is shot by Penny. In predictable fashion, the fawn – whom Jody names Flag for his ‘white flag’ tail at the suggestion of a friend – grows up into a full-grown deer and the two become inseparable, running and frolicking in the woods.
Keeping Flag on is eventually called into question when the family suffers severe hardship, first in the form of a 3 day torrential downpour which rots the crops, then – once the crops are growing again – Flag’s inbred grazing/feeding tendencies get him in some deep trouble. For a family that exists solely on farming, it is undeniable that Flag cannot remain around. Jody is offered a challenge by his father that forces him to become a man and take immediate responsibility, something he isn’t sure that his heart can take. I’m sure that you can guess where the story goes from that point on.
The script adaptation no doubt takes a lot of its language and homespun wisdom directly from the book, but from not being accustomed to people speaking this way, the “I reckon’s”,”fixin’ to’s”, “a-goin’ to’s”and “aimin’ to’s” get mighty tiresome after a while. It comes across as a little too forced and ridiculous, but it’s something I suppose I need to look past in context of the time and setting in which this ‘yarn’ is placed. Gregory Peck is solid an strong as Penny Baxter – a role that clearly establishes him firmly in the right seat for his eventual Oscar-winning role as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird 16 years later. He is the ultimate father figure, and indeed, much of the story is built upon the father-son dynamic. The silent heart, and perhaps most changed character of the film, however, is Orry Baxter. Jane Wyman gives an understated – but undeniably strong – performance. Through most of the film, she is stony-faced, sullen, and harshly resentful of the hand life has dealt her. For one thing, she has lost three children prior to Jody. This alone forces her to maintain a coldness to Jody for much of the film, for she is afraid loving him will lead to losing him (Penny says to her near the beginning, “Don’t be afraid of loving him,” to which she doesn’t respond). She remains bitter and resentful for most of the film, and only in small glimpses do we see her attempt to crack a smile. This is the essence of what the character should be, as hard as it is to understand her. Wyman sets Orry up brilliantly for her transition at the end of the film, when dire circumstances and the reality of losing Jody forces her to open her heart and let her emotion pour forth. After watching this movie, I have to give Wyman more credit for being an incredibly underrated actress in her time. Fortunately, she would enjoy more success in the following years and win a deserved Oscar for playing a deaf-mute rape victim in 1948 for Johnny Belinda (she would also rack up a few more subsequent nominations).
In the tradition of Old Yeller, The Yearling is a story of growing up and learning responsibility. Personally, as an adult, I find it a bitter pill to swallow to tell your child to go out and shoot his own pet. I would much rather do the job myself to spare him. I think that’s really asking quite a lot to break a child’s heart, so I don’t find that the ultimate lesson in these films is very easily learned or won. Still, films of this ilk were considered lessons in themselves in their time, and now are viewed as classic family fare to live on through the ages – my own humble opinion notwithstanding.
Wyman lost the 1946 Oscar to Olivia de Havilland in To Each His Own.