1946 / 1.33:1 / 128 min.
Starring Gregory Peck, Jane Wyman, Claude Jarman Jr.
Cinematography by Charles Rosher, Leonard Smith
Directed by Clarence Brown
Based on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s 1938 novel, The Yearling revels in the solitary adventures of Jody Baxter, a boy whose untamed nature is reflected in his Deep South stomping grounds, Florida’s “Big Scrub.” Director Clarence Brown and a raft of MGM’s finest cinematographers cruised the backwaters and swamplands to capture the sensual pleasures of the child’s primeval playground and in some respects those Technicolor vistas are the real star of the film.
Jody is played by Claude Jarman Jr. and Gregory Peck is his homesteading father Penny, an adjudicator of boyhood problems great and small—he’s a roughhewn work in progress for the more citified Atticus Finch. “Hulking” was Rawlings’s own description of Jody’s mother Orry—a force of nature as indomitable as any of the creatures that prowl the family’s backyard. On the written page, the mother’s figure—whether looming over the stove or tending the livestock—conjures up Marjorie Main as the braying matriarch of a dozen barnyard comedies. But Peck had been paired with Ingrid Bergman just the year before in Spellbound—meaning there was slim to no chance the studio was going to hitch his wagon to Ma Kettle.
The part of Orry is played by Jane Wyman—just 29 years old, five foot three, and possessing a porcelain doll presence that stands in contrast to her rugged surroundings. Wyman’s ambivalent beauty would be a good fit for Oz—in rare moments Orry is the kindly Glinda but more often than not she’s the glamorous witch’s angry doppelgänger. Orry is the reason Jody finds such happiness in solitude—the boy is only fully at peace when he’s a good distance from her. And no wonder, his mother has the frosty temperament of a woman whose hard-knock life has hollowed her out, leaving only the grim determination to get through the day—this Snow Queen has no problem surviving in such a humid climate.
Lest we think too badly of her, Orry’s icy manner is explained early—before Jody was born she had already given birth to three children, none of whom lived past their third birthday—and Jody is paying the price for her pain. Penny spells it out for the boy and the audience; she’s “afraid to love you.” These are hardworking parents, dealing with the twin burdens of their livelihood and their quixotic son—though they abide, there is something broken at the heart of the family and it’s clear there will come a reckoning. But then the Baxters deal with calamities on a daily basis—sometimes even at night, when the neighborhood monster strikes.
Slewfoot, is a burly but fleet black bear who preys on the family’s livestock when the moon is full and the dogs are asleep—after one particularly bloody rampage Penny decides to put an end to the varmint once and for all. The early morning hunt is both thrilling and horrifying—dog lovers, cover your eyes—and it ends with nothing to show but a busted gun and a wounded hound. Like most deceptively simple stories, each incident in The Yearling opens a door to the next adventure: Penny’s quest for a new firearm introduces the Forresters, a comically cantankerous family of Dogpatch rejects but kindly when it counts (one Forrester offspring is played by a remarkably restrained Chill Wills). The clan’s goodwill is personified by little Fodderwing Forrester, saddled with a crutch but set free by his vivid imagination. He’s in the tradition of the natural fool, “tetched” by God. But Fodderwing is no fool. Played by the ethereal Donn Gift, the child is sage in more ways than one—his otherworldly ramblings about life, death, and nature, set the stage for the arrival of Flag, the splindly-legged fawn whose gait is as uncertain as Jody’s future.
Orphaned by a shot from Penny’s new gun, Flag is discovered behind a Serenoa plant not far from where his mother was killed. When the leaves part to reveal that wide-eyed deer, the collective sigh that emerged from movie theaters in 1946 is likely still circling the planet. The fawn grows up alongside Jody but the newly nimble creature—stronger than he looks—begins to do more harm to the Baxter’s farm than any bear ever could. Orry, who has been simmering since Jody adopted the creature, boils over and grabs Penny’s rifle—the reckoning has finally come.
The beauty and dangers of the swampland permeate every frame of the film, like a southern fried version of The Jungle Book. Thanks to a particularly grueling production history (taking on and casting off a merry-go-round of directors and actors), the movie made use of five different cinematographers, Charles Rosher, Leonard Smith, Arthur E. Arling, Harold Rosson, and Paul C. Vogel (who did the screen tests). There are greens in this movie that make The Quiet Man look monochromatic. Rawlings herself was a consultant and location scout, pointing the way for art directors Cedric Gibbons and Paul Groesse who designed and built a working farm in Cross Creek—the tiny village where Rawlings lived and wrote The Yearling.
Though the sets for The Yearling were artificial, Clarence Brown himself was the real thing—he possessed one of the most transparent styles of all the great directors. Brown specialized in down home dramas ringing with Reader’s Digest homilies that in his hands capture the poetry of simpler times and supposedly simpler people. The Yearling itself is rife with those sentiments and positively operatic in its raw emotion—raging storms, purple sunsets, and a chorus of angels serenade the film’s more dramatic moments (some killjoys may describe it as kitsch—some killjoys may be right). Indeed those elements, along with the toothpaste ad close-ups of Jarman’s beaming face, might sink another director but Brown, like the Baxters, abides.
Warner Archive’s restoration of The Yearling is ravishing—the reason Blu rays were invented. Extras include the original theatrical trailer and a Screen Guild Players Radio broadcast of The Yearling starring Peck and Wyman. Rounding out the package is an MGM Tom and Jerry cartoon, The Cat Concerto, which was part of the evening’s entertainment on December 18, 1946 when The Yearling had its premiere at Los Angeles’s Carthay Circle Theater.