The Yearling (1946)
Directed by Clarence Brown
In 1928, Charles Rawlings and his young wife, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, bought a large orange orchard in rural north Florida, where they planned to settle among the locals. In something of an unusual turn of events, the man disliked the backwoods place, the dank sweat of the land that could almost choke the very trees of their air, the hillbilly neighbors and their rough and rugged stories, but the woman loved it, and when, in 1933, this hard-bitten woman determined to stay where she was, he left her behind and they divorced. She had begun, however, to acquire a national reputation for her stories about the people who lived there, and in 1938 she won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Yearling, about a boy who adopts a fawn as a pet.
As soon as I say that, I’m afraid you will think of the novel, and the 1946 film that is doggedly faithful to it in letter and in spirit, as a heartwarming story of the love between a child and an animal, rather like a swampland version of Lassie and the old doctor who loves her, in The Hills of Home. It is not so at all. The boy, Jody Baxter (Claude Jarman, Jr., who plays John Wayne’s son in Rio Grande), adopts the fawn after a near-fatal disaster. He and his Pa (Gregory Peck, young and near the beginning of his career) are out shooting for meat for the table – because life is hard, and danger and devastation are always near – when the father is bitten by a rattlesnake. He shoots a doe nearby, then he cuts his arm and tries to suck the venom out, while telling the boy to take his knife, carve up the doe and get out the heart and liver, to apply to the wound to draw the poison. After that, the boy’s got to run to their nearest neighbors, and there isn’t always good will between them, to go fetch the doctor – otherwise the man will die. It’s that doe’s fawn that Jody brings back to his house, naming him Flag.
Pa doesn’t die, but he is laid up for a long while, and his wife Orry (played to nervous and irritable and long-suffering perfection by Jane Wyman) has to do most of the chores, with the boy’s help, and she is none too pleased by the fawn. How can she be? They can’t be certain of the harvest, and fawns grow up to be deer, and deer eat things – they can ruin your farm. Orry is an ordinary God-fearing hard-working illiterate farm wife, with no time for nonsense, and whatever patience she once possessed by nature has been stretched and frayed and worn away. So the conflict is set. The three people do love one another, but there is anger too, even the simmer of hate between the boy and his mother, and nature is what it is regardless of our attempts to have things our own way.
Not many writers excel at portraying characters of the opposite sex, but Rawlings, the sort of woman who enjoys the company of men in all their masculine ways, was quite good at it, and she seems to have known well what the heart of a boy is like, and what must be done to that heart if he is to grow to be a man. For the yearling in the tale is not just the deer, but the boy. Nature – the land, the crop to be wrung from it, the woods and predators to be held at bay, the game to be trapped or shot, the marauding bear to be tracked with hounds and killed – determines the broad outlines of the actions the Baxters must take, just to survive. Jody Baxter too must yield to that nature, if he has any chance to gain mastery over it. That is the paradox.
But this story isn’t presented to us as bleak. Far from that! The film won an Oscar for the lush color of its cinematography, and it pulses with life, and you can forget for a couple of hours that Hollywood ever had anything to do with it. It is all Florida, and all real.