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The Yearling (1946)
Directed by Clarence Brown
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was one of those women whom it’s not going to be a picnic to be married to, but who did indeed love men, who listened to their rough and ready tales, and who felt more at home among them than among women, especially what you’d call “society women.” So when she and her (first) husband Charles Rawlings moved to the swamplands and orange groves of north Florida, so-called “Florida Cracker” country, settled by lower-class British and American pioneers in the 1700’s. They were called “Crackers” because they “cracked” tall tales about themselves, like firecrackers, making a lot of noise.
Two hundred years later, they were still telling stories, those hard-scrabbling farmers, fishermen, and trappers, and she heard them, remembered them, and transformed some of them into excellent works of fiction. One of those, The Yearling, hit the silver screen, and I believe that both the novel and the film will stand the test of time.
Why? Well, I might say of our Film of the Week that it’s hard to go wrong when you have the wise father, Penny Baxter, played by Gregory Peck, who would eventually perform the same kind of role but in lawyer’s garb, for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). The Baxters are poor dirt farmers in north Florida, if that water-logged stuff beneath their feet could be called dirt and not mud, clay, marsh, or quicksand. They have a hard time of it, though Mr. Baxter is hard-working and very shrewd, and his wife Orry Baxter can somehow wring survival and a little beauty out of land that is rich and sometimes too rich.
We aren’t talking about educated people here. Orry can’t even read. They have one child, a boy, Jody (Claude Jarman, Jr.; see him also as John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s son in John Ford’s cavalry film, Rio Grande). Jody doesn’t get much fun out of life. His only friend is a crippled boy on the farm nearby, where the rivals of the Baxters, the Forrester clan, live. It’s that boy who first inspires Jody with love for the wild creatures. And that is where the yearling comes in: a spindly male fawn, whom Jody finds, saves, feeds, and loves; and that fawn, once he is a year old, is not going to be penned up in any fold that Jody can build. Need I say what harm a deer can do in a single night to a field of vegetables? By then, Jody has lost his only friend, and the fawn, whom he named Flag, means everything to him.
I used to say I disliked the actress Jane Wyman, but forgive me, Lord, for I have sinned! I confused her person with a few — by no means a majority — of the roles she played, and I underestimated her even at that. Jane Wyman was a superb actress, despite or because of her sometimes hard-favored countenance; only her winning the best actress award as the mute woman in Johnny Belinda (1948) can reconcile me to Irene Dunne’s not winning it that same year for I Remember Mama. But Wyman was perfect for the role of Orry Baxter. She’s not a bad woman, not at all. But she is hardened by poverty, and she says, sensibly enough, that you cannot keep a wild deer on a farm.
To make matters worse, Penny Baxter has suffered a mishap, is lamed for a while, and cannot do the work he has always done. It’s a difficult triangle of love, husband and wife and their son, and not least because the boy Jody himself is at the “yearling” age, on the uneasy boundary between boyhood and manhood. This boundary is never, for boys, an easy thing to cross, a matter of course. For Jody, the pain of growing up is intense, and its focus is that beautiful dumb animal, Flag, the young buck.
Marjorie Rawlings liked to tell stories to children, but with a proviso — she wanted her audience to be boys only! As I said, an odd woman she was. But girls have also admired many a tale of the boy who has to become a man, and I’m sure that girls have loved The Yearling as well as boys have. It isn’t for little children — that’s all I’ll say, because I don’t want to give away the ending; and the novel is certainly not for them, either. But there’s an abiding wisdom in both the novel and the film that is not cynical, not sour; and the goodness of unsullied childhood is upheld; and this is more than I can say about most films in our time!
Word & Song is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.