Few stories explore the beauty and brutality of life as well as The Yearling. The first film version of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings best-selling novel balances these opposing, but interconnected elements with simplicity and elegance. Directed with restraint by the underrated Clarence Brown, the film is deserving of its classic status. As I recently watched the new Blu-ray release of the film from Warner Archive, I was struck by how beautiful it is as well.
The setting is Florida in the 1870s. Pre-teen Jody Baxter (Claude Jarman Jr.) lives with his parents Orry (Jane Wyman) and Penny (Gregory Peck) on their small farm. Jody is a good kid, but a dreamer. His father indulges his drifting nature in opposition to his own strict upbringing. His mother is more rigid; she loves him, but the death of three infant children before him (cut down from six in the novel) makes her reluctant to bond with him and be hurt again should he meet a similar fate.
While the family struggles to survive the damage to their livelihood caused by a bear, thieving neighbors, a flood, and even the titular deer that Jody takes in as a pet, they are always hopeful for better times. Penny is especially optimistic, looking to an extra crop to raise money for a well or arranging the sly trade of a dog for a new rifle so that he can provide for his family in the way he desires.
The strict mother type is rarely understood in these kinds of stories, but here the grieving Orry is treated with empathy and compassion. Rather than being angered by her coldness, Jody tries to determine why she is this way. Penny encourages his thoughtfulness, describing the more carefree woman he married, and why he is devoted to her happiness.
As Penny, Gregory Peck is looser than usual. Something about the role seems to have touched him as he appears genuinely in tune with the hopeful spirit of the character. In a difficult part, Wyman subtly balances the hard shell Orry has formed around herself for protection with those moments when her warmth and love for her family slip out.
Jarman’s Jody is one of the great classic child performances. He’s as gangling and wobbly as the fawn he adopts, but there’s profound wonder and intelligence in his eyes. His emotional engagement is of a depth beyond his years.
While this family unit is the focus of the story, there are plenty of fascinating characters in the mix. The shifty Forrester family is fully of tricky personalities, with the tousle-haired Chill Wills a stand-out as Buck. Donn Gift is especially moving and intriguingly eccentric as the crippled Forrester son Fodderwing, Jody’s only friend. The always welcome Henry Travers (It’s a Wonderful Life ) also shows up in a small part.
Iconic cinematographer Charles Rosher (Sunrise ) creates a poetically beautiful milieu, using matte backdrops and paintings to magnificent effect. He manages to seamlessly integrate the studio and location settings so that he captures the grandeur of nature, but also the intimacy of the family’s life together. The film is also beautifully lit, especially in interior scenes where the warmth of the fire and candlelight lend the actors a dreamy glow.
The Yearling was rightfully a popular and critical success. It received significant awards attention, including Oscar wins for cinematography and art direction. Claude Jarman Jr. won a special juvenile award for his performance as well.
Special features on the disc include a radio production of The Yearling, the hilarious Tom and Jerry cartoon Cat Concerto, and a theatrical trailer.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.