Yearling, The (1946): One of Hollywood’s Best Movies about Children’s Love for Animals

The Yearling, an emotionally powerful pastoral drama, based on the 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same title by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and adapted to the screen by the playwright Paul Osborn, tells the story of a boy’s love for his pet yearling deer.

Claude Jarman, Jr. plays Jody Baxter, an 11-year-old boy living with his family in the Florida backwoods. Upon discovery of an orphaned fawn, he raises it with the encouragement of his father (Gregory Peck). However, his mother (Jane Wyman), struggling with poverty, feels the burden of feeding yet another mouth.  As the deer grows older, it becomes a bigger burden for her.

Along with other MGM “family-animal” movies, such as National Velvet” and Lassie Come Home,” both with the young Liz Taylor, “The Yearling” is a classic of its genre, marked by strong production values (the film is in color, see below).

The parents are typical characters of local writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, whose other books have also been adapted to the screen, such as Martin Ritt’s “Cross Creek” in 1983. Ma Baxter is a poverty-stricken but spirited woman, who scratches a hard living from the none-too-good earth of Florida scrub country. The movie centers on her nobility of character and ceaseless struggle for surviving a hard life, as well as the yearning love and anxiety that a father feels for his boy. There’s a strong bond of trust and wistful longing between the boy and his father Penny Baxter.

The Baxter family has the heroic stature of a pioneering clan, headed by a father who’s strong yet sensitive and a mother who’s of stern and Spartan stripe. Like other rural Hollywood sagas of the era, the film is marked by the humor and spunk of a rawboned rustics and the strength that derives from patient toil.

Commercial Appeal

The Yearling was MGM’s most commercially successful movie of the year, earning more than $7.5 million at the box-office, but because of its high production cost, the profit margin was small.

Detailed Synopsis

Ezra “Penny” Baxter, a Confederate soldier, and his wife Ora, are pioneer farmers in Lake George, Florida in 1878.  Their son Jody is their only surviving child.  While Jody has a wonderful relationship with his warm and loving father, he has strained interaction with his mom, who’s still haunted by the deaths of her other children. Life has made her detached and somber, fearing that Jody will end up dying if she shows her love to him.

Jody longs for a pet to care for, which Penny understands, but Ora is against the idea.  When a rattlesnake bites Penny, they kill a doe and use it to draw out the venom. Jody asks to adopt the doe’s orphaned fawn, and father agrees but warns him the fawn will have to be set free.

Buck Forrester tells Jody that Fodderwing, who had died, had said that if he had a fawn he would name him Flag because of its white tail.  Jody and Flag become inseparable.

However, Flag has grown up to become a nuisance to the farm; he eats corn, destroys fences, and tramples on tobacco crops. After Penny is injured while trying to clear a field, he tells Jody that if he wants to keep Flag he must replant corn and build the fence higher. Jody works hard and even receives help from Ora.

During the night, however, Flag jumps over the high fence and destroys the new corn crop. Penny orders Jody to shoot it, but the boy doesn’t have the heart to kill it. Instead, he orders the deer to go away, butt Flag comes back to their property and devours crops again.

Ora shoots Flag with, but only wounds it, prompting Penny to order Jody to put the deer out of its “torment.” Rather than let his pet deer suffer an agonizing death, he follows his father’s orders and kills Flag.

But the loss of the beloved pet deer proves too much for him to handle, and overwhelmed with anger and despair, he runs away. Three days later, he is rescued, unconscious adrift on the river in a canoe, by a friendly boat captain.

Just before Jody goes to bed, Ora returns to see her boy back. In the sentimental but effective ending, she becomes filled with happiness and emotion, knowing that her fear of losing her last child is now over. She runs into Jody’s room and showers him with affection, no longer afraid to show her parental love.

Running time: 124 Minutes

Release date: December 18, 1946

Oscar Nominations: 7

Picture, produced by Sidney Franklin
Director: Clarence Brown
Actor: Gregory Peck
Actress: Jane Wyman
Cinematography (Color): Charles Rosher, Leon Shamroy, and Arthur Arling
Interior Decoration (Color): Cedric Gibbons and Paul Groesse art direction; Edwin B. Willis, set decoration
Film Editing: Harold Kress

Oscar Awards: 2

Interior Decoration

Oscar Context

In 1946, “The Yearning” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with “The Best Years of Our Lives, which swept most of the awards; Olivier’s “Henry V,” Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a now-recognized masterpiece that was a flop at the time, and the literary melodrama, “The Razor’s Edge,” based on Somerset Maugham’s novel.

Claude Jarman Jr., who made a screen debut in this picture, received an Honorary Oscar, a miniature statuette as “outstanding child actor of 1946,” an honor previously won by Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and other kids.