Directed by Clarence Brown
Written by Paul Osborn and John Lee Mahin (based on the novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings)
By 1946, MGM producer Sidney Franklin had spent about a decade pursuing a dream: to make a movie about a deer. It had begun when Franklin had bought the rights to Bambi: A Life In the Woods, only to surrender them to Walt Disney once, one imagines, he sobered up and realized that attempting a live-action Bambi would've been completely insane. Franklin's ambitions had not vanished, however, and thus he settled upon the next best thing, an adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's 1938 novel The Yearling, not coincidentally also about the life cycle (so to speak) of a fawn, though maybe it should have cautioned Franklin that The Yearling was about the challenges people faced trying to raise a fawn. In 1945, he prevailed upon his friend, director Clarence Brown, and begged him to turn back time on the venison he'd so far made of his project. You see, Franklin had attempted it once already with Victor Fleming back in 1941, spending at least half a million dollars of MGM's money on it, and it had been one of the great Old Hollywood disasters, the waste of an entire pre-production cycle, which had been unusually intensive and expensive in the first place. The decision to shoot on the precise stretch of Floridian jungle that Rawlings had imagined in her book and insisted upon for Franklin's movie had complicated matters badly. The weather was bad. The bugs were worse. The actual production phase had been mercifully brief: not long after arriving, Spencer Tracy, who held the entire project in contempt, just called a car and left, and this was evidently understandable enough that nobody appears to have even been mad at him.
But dreams die hard sometimes, and, after World War II, Franklin wanted to try again, in the same manner and in the same place, or if not the exact same place, then still in the Floridian jungle as per Rawlings's instructions. (One of the curiouser factoids of the aborted Fleming film is that MGM had hired some actual farmers to serve as caretakers for their "set," a semi-functional smallhold farm. I like to imagine that nobody remembered to cut them off, and a farming couple spent five years sitting in rural Florida, living off Metro's dime.) At least on this attempt, Franklin chose principals more amenable to the idea of the film and the prospect of working rough: replacing Tracy was Gregory Peck, who loved this shit; replacing Anne Revere was Jacqueline White, who was eager for anything; and replacing Fleming was Brown, who'd been on a rural nostalgic rampage since the advent of the decade, with a series of mawkishly sentimental films that were much tougher than "mawkish" or "sentimental" implies. Truthfully, I don't know who else could have been more appropriate to direct The Yearling; it's mysterious that Franklin had failed to make Brown his first choice, back when he tried the first time in 1941.
For besides his affinity for the material, Brown was no stranger to location shooting, preferring it when possible. He still believed in its potential despite some awful experiences with leaving the backlot, notably on the The Trail of '98, which, amongst many other hardships, killed four people. Brown's determination to capture the wilds of Florida on Franklin's behalf did not entirely pay off: it worked out better than Trail of '98, insofar as there weren't any casualties, but this second Yearling was very nearly as much of a disaster as the first. And so, in the end, MGM was essentially obliged to make Franklin's dream project three times: once under Fleming in Florida, once under Brown but still in Florida, and, finally, a second time under Brown, who finally gave up, accepted he wasn't making a documentary about Peck planting corn, and decamped back to California.
This was the time that took, though, and at last The Yearling was finished, with the Californian location at Lake Arrowhead proving to be far more forgiving ground. It was 3,000 miles closer to Hollywood, it wasn't literally in the middle of nowhere, and it was a place Brown knew well. Less intuitively—non-intuitive enough, anyway, that Brown, his cinematographers Arthur Arling, Leonard Smith, and Charles Rosher, and his second unit director Chester Franklin (yes, Sidney's brother, which was annoying to Brown) had wasted weeks before they realized there was a problem—but even California's air was easier to work with. These were the days before California was constantly aflame, you know, but in 1946 smoke from Floridian forest fires interfered badly with the shoot, frequently preventing the three-strip Technicolor from exposing properly, and when it wasn't too smoky, it was because it was raining. (By the time things got back on track in California, another substitution in the cast had been made, too, White giving way to a third pioneer family matriarch in Jane Wyman.)
Maybe it's fitting that The Yearling was afflicted with such misfortune, and that its makers discovered that, despite their modern mastery, nature could still get the better of them. I don't suppose this imbued The Yearling with anything ineffable—I don't believe that's how movies get made—but indeed, The Yearling itself is such a tale of the misfortunes that humans must endure when they strive to domesticate nature without understanding that nature resents their effort. The Yearling, then, is a tale as old as time; accordingly this one begins with a pair of devices that serve to emphasize the distance between then and "now" (or, for that matter, now), more overtly in the case of a corny title card that thanks the pioneers whose sacrifices laid the foundation for the modern, industrial, and somewhat-easier America in which such cultural and technological objects as The Yearling could exist.
With less grandiloquence, Peck offers a more sober introduction in the form of narration from his character, Ezra Baxter (identifying himself as he's usually called, "Penny," which I don't quite get). So: as a montage tracks Penny's story upriver and into the untamed forest, he explains how after the Civil War he sought a place to live, and he's not hesitant to imply that the place he was seeking was as far away from the violence and struggle of human civilization as possible, tinging his quest with an unmistakable mysticism when he describes the place he found as closer "to the source of things." Inevitably, he found himself instead in struggle with nature, but he and his wife Orry (Wyman) embraced that struggle, clearing an "island" from the scrubland, creating their own place on earth, "Baxter's Island." After more tries than Penny would like to count, and Orry would never need to count them, they had a child who survived, Jody (Claude Jarman Jr.). And The Yearling is, in fact, Jody's story: of how he endured a certain loneliness, and how he took in an orphaned fawn with his father's grudging permission and against his mother's stern objections, and how he arrived upon the name "Flag" for his beloved companion, and the sadness of how they ultimately had to, let's say, part.
That plot, such as it is, kicks off no later than the hour mark, the outcome of a series of loosely causally-connected events, principally a low-grade feud between the Baxters and their nearest neighbors, the Forresters, that bobs in and out of the story and itself eventually vanishes. As the cutting-off of what certainly appears to be one of the film's major conflicts suggests (and it's not even the only one to just fade away), The Yearling is simply not a "plot" movie. The first half in particular is instead a collection of pioneer vignettes of lesser or greater importance, moments that mostly (but not exclusively) define the shape of Jody's childhood and his impending coming-of-age, and the whole thing is essentially like that, though the underlying scheme of the story seems to be to chart the loss of every friend Jody has in the world. For as his father puts it, adulthood is a state of "gettin' and losin'," and I don't suppose he's wrong at that.
If it only takes on anything resembling structure upon the advent of Jody's deer, and seems to go well out of its way to avoid anything that so much as looks like "narrative," that's because it's deliberately using the same-day-same-shit shapelessness of rural existence to cultivate impressions of the things it does want to explore. These are more inchoate feelings, especially the sensation of a world that's filled with a wonder that borders upon holiness, yet is also filled with an unrelenting hostility, and the lonely isolation such a world necessarily creates for any animal compelled to seek its meaning in relationships with creatures outside of itself, which is, after all, a pretty good definition of a human. Hence our introduction to Jody, whom we find shirking his chores and waking up from a reverie down by the creek—you know, for a film set in Florida, it's shockingly unworried about alligators—looking longingly at the animals surrounding him and desiring their companionship. The very first words out of his mouth might be asking his father if he can trap a raccoon cub. Eventually, he gets what he wants with Flag, but to the extent there's anything that gives this first half a throughline, it's this lonesomeness that Jody feels, even when he's with his ma and pa.
They are, in any case, good vignettes, sometimes great vignettes, as in the first "act's" feint towards a mission to track down the dreaded black bear Ol' Slewfoot, leading into an extended bear-hunting sequence built largely in the editing room, but built exceedingly and excitingly well—and which does eventually arrive at some genuinely fearsome bear vs. dog combat that one earnestly hopes was not taken too far. (One is heartened by the title card stating that the animal action was overseen by the ASPCA; one is rather less heartened by the absence of any guarantee that "no animals were harmed.") Sometimes it's not-so-great vignettes: most of everything to do with the Forresters is pitched at a level of hyuck-hyuck hillbilly comedy that wouldn't be out of place in a programmer without a fraction of this film's ambition. Likewise, it's a little distracting to go to "town" and recognize it as a hand-me-down MGM set.
It's almost always getting at something, though, either directly or obliquely, even if that "something" is simply capturing a relationship, or a particular mood. The Forresters are more useful than I've suggested, since they're the means by which we're introduced to their own young son, Fodderwing (Donn Gift), a pixieish lunatic who disabled himself trying to fly by jumping off his roof, and who still insists he simply tried to fly too young. He's a dynamic counterpoint even to Jody's daydreamiest tendencies, which are still rooted in some miscomprehended version of the real world; Jody loves him and obviously he's harmless, but he seems to sometimes even frighten Jody. Yet there's something countervailingly humanistic about his placement with the Forresters, a clan of drunken, violent idiots who still care as best they can, and for as long as they can, for the weakest member of their family, a distinction that sharply draws a line between "human beings" and "nature" that so much of the rest of the film is dedicated to smudging.
The Yearling is fascinated with this (false?) dichotomy, though it never fully resolves it or, really, even wants to resolve it; but it's certainly not a movie about hard distinctions. It's a hazy piece of storytelling by design, so perhaps it's better to simply discuss how it goes about building its world. It turns out that the location shoot in Florida wasn't a total wash, judging by some of the splendid footage used in the finished film: a lot of Peck and Jarman's traipsing through the woods does indeed appear to be Floridian, or at least a fine simulacrum of Floridian (sometimes the foliage changes from shot to shot, but it's polite not to notice), and a significant amount of the second unit's gorgeous landscapes remain. I do not know if Fleming's effort was going to be in color, but this is very much in color, and uses Technicolor in unique ways, pushing the process as far towards documentary realism as possible in many scenes—sometimes in unexpectedly spectacular ways—but never in the domestic spaces, which are warmly lit (or dramatically lit), and often cozy even in the midst of disaster, calculated to remain flattering to Peck and especially Wyman even if they were obliged to ditch their makeup. (Not much to be done about Wyman's eyebrows, unfortunately.) If the modal image of the Baxter household, anyway, isn't one concerned with red-orange "firelight" and blue "moonlight," it's close.
There's a disorienting aesthetic meld of realism and artifice throughout the film: the contrasts between realistic and artistic color reproduction, the contrasts between picturebook Cedric Gibbons sets and the wilderness beyond them, the contrasts between all that naturalistically-captured footage of the woods and the glorious matte paintings Brown uses for emphasis (and, in one surprising moment, the chilly soundstagey atmosphere of a funeral that feels like it takes place in another dimension—interestingly, it's the only religious service, and very nearly the only religious observance, in the whole film). But the seams in The Yearling's aesthetic don't mean it lacks cohesion. Quite the contrary: its variability, intelligently arrayed, serves as a strong, subliminal parallel to a story that itself is so damned unsure where nature ends and people begin.
In the same realm of dissonance, you have our three principals, each feeling like they're acting in some totally different movie than everyone else, which the others only rarely even have access to; arguably the main thing gluing them together is dubious dialect work. This sounds bad, but it's one of the most productive examples of actors operating at odds I've ever seen, delineating the distinct temperaments and profound tensions within a family who do love each other, but are stuck together whether or not they actually like each other. Peck is downright larkish, playing Penny with good humor, steady optimism, and perhaps even ironic detachment, almost like The Yearling were a comedy, and he's maybe most at home in the hillbilly sketches. Meanwhile, for the most part Jarman is the lead of a Disney live-action kid's film from a decade down the line, earnest and wide-eyed, sometimes to the point of sappiness and dysfunction.
On this third watch, I've become convinced that Wyman's the real lynchpin, though what she accomplishes depends vitally on her co-stars' insensitivity to her wavelength: she's the one doing psychological realism, digging into the bottomless pit of sadness beneath Orry Baxter, and Brown privileges that, with an early shot in particular establishing her at her dead kids' graves, though Wyman somehow manages to dominate compositions she's barely part of, specifically because she's being forced conspicuously and uncomfortably into the back of shots; her negative energy and her taciturn demeanor is like an empty hole inside all the colorful imagery and arch dialogue. There's the persistent sense that Orry wonders why it was Jody who lived. Not because she hates him—though frankly there are elements of hatred in Wyman's performance. But no: it's mostly because she loves Jody, but perceives a weakness in him, one that we too are invited to perceive—one that even his indulgent father perceives, and which he alternately accommodates and tries to nudge Jody out of—and this weakness terrifies her. He survived childbirth and infancy by some miracle, but she seems absolutely convinced he cannot survive much longer. Wyman is incredible all over: it's already capital-A Acting just to be able to start weeping over a luxurious fantasy of having a nearby well; it's even better that some of those tears are very clearly tears of despair, born out of pessimistic certainty that she's never actually getting that well.
I cannot say if Brown consciously intended all this—famously, starting with truculent Garbo, he didn't direct his actors.* An exception was children, whom he recognized needed special attention, especially if they were nonprofessionals, and Jarman was the furthest thing from "professional" imaginable, having been plucked out of obscurity during a nationwide hunt for Jody Baxter, and he landed the role mostly by virtue of not having had a haircut recently. The main thing Brown was after, however, was someone unformed and unaffected, and it works terrifically: he's earnest like a child; he's annoying like a child; even the parts where Jarman is blatantly bad, and Brown apparently gave up on him, still feel like the miscalibrations of a child. But Jarman finds some flawless intensities in this material, too: he and Brown may well have invented "traumatized drooling" as a tool for the naturalistic actor, and, Christ, is it affecting stuff.
Simultaneously, it's full-on mood piece, and a careful character study provided by actors at the top of their games and perfectly-cast for their roles, and a nostalgic piece of pious Americana, and an all-time hard-as-nails weepie; and I realize I've barely even mentioned the deer. Let it be said that Flag is the fulcrum upon which the film rests its strongest individual movements: there is, of course, the climax of Jody's relationship with Flag, but before that there is that relationship, a sweet and profound connection that ultimately even his mother comprehends is nearly as important as their very lives. The deer is likewise the excuse for one of the most singular pieces of extended poetic filmmaking in American cinema, as Flag and a whole array of deer frolic amidst sun-dappled woods and cerulean blue skies and Herbert Stothart's wholesale lift of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream, and a shoeless, almost atavistic Jody leaps behind them, in some unconscious attempt to surrender humanity to the half-dream, half-real majesty of nature. And so it was, with his friend Clarence's help, that poor Sidney Franklin got to make his live-action Bambi after all.
*But then, it's not that dissimilar to the way The Human Comedy is split into its own stylistic triptych, and I have a suspicion that even Brown's biographies don't give him his deserved credit, because he so disliked artistic analysis that he wouldn't ever tell us what he intended, and calling him an intellectual filmmaker would make him roll over in his grave.