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Literature / Old Yeller

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Notice the lack of wolves...

"Old Yeller was a hunter,
A rarin', tearin' hunter.
In any chase, he knew just how to run!
And when he hunted trouble,
He always found it double,
And that's when Old Yeller had fun!"
—from the Title Theme Tune to Disney's Film of the Book

Old Yeller is a 1956 novel by Fred Gipson about a boy and a stray dog in post-Civil War Texas, adapted the following year into a live-action Disney film directed by Robert Stevenson and starring Fess Parker, Dorothy McGuire, Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, and Chuck Connors.

15-year-old Travis Coates is the new-made man of the house while his father is away on a cattle drive. Then the wilderness blows a stray "yeller" dog into his life whom he initially distrusts... until Old Yeller saves his little brother Arliss from a Mama Bear (kids shouldn't play with bear cubs). The two become inseparable partners, hunting and facing the dangers of The Wild West together, until tragedy forces Travis to make his hardest decision.

If, by some miracle, you don't know the punchline yet, tread lightly through this page...

Warning, spoilers are ahead, but most people already know what they are.

The novel and Disney film contain examples of:

  • Adaptational Angst Downgrade: In the film version, it's confirmed that Old Yeller has contracted rabies and putting him down is sad but necessary as the only safe and humane thing to do for both dog and family. In the book Travis puts him down immediately, knowing rabies is inevitable, but suffering the pang of destroying the dog before he has visibly sickened.
  • Adaptation Expansion: In the book, Travis shoots Old Yeller immediately after the fight with the wolf, knowing he will inevitably contract rabies, and the scene takes up less than a page. In the film, he delays the inevitable for two weeks, hoping Old Yeller won't become rabid, and shoots him only when it's clear that he has to do it.
  • All Dogs Are Purebred: In the book, Travis finds a random stray who happens to be a purebred Original Mountain Cur.
    • Averted in the film, where he is a Mastador (half Mastiff, half Labrador Retriever).
    • In the sequel, Savage Sam is a purebred bluetick cooonhound, even though his parents are both mongrels.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Little Arliss.
  • Bears Are Bad News: Arliss messes with a bear cub, attracting a Mama Bear. Good thing Old Yeller comes between him and the Mama Bear.
  • Believing Their Own Lies: Little Arliss eventually starts believing he really is the clever hunter he boasted of being, which gets him in serious trouble when he tries to catch a bear cub.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Old Yeller dies after Travis is forced to shoot him for contracting rabies, but at the very end the family bonds with Old Yeller's puppy named Young Yeller.
  • A Boy and His X:
    • Travis and Old Yeller become a working partnership, though even when he comes to respect the dog, it takes him a while to move on to real affection. After Old Yeller is put down, Travis accepts the former's pup sired on Lisbeth's dog and names him Young Yeller.
    • While Travis and Old Yeller had a rocky start, Arliss takes an instant shine to the dog, and is especially happy to accept Old Yeller's offspring.
  • Bratty Half-Pint: Arliss brings a lot of trouble on himself, and Travis, their mother, and Old Yeller have to save him more than once.
  • Children Are Innocent: Arliss carelessly puts himself in dangerous situations, mostly because he's too young to understand the danger.
  • Coming of Age Story: Travis matures over the course of the story, finally crossing over from a child to a man when he must shoot the dog he has come to love.
  • Cub Cues Protective Parent: Arliss plays around with and tries to catch a bear cub, resulting is a rather displeased Mama Bear showing up. This bear might have killed Arliss had not Old Yeller been there to fight the bear off.
  • Dead Guy Junior: The family is gifted with Old Yeller's son, but the puppy is not named until the end of the movie. By then Old Yeller has died, but is named Young Yeller.
  • Death by Newbery Medal: Travis ends up having to shoot Old Yeller due to rabies.
  • Determined Homesteader: She cooks and cleans, works the farm, is able to handle a gun, settles disputes between Travis and Arliss, and doesn't bat an eye at stitching a wound shut.
  • Disappeared Dad: Not dead, but gone on a cattle drive until the end of the story. This means Travis is responsible for the ranch and his family until he returns.
  • Face–Monster Turn: Old Yeller, thanks to the rabies he contacts from a wolf.
  • The Film of the Book: The Disney adaptation is just as well known as the book, possibly more so.
  • Happily Adopted: Non-human example. Old Yeller is so ingrained into the family that by the time his rightful owner shows up, even he sees that Old Yeller is better off with them than with him.
  • The Hero Dies: After all he's been through, Old Yeller dies of a Mercy Kill after he fends off a rabid wolf.
  • Heroic Dog: Old Yeller won't stand down to save his family from any threat, even if it has a negative impact on him.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Old Yeller fends off a rabid wolf to protect his family, but since he's bitten in the process, is infected and has to be put down.
  • Hope Spot: In the movie, Yeller is quarantined to see whether he will catch rabies. After some lingering days where he seems healthy, he finally succumbs, forcing Travis to shoot him. The novel averts this with Travis' mother urging him that they must not take any chances and kill Old Yeller immediately.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Arliss loves spending time with dogs, wants to make a bear cub his pet, is upset in the sequel when he thinks their mule is dead (although he tends to yell at that mule other times), and squirts milk into the barn cats' mouths while he's milking a cow.
  • Lighter and Softer: Both films are more family friendly than the books. While Old Yeller merely omits some animal deaths, Savage Sam omits or lightens violence against humans and animals in many scenes.
    • Sam doesn't kill the Apache raider who bullies Arliss, but the warrior instead gets a humiliating but nonlethal comeuppance of being chased off and having rocks thrown at him.
    • A dramatic Friendly Sniper kill becomes more humorous by having the sniper Faint in Shock.
    • In the book, Old Jumper the mule is stabbed to death and butchered by the Apaches in front of the brothers, but in the film, he escapes and returns to the farm, with the brothers only thinking that the Apaches killed and butchered him.
    • A dramatic scene where Travis encounters a wounded and helpless Noble Demon member of the war party after the final battle, can't bring himself to shoot him, and walks away, is cut out. However, this also has the side effect of apparently giving that warrior a Death by Adaptation, since he is still shown being shot like in the scene where he was wounded in the book.
    • A bitter posse member whose wife and children were killed by Native Americans is the Coates' uncle in the book, making those dead people their aunt and cousins, but they are Unrelated in the Adaptation.
    • The film omits a scene where the prisoners helplessly watch the Apaches kill two cowboys (one of whom has a Fatal Family Photo), as well as a scene where the posse finds the corpses of more victims of the war party.
  • Mercy Kill: Travis shoots Old Yeller to save him from a lingering death via rabies and prevent his loyal dog now turned from mauling and infected everyone.
  • Mood Whiplash:
    • Poor Old Yeller, having to be shot for contracting rabies... Hey, look! Papa has come home!
    • We get a tearjerking moment with father and son comfort one another over Old Yeller's death... Oh wait, his Precious Puppy of a son is still around!
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Old Yeller protects the family from a rabid wolf, only for him to turn rabid as a result of getting bitten. The family is forced to put him down.
  • Oblivious to Love: Lisbeth Searcy has an obvious crush on Travis, who either doesn't notice or doesn't care. At least not until the third book, anyway. They are said to be married.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • As Arliss tries to steal a bear cub, a Mama Bear comes out of nowhere and charges at him. The little boy is frozen in fear, but luckily his mother carries him off while Old Yeller fends off the bear.
    • The cow's reaction to Old Yeller's Death Glare, scarring her into submission.
    • When Travis comes by to feed the now quarantined Old Yeller, he's greeted not by his loyal furry friend, but snarling and now rabid beast. He's petrified into silence, but lies to his mother over what happened, but it doesn't take long for the ruse to be discovered.
  • Papa Wolf: Near literal for Old Yeller. Nothing will stop this dog from protecting his new family, whether it be fighting a literal Mama Bear from mauling little Arliss, fending off a herd of wild hogs or staring down a cow in defense of Travis, Old Yeller never backs down from a fight if it means protecting his family. Tragically this gets him killed, as he's put down by Travis himself after Old Yeller fought against a rabid wolf that tried to attack Travis' mother and Lisbeth.
  • Privacy by Distraction: Mom asks Arliss to get her a horned toad, so he won't be present while she's dressing the injury that a boar gave to Old Yeller.
  • Promotion to Parent: Travis becomes 'man' of the house while his father is gone, assuming the responsibility to protect the ranch from threats, hunt to put food on the table, and keep Arliss out of trouble.
  • Random Species Offspring: Savage Sam is portrayed by a purebred bluetick coonhound even though Old Yeller was portrayed by a dog that was mix of Labrador and Mastiff. In the novels, Old Yeller is described as a yellow cur while his mate is a blue tick trail hound, while Savage Sam resembles both of them.
  • A Real Man Is a Killer: Downplayed somewhat, but being able to "man up" and shoot Yeller to protect the others is portrayed as Travis's introduction to adult responsibility, though the emphasis is not so much on the act of killing, but on the fact that Travis took responsibility for Yeller of his own volition, signifying his coming-of-age into adulthood.
  • Replacement Goldfish:
    • After Old Yeller's death, Lisbeth brings up that the puppy Old Yeller sired by her dog is still a part of him, but Travis reminds her that the pup still isn't Old Yeller. After his father's consolation, Travis comes around and accepts the pup and names him Young Yeller.
    • In the sequel, Old Yeller's son Savage Sam takes his father's place in the family.
  • Savage Wolves: The Downer Ending is brought about by a rabid wolf whom Old Yeller fights off until Travis shoots the wolf dead, but gets infected with rabies himself. Justified as it's remarked that no ordinary wolf would act as it did (to leap out of nowhere without warning and so close to fire and humans), meaning it had to be rabid.
  • Shoot the Dog: The climactic act of the book — Travis destroying Yeller — is the Trope Namer.
  • Spin-Offspring: Savage Sam: Son of Old Yeller — also filmed by Disney, although deviating more strongly from its novel than the first film did.
  • Wham Shot: Unlike the novel, Travis succeeds in getting his mother to agree with his idea to lock up Old Yeller and check on him just to see if he might be rabid. For a while, it does seems like Old Yeller is fine and happy to see his family visit him with food. But one night, as Travis is coming over to feed him, Old Yeller greets his best friend with a savage and terrifying growl. Travis' reaction says it all.
  • Wham Line: After Old Yeller's fight with the wolf, the lovable dog comes trotting up to the very much relieved Travis and his concerned mother, but the latter seals Old Yeller's fate with this realization-
    No wolf in his right mind would've jumped us at the fire... not even a loafer wolf. That wolf was mad.
    • But Travis insists they keep Old Yeller in quarantine if there MIGHT be a chance their dog isn't rabid. In the film we're given a Hope Spot that seems like Old Yeller is perfectly healthy... until the night Travis is greeted by a snarling and terrifying Old Yeller, and nearly lunges at Arliss when he tried to free him. Their mother managed to stop him by a hair, but comes back with a gun and tells Travis one last chilling line over Old Yeller's fate.
    There's no hope for him now, Travis. He's suffering. You know we've got to do it.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Young Yeller is the family's new dog following the death of his father. But the sequel has the family with a different dog, Old Yeller's other son, Savage Sam, and does not bring up what happens to Young Yeller. According to the novels, Savage Sam and Young Yeller are the same character, as the previous novel did not give a name to the puppy Lisbeth gifted to Travis after the wild hog attack.
  • Zombie Infectee: The reason Yeller must die, substituting "rabies" (or "hydrophobia" as it was called in both book and movie, given the time placement of the setting) for "zombie".


Old Yeller


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Example of:

Main / MercyKill

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