Old Yeller: What You Didn't Know About This Tearjerker Film

By | January 19, 2022

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American child actor Tommy Kirk (left) as Travis Coates and Kevin Corcoran as his brother, Arliss Coates, in the film Old Yeller, 1957. (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Admit it: You cried when you watched Old Yeller, the 1957 live-action Disney drama about a boy and his dog, didn't you? There's no shame in that. Old Yeller is known as one of the most devastating films in cinematic history, but there's probably a lot you don't know about it outside of its heartbreaking story.

It Was Based On A Novel

As with most of their films, the folks at Disney didn't come up with this story themselves. Old Yeller is the film adaptation of a 1956 novel of the same name that was written by Fred Gipson, whose works—including 1947's Hound-Dog Man and the 1962 sequel to Old Yeller, Savage Sam—are notably canine-heavy. When Disney expressed an interest in turning his novel into a film, Gipson stepped up to cowrite the screenplay along with William Tunberg.

In Gipson's novel, Old Yeller is described as a Black Mouth Cur, a less-known hunting dog with a yellow coat and black snout and ears, but the breed is slimmer than the vision Robert Stevenson had for his movie dog, and none were available for filming anyway. Stevenson settled on Spike, a 170-lb. yellow Labrador Retriever/English Mastiff mix.

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A Black Mouth Cur. (Greg Hume/Wikimedia Commons)

Movie Magic

That wasn't the only element of Gipson's novel that was substituted for cinematic purposes. Old Yeller might have become a different type of dog, but the movie's wolf wasn't a wolf at all but a German Shepherd tarted up to look like one for safety reasons. To be extra careful during the filming of the fights, both dogs wore muzzles, but thanks to movie magic, the audience couldn't even tell. They also probably couldn't tell that those sweeping backdrops weren't Texas but the hills and valleys of California. Even Old Yeller's voice wasn't authentic. Astute Disney fans may recognize the growling noises he makes during his encounter with the wolf as the same ones heard in Lady And The Tramp.