The biggest surprise about The Yearling is that it is not, as I'd always assumed, primarily about a boy and his pet deer. Yes, there's a deer, but the yearling of the title is really an allegory in this coming-of-age story of a boy entering his teens and starting to take a more important role in the family unit.
Ezra (Gregory Peck) and Orry Baxter (Jane Wyman) are a hillbilly couple living in the backwoods of Florida in about 1900. After several attempts to start a family (all resulting in infant death), they are raising 12-year-old Jody while growing various crops, including corn and "tobacky." They trade with the locals and occasionally have to fight off maurading bears and other wildlife. As in the source novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the Baxters suffer a string of setbacks: a catastrophic rain destroys their crops, some pigs are stolen, Ezra gets bitten by a rattlesnake and later throws his back out. Meanwhile, Jody opens his heart to a young fawn, Flag, to compensate for the love he isn't getting from an emotionally distant Orry, who has trouble showing affection after all her other kids have died. As Flag gets bigger, so does his appetite, and soon he's gobbling the Baxter's precious crops. Something must be done about it, and if you've seen Old Yeller, you know just what that something is.
Children who see The Yearling will no doubt sympathize with Jody and the hungry deer, but because the "critter" poses a massive threat to the Baxters, I tended to identify with the adults. Even so, The Yearling is a masterpiece suitable for the whole family, marvelously filmed, with great wildlife scenes and an array of exquisitely photographed meadows and other scenery. The relationship between Jody and his parents is superb, and it's astounding to see how radiant and beautiful young Jane Wyman (who would go on to play Aunt Polly in Pollyanna 15 years later) was. With the right lighting, she reminded me eerily of Katherine Heigl of TV's Gray's Anatomy. Rating: 5/5.
BLOGGER'S NOTE: I'll need to double-check, but I believe this may be the longest string of highly recommended (4/5 and 5/5) movies I've seen since the beginning of the year.