Old Yeller

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: In 1869 Texas, Jim Coates (Fess Parker) says goodbye to his family, as he leaves for three months to sell their cattle. He tells his older son, Travis (Tommy Kirk) to take care of his mother, Katie (Dorothy McGuire) and his younger brother, Arliss (Kevin Corcoran). Travis asks his father to bring him back a horse. His father says that what he needs is a dog, but Travis does not want one. “Not a dog in this world like old Belle was.”

A stray dog comes to their farm and scares the horse, knocking over Travis and knocking down the fence. Travis throws rocks at the dog, saying, “That dog better not come around here while I got a gun.” But the dog comes back and Arliss “claims” him, over Travis’ objections. Later, Old Yeller saves Arliss from a bear. Travis admits, “He’s a heap more dog than I ever figured him for.” Yeller turns out to be an outstanding dog for farming and hunting.

Old Yeller fights a wolf that was about to attack Katie. She insists he be tied up, because the wolf would not have attacked unless he had hydrophobia, and Yeller may have been infected. When Yeller becomes vicious, Travis knows he must shoot him.

Jim returns, as Travis and his friend Elsbeth are burying Old Yeller. Jim tells him that the loss of Yeller is “not a thing you can forget. Maybe not a thing you want to forget…Now and then, for no good reason a man can figure out, life will just haul off and knock him flat. Slam him agin’ the ground so hard it seems like all his insides is busted. It’s not all like that. A lot of it’s mighty fine. You can’t afford to waste the good part worrying about the bad. That makes it all bad…Sayin’ it’s one thing and feelin’ it’s another. I’ll tell you a trick that’s sometimes a big help. Start looking around for something good to take the place of the bad. As a general rule, you can find it.” Jim has brought the horse Travis wanted, but says, “Reckon you ain’t in no shape to take pleasure in him yet.” Travis goes back to the house, where he sees Yeller’s pup, and knows that he won’t replace Old Yeller, but will be as good a friend as his father was.

Discussion: Jim’s talk with Travis is a model of parental wisdom, understanding, and patience. He accepts and validates Travis’ feelings completely, and does not try to minimize or talk him out of them. (Contrast that with Elsbeth, who tries to comfort Travis by encouraging him to “come to like the pup.”) Instead of telling him what to do, he says, “I’ll tell you a trick that’s sometimes a big help,” letting him decide for himself whether to take the advice and, if he does, letting him decide whether this is one of the times that it is a big help or not. By saying that Travis is not “in shape to take pleasure from the horse” yet, Jim is again letting him know that he respects his feelings of loss and sorrow, and that there will be time for him to feel happy about the horse later.

Travis is not just reluctant to adopt Old Yeller at first — he is downright hostile. The reason is his sense of loss over his first dog, Belle. His ability to accept Young Yeller more easily shows how much he has grown up.

This is one of the finest of the early Disney dramas. The fight scenes are exciting and the family scenes are sensitive and evocative. It is a classic of loss, and an excellent way to begin a discussion of those issues.

Questions for Kids:

· Why doesn’t Travis want Old Yeller at first? Why doesn’t he want the pup?

· How does he hurt Elsbeth’s feelings?

· Why does Katie say “No wonder they didn’t want him on no cow drive” about Elsbeth’s father?

· Why did Sanderson trade Old Yeller for the toad and a meal?

· Why did Sanderson say “that’s the way a man talks” when Travis told him that he was a little scared but would take Sanderson’s advice? What made that “manly”?

Connections: McGuire, Kirk, and Corcoran appeared together in “Swiss Family Robinson.”

Activities: Kids who like animal stories may enjoy the book by Fred Gipson, who co-wrote the screenplay.

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Classic Drama Epic/Historical Family Issues For the Whole Family Tragedy

The Miracle Worker

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Today is the 142nd anniversary of the birth of one of the most extraordinary teachers in American history, Annie Sullivan, who gave a little blind and deaf girl the power of language. William Gibson, who wrote two plays about the teacher and her student, says that when people refer to “The Miracle Worker” as “the play about Helen Keller,” he replies, “If it was about her, it would be called ‘The Miracle Workee.'” Sullivan, herself visually impaired, was first in her class at the Perkins School for the Blind. When she went to work for the Keller family she was just 21 years old. And Keller, who was blind and deaf due to an illness when she was 19 months old. When Sullivan arrived, Keller was almost completely wild, without any ability to communicate or any understanding that communication beyond grabbing and hitting was possible.

Every family should watch the extraordinary film about what happened next, and read more about Keller, who, with Sullivan’s help, graduated from Radcliffe magna cum laude and became an author and a world figure.

Ann Bancroft and Patty Duke won Oscars for their performances as Sullivan and Keller, repeating their Broadway roles and Duke later played Sullivan in a made-for-television adaptation. In this scene, after months of teaching Keller to fingerspell words, Sullivan is finally able to show her that language will give her the ability to communicate, with a new world of relationships, feelings, and learning. No teacher ever bestowed a greater gift.

Monday After the Miracle is Gibson’s sequel to the play, and Keller’s own book is called The Story of My Life. There is a photobiography of Sullivan called Helen’s Eyes.

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Drama Family Issues

The Yearling

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: This quiet, thoughtful, visually striking adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings covers a year in the life of the Baxter family, post-Civil War settlers in remote Florida. The focus is on Jody (Claude Jarman, Jr.), 12, a dreamy boy who loves animals and wishes he could have a pet, “something for my own, something to follow me.” Pa Baxter (Gregory Peck) is warm and understanding. Ma (Jane Wyman) seems harsh and rigid, but only because she has been so devastated by the loss of three children that she feels she has to contain her feelings, that if she allows herself to be vulnerable she will not be able to stand the pain.

The only other boy Jody knows is a frail boy named Fodderwing, who lives nearby. Jody loves to visit him, to hear his imaginative tales and play with his pets. Over Ma’s objections, Pa insists that Jody be allowed to have a young deer as a pet, and Jody goes to Fodderwing to ask him to name the deer. Fodderwing has died, but his father tells Jody he once said that if he had a deer, he would name it Flag, and that is the name Jody chooses. Jody loves Flag, and does everything he can to keep him, even building a high fence to keep Flag out of the corn crop, which is essential to the family’s livelihood. But Flag cannot stop eating the crop and has to be destroyed. Ma shoots him, and then Jody has to put him out of his misery.

Jody runs away, but returns. His father notes approvingly that Jody “takes for his share and goes on,” and tells Ma that “He’s done come back different. He’s taken the punishment. He ain’t a yearling no more.”

Discussion: This is a classic story of loss, not just of a beloved pet, but of the innocence and freedom of childhood that Flag symbolizes. Pa says to Jody: “Every man wants life to be a fine thing, and easy. Well, it’s fine, son, powerful fine. But it ain’t easy. I want life to be easier for you than it was for me….A man’s heart aches seeing his young ‘uns face the world knowing that they got to have their insides tore out the way his was tore.” All parents want to protect their children this way. And yet, all parents realize that having one’s “insides tore out” is a necessary part of growing up, that no one ever learns how to make responsible choices without these painful experiences. Pa tells Jody that life is “gettin’, losin’, gettin’, losin’.”

In the last moment of the film, as in the book, the boy and the deer run off together in Jody’s imagination. In part, this means that Jody’s innocence is gone with the deer. But it also means that a precious part of his spirit, the part that loved the deer so deeply, will be with him always, and will be a part of everything that he does.

Questions for Kids:

· Who is “the yearling?”

· What do you think of Pa’s strategy for trading his dog for a gun? What did he mean when he later said that his words were straight, but his intentions were crooked?

· What do Jody’s friends Fodderwing and Oliver tell you about him?

· Why was it hard for Ma to show affection? How can you tell?

· How was Jody different when he came back home?

Connections: Mature teenagers may be interested in “Cross Creek,” a fictionalized account of Rawlings’ life, including the writing of The Yearling, and “Gal Young ‘Un,” a film based on one of her short stories, about an exploitive husband his wife and his girlfriend.

Activities: Middle school kids will enjoy the book.

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Based on a book Drama Family Issues For the Whole Family Tragedy

My Life as a Dog

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: Ingemar is a twelve year old boy growing up in 1950s Sweden who goes to live with his aunt and uncle in Smaland while his mother is dying of tuberculosis. In the small town of Smaland he meets an assortment of eccentric and delightful characters who help him adjust to his new life without his mother, brother, and his beloved dog Sickan (he has never known his father).

He meets an athletic girl who loves to box, but who also develops a crush on Ingemar. Berit, the most beautiful woman in town, befriends Ingemar asks him to chaperon her when she models for the town artist. Ulla and Gunar, his aunt and uncle, adopt Ingemar and help him find family and normalcy during a traumatic period in his life.

Discussion: Told from the perspective of the child, this is an affecting and authentic portrayal of a young boy’s attempt to understand the adult world. The director shows us Ingemar’s world through a child’s eyes, so that the smallest events and the largest are presented as equally important. He does not know enough to be able to distinguish ordinary behavior from eccentricity, or to fully understand why a nude model would want a young boy as a chaperone or why a dying man would be so interested in underwear catalogues. His acceptance of everyone he meets is part of his appeal.

Ingemar does not have enough experience of the world to be able to understand what his mother’s symptoms mean, or to wonder if she will die. Because no one told him how ill she was, he blames himself for her death. He does not have the opportunity to express his grief, which adds to his feeling of disorientation and his identification with a dog who is circling the globe in a space capsule. The only comfort he (and the audience) have is the sense that his ability to form relationships with the new people in his life will be a source of strength and happiness to him in the future.

Questions for Kids:

· Why does Ingemar always say it’s important to “compare”? Why do you think that Ingemar compares himself to Laika the space dog?

· Why does Ingemar tell us that he wishes he told his mom everything? Does he blame himself for not having told her everything?

· Why doesn’t anyone tell Ingemar that Sickan is dead? Do you think that waiting to tell him made it easier or harder to deal with when he did learn the truth?

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Drama Family Issues

One True Thing

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Based on Anna Quindlen’s novel, this is the story of a young writer who learns the value of her mother when she goes to care for her during her treatment for cancer. Renee Zellweger plays Ellen Gulden, a New York Magazine writer who has always rejected her mother’s homey values to follow the career of her father, a distinguished literary critic, professor, and author. As Ellen cares for her mother, she finds that her father is less than she thought, and her mother is more. In understanding and accepting her parents as fully human, Ellen begins to be more fully human herself. She gains an appreciation for her mother’s strength. The community and domestic projects Ellen had seen as unimportant busywork she learns to see as an essential source of sustenance. Meryl Streep shines as Ellen’s mother Kate, not afraid to show us the irritating side of Kate’s sunny personality and the impatience she reveals as she acknowledges that she has to insist on her opportunity to talk about what is important to her before it is too late. William Hurt plays Ellen’s father George. He show us that his hypocricy comes from weakness, insecurity, and fear, in a way harder for Ellen to take than if it had been based only on selfishness.

Parental concerns include the brief profanity that earns this film an R rating as well as intense and disturbing scenes concerning Kate’s illness and the issue of euthanasia. The movie probably will not have much appeal for teens, who are seldom ready to consider their parents as fully human, but those who want to see it may come away with a better appreciation for the complexity of relationships and the diversity of accomplishments.

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Based on a book Drama Family Issues
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