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The Yearling: a Promise Finally Kept

Richard F. Stratton

In one of my books I made mention of the 1947 movie The Yearling, and I promised someday to give details about the bear hunt and the Bulldog that was used in the movie. Several times since then, readers have mentioned to me that I never made good on that promise, and they expressed interest in my doing so. A recent request of that type came right after I had once again viewed the movie that I had first seen in the year that it came out, in 1947 when I was about to turn 16. I had seen that the film was going to be broadcast on a classic movie channel in a run up to the awarding of the Oscars for this year. Apparently, The Yearling had received some nominations and awards. In any case, I set my DVR to record it, and this time I could view the bear hunt scene over and over again and view it in much greater detail than I had been able to do all those years earlier.

I had seen it with a young girl up in Conrad, Montana, but my father had also seen the film, and he expressed doubts that the bear hunt was real. His reasons for skepticism were, for one, that he just didn’t think that any dogs could hang in with a bear for that length of time, or that they could survive the counter attack that the bear made. With what I had learned about the durability of these dogs, I just wasn’t sure. By 1947, I well knew what Bulldogs were, but there were other dogs in the hunt, too.

Seeing it again in such detail on my large high definition television set, I was really able to view the action over and over and in great detail. The movie was in color, very unusual for 1947—but that wasn’t why it won the Oscars! It was a great story, for one thing, something that I might not have appreciated so much then, at a young age. The story was filmed on location in Florida, a locale that I was very unfamiliar with at that time, but is practically home territory for me now. The setting for the story was right after the Civil War. Besides a good plot, the movie had the benefit of some fine acting by Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman, not to mention the young actor Claude Jarman, Jr., who played Jody, the boy who adopts a deer fawn for a pet.

The bear hunt takes place early in the movie, and three dogs are involved, but one does not participate. No breed names are given, but one is definitely a Bulldog, while the other is a Redbone Coonhound, with the saddleback coloration that was popular back in those days. The Bulldog, of course, is the one who actually engages the bear, taking hold of his neck and shaking. But, of course, he only shakes his own body because of the size discrepancy between him and the bear.

Permit me a deliberate digression here. Those who have read my writings regularly know that my first love in terms of dog breeds was the Collie. That was because my father had owned a phenomenal Collie named Jack in his youth, and I wanted a dog like him. Also, I had found a series of very popular dog stories by Albert Payson Terhune, the all-time most popular author of dog stories, even though his knowledge of dogs was, in retrospect, sadly lacking. His books were always about Collies, and all of his Collies were just like my father’s dog, Jack. I read those books so much that I wanted to be a Collie when I grew up!

Another Collie story, not by Terhune, that appeared shortly before the Second World War was Lassie Come Home. I read the book before the movie came out, and I was delighted with the movie except for the fact that the dog in the book was a tricolor, while the dog in the movies was a midnight sable, perhaps an even more beautiful dog. Another fault, though, was that Lassie was supposed to be a prize show dog, and even to my youthful and untutored eyes, the dog in the movies was no such thing, even though he was quite beautiful.

But I’ve digressed from my digression! The point I wanted to make was that in one of the movies (there were several sequels), Lassie was being trained as a war dog, going through various obstacles and climbing various pieces of equipment. Now Lassie was supposed to be the star student, but to my dismay, I could see that Doberman Pinschers and German Shepherds were gaining on Lassie in every frame. But each shot would show Lassie in the lead, with the other dogs constantly gaining on her. (The dog playing the part was actually a male named “Pal.”) I had to confront the truth that the makers of the movie were constantly setting Lassie ahead, and it saddened me somewhat. After all, Terhune’s Collies always outdid the other dogs in every way, as did my father’s dog, Jack.

In The Yearling there was no such problem. The Bulldog was obviously faster than the Redbone. I’ve never tried to claim that Bulldogs are the fastest dogs, but obviously sheer athleticism counted for something here. Also, the intensity of the Bulldog may have been at work in this case. He was the first one to engage the bear, and I think he may have been the only one. There was one scene in which the Redbone took hold, but it was shot from in back of the (possibly fake for this shot) bear up close, so that was one scene that may have been staged.

But the bear hunt was real—there was no faking that! The dog gets hold several times, and he is one time swatted to the ground, but gets right back on the bear. At that point the bear turns and runs, and that doesn’t surprise me. Wild bears are not used to that type of unrelenting fury.

Naturally, I was curious about where the dog came from, and I noticed that the dog men I knew were aware of some of the circumstances about it. They knew, for example, that the bear had been shot. That was probably because that was the only way they could retrieve the dog, but the dog incurred some wounds, too, and apparently one was from the rifle that was used to bring down the bear. Nevertheless, the dog survived. It was difficult to get information, as the movie crew had actually got their dog from Staffordshire Terrier people. I was later to get the entire story from a Staf person. It is important to remember here that the Staffordshire Terrier and the American Pit Bull Terrier were considered the same breed in the 40s, as the show version was only recognized by the American Kennel Club in the 30s. Even after the breed had been recognized by the AKC, occasional crosses back to the APBT were made, so the Staf was basically just the show version of our breed, the AKC show version. (It still is, but is more removed and isolated from our breed now than it was then. Should they be considered separate breeds? Obviously, that is a matter of opinion.)

It was interesting that even the Colbys had wanted the breed registered by the AKC, and, of course, everyone wanted the name American Bull Terrier. But the Bull Terrier people had strongly resisted any part of their Bull Terrier name being used. A number of names were bandied about, and Will Judy, the editor of Dog World, had suggested “Yankee Terrier,” but the name was never used. No one else had ever called it that. And the idea that the breed was strictly American in origin was pure fantasy. In any case, our dog in the film was technically a Staffordshire Terrier, but he certainly looked just like a modern-day Bulldog—and he acted like it, too!

The word had been put out through the fraternity of Staf people that the movie crew wanted a dog that would actually engage a bear in a hunt scene. I eventually talked to the person, Peggy Harper, who had sold the dog to the movie production company. Somebody had given her name, and she told me that when she saw the limousine coming down the road to her house in Texas that she knew it was money in her pocket. It struck me as strange that Staf people (not all of them, of course) could so berate pit dog people and yet sell a dog to fight a bear. For there is no getting around the fact that was exactly what they wanted him for!

It is not unusual for a movie studio to use several dogs to portray just one, and when I looked at the film carefully, I thought I could detect a “stand in” in some scenes. They may have used him because the other dog was not always all right with other dogs around. Whatever the reason, the dog in question did seem to change appearance slightly in some scenes, but only someone with a practiced eye could detect the difference, as there was a slight variation in the shape of the blaze, but the color was the same. In any case, there was only one dog that actually engaged the bear and took hold of him, as far as I could tell, and I never thought to ask Peggy Harper whether she had sold more than one dog to the studio.

Readers may be surprised to hear that the dog had untrimmed ears, as Staf people nearly always dock the ears. In point of fact he was a beautiful Bulldog. Of course, all of them are, but this one was especially well made, with a pleasing color, red or fawn, with a white collar and broad blaze, looking a little like the renowned Jimmy Boots.

As the credits roll at the end of the movie, mention is made that all animal activity was under the supervision of a particular humane group. Well, let’s just think about that for a minute. All the people who contribute to a humane group automatically assume that the organization is going to do something for animals. And if they supervised a movie, we would assume that no animals were harmed. In this case, we know that a dog was involved in a fight with a bear and that the bear was shot (and the dog also wounded somehow in the shooting). How did all of that get by the humane group? I mean, the bear was probably the one that suffered the most, and of course, he was killed in the end. Although I take no pleasure in hunting, I’m not against it, as I am in no position to judge. However, I presume that humane groups are and that many of the people who support them are. So my only explanation for the humane group’s pass on this was that they got paid to certify it. Again, I have digressed, but I have known people in humane groups, and most of them are quite sincere. Obviously, some of the officers in some of the humane groups, though, can be bought.

I wish that I had told the story earlier, as I had planned to do, as I am sure I had in my recollection more details that I could have used. But the reader, I hope, gets the general idea. And I recommend that you see the movie if you haven’t done so already. Don’t just see it just for the bear hunt. It is really a good movie!

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