Old Yeller is the title character and a 1957 Walt Disney Productions film starring Tommy Kirk, Dorothy McGuire and Beverly Washburn, and directed by Robert Stevenson. It is about a boy and a stray dog in post-Civil War Texas. The story is based upon the 1956 Newbery Honor-winning book Old Yeller by Fred Gipson. Gipson also co-wrote the screenplay with William Tunberg. The success of Old Yeller led to a sequel, Savage Sam, which was also based on a Gipson book.
In 1860’s post-Civil War Texas, Jim Coates (Fess Parker) leaves home to work on a cattle drive, leaving behind his wife Katie (Dorothy McGuire), older son Travis (Tommy Kirk) and younger son Arliss (Kevin Corcoran). The family is so poor the children have never seen a dollar bill, other than worthless Confederate dollars.
While Jim is away, Travis sets off to work in the cornfield, where he encounters “Old Yeller”, a Black Mouth Cur. Travis unsuccessfully tries to drive Old Yeller away, but Arliss likes the dog and defends him. However, Old Yeller’s habit of stealing meat from smokehouses and robbing hens’ nests does not endear him to Travis.
Later, Arliss tries to capture a bear cub by feeding it cornbread and grabbing it. The angry mother bear hears her cub wailing and attacks, but Old Yeller appears and drives off the bear, earning the affection of the family. Travis eventually accepts the dog and a profound bond grows between the two.
Old Yeller’s owner, Burn Sanderson (Chuck Connors), shows up looking for his dog, but comes to realize that the family needs the dog more than he does, and agrees to trade the dog to Arliss in exchange for a horny toad and a home-cooked meal.
One day, Travis sets out to trap wild boars. On the advice of Bud Searcy, he sits in a tree, trying to rope them from above as Yeller keeps them from escaping. Travis falls into the pack of boars below, one of which injures him. Yeller attacks the boar and rescues Travis, who escapes with a badly-hurt leg. Yeller is seriously wounded as well. Searcy warns the Coates family of hydrophobia (rabies) in the area. Fortunately, the boars did not have hydrophobia, and both boy and dog fully recover.
However, the family soon realize that their cow, Old Rose, has not been allowing her calf to feed, and may have rabies. Watching her stumble about, Travis confirms it and shoots her. While Katie and Lizbeth burn the body that night, a rabid wolf attacks. Yeller defends the family, but is bitten in the struggle before Travis can shoot and kill the wolf. The family pens Yeller in a corn crib for several weeks to watch him. Soon enough, the dog has rabies. After Yeller nearly attacks Arliss, who not understanding the danger had attempted to open the cage, a grieving Travis is forced to shoot Yeller. In doing so, he takes his first step towards adulthood.
Heartbroken from the death of his beloved dog, Travis refuses the offer of a new puppy sired by Yeller. Jim comes home with a bagful of money and presents for the family. Having learned about Yeller’s fate from Katie, he explains to his son the facts about life and death. When they get back to the farm, the young puppy steals a piece of meat, a trick he learned from his father. Travis adopts the puppy, naming him “Young Yeller” in honor of his sire.