A Florida classic from page to screen
“From Novel to Movie: The Yearling in Florida” takes an inside look at a classic movie, the novel that inspired the film and the people who lived the story.
From left, Claude Jarman Jr., Jane Wyman and Gregory Peck in “The Yearling.”
A new documentary rambles through “the Big Scrub” to uncover the stories that inspired the classic north Florida-set novel “The Yearling” and the real-life locals who lent authenticity to the Oscar-winning film adaptation, shot in the mid-1940s on location in the Ocala National Forest.
“From Novel to Movie: The Yearling in Florida,” produced and directed by Donna Green Townsend, includes stunning home movie footage provided by the Gregory Peck Foundation and interviews with the families of locals who lived in the Scrub before, during and after Rawlings put the story to page.
The home movies of the late star of the film include shots of Silver Springs herpetologist Ross Allen demonstrating how he handled snakes and actor Peck swimming in what appears to be Juniper Springs.
The documentary goes beyond the standard passel of behind-the-scenes shots and trivia—for instance, did you know that famed actor/mosquito-complainer Spencer Tracy was the original lead for the first effort to make “The Yearling” movie that was canceled in 1941 during the lead-up to World War II?
More importantly, “The Yearling in Florida” celebrates the intrepid souls of the people who inspired Rawlings’ 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning coming-of-age novel and the Oscar-nominated 1946 movie adaptation starring Peck, Claude Jarman Jr. and Jane Wyman. Their performances poignantly conveyed why Rawlings wrote once that she was “astonished by the utter lack of bleakness and despair in a group living monetarily on the very edge of starvation and danger.”
The 1946 film garnered seven Academy Award nominations and won three Academy Awards for art direction and cinematography as well as a Juvenile Best Actor statue, presented by Shirley Temple, for young Jarman, who made a heart-rending acting debut as the 12-year-old protagonist who adopts an orphaned fawn he names Flag.
Three quarters of a century later, on Dec. 12, 2021, Jarman visited the Marion Theatre in downtown Ocala to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the film and participate in a Q&A with Townsend. A video of the event is available on YouTube.
“Our documentary not only spotlights the Oscar-winning child actor who played Jody but many of the Florida folks who worked on the film in the Ocala National Forest of Florida in the 1940s,” Townsend shared.
Local musicians have a hand in it too. Mickey Abraham, Sue Cunningham, David Dean, Scott Jackson and several others contribute sparkly banjo picking and folk stylings to “The Yearling in Florida” soundtrack.
As Jarman said in one of his many Zoomed snippets in the documentary, “The Yearling” would have never been made if it weren’t for the magically descriptive but concisely journalistic author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, whose tales of the Big Scrub tales immortalized the Ocala National Forest.
“Rawlings uses every adjective at her disposal,” said Kathlyne “Kathy” Walkup Sheppard, the documentary’s associate producer and a relative of Yearling film crew members. “When Rawlings writes about the forest, the beauty of it, the magical quality of it, the sounds of the pines, the feel of the hot sand under her feet, the water, the springs, the beauty, the animal life, the sounds of it is all right there in her language.”
A staple in American middle and high school curricula, the book chronicles a year in the life of a 19th-century family homesteading in the Ocala National Forest in the aftermath of the Civil War. As they encounter losses of lives and crops through tragedy and devastating storms, young Jody devotedly nurtures Flag and comes of age learning painful lessons about attachment and letting go as his father lovingly counsels him on the transience of life.
Associate producer Sheppard, interviewed in the film and co-coordinator of the 75th anniversary event in 2021, shares stories of her family’s hardscrabble existence and death to disease during the time of the Long family, whose members inspired the novel’s fictionalized Baxters and whose property and cemetery still attracts visitors to The Yearling Trail in the Ocala National Forest. Their struggles, she said, shaped her character and generations to come.
“My brother-in-law, Jack Owen, caught all the fawns in the film,” Sheppard said. “My sister’s husband was 14 years old at the time, and MGM paid him $25 for each fawn (around $424 today, adjusted for inflation). He received his Social Security card at that time from MGM, too.”
Jarman’s stunt double, Bobby Randall, is among the several family members of Sheppard. His down-home conversational manner adds a special spice to the documentary footage.
“He and Claude (Jarman Jr.) had not seen each other since the film was made,” Sheppard said of the Marion Theatre celebration. “Their reunion was quite an experience.”
Director/producer Townsend met Sheppard through her husband, Lee, a former park ranger and tour guide at the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park, which comprises the homestead and citrus groves of the author. They are now close friends.
Townsend moved to the Gainesville area from Missouri in the 1980s and since then has enjoyed a prolific career as a broadcast journalist in public broadcasting, garnering an Edward Murrow award for documentary production.
She connected to the Rawlings’ legacy while researching a real estate development protest in Cross Creek, fell in love with the town and moved there. These days, she keeps the Rawlings legacy alive as the president of the state park’s Citizen Support Organization (CSO), Friends of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Farm.
Lee’s family inspired a chapter in Rawlings’ novel “Cross Creek” titled “The Pound Party.” “His dad and all his siblings moved here the same year as Marjorie,” Donna explained. “They catfished for a living, and she gave them all a lot of jobs and sewed clothes for the kids to go to school and would go to look for medicine when she thought they needed it. She also hired them all to pick her pecans and beans and do odd jobs. They stayed good friends.”
Author Rawlings showed up a couple of times on the movie set to check things out and lend guidance. The film is, for the most part, a faithful adaptation with just a few omissions (the film’s original length was around 3 hours before cuts were made).
In one segment, Townsend reveals that before “The Yearling” was released in movie theaters, Rawlings saw a screening of the movie and wrote a letter to Peck proclaiming that no one could have done a better job portraying the Baxter family patriarch, praising Peck for his “beautiful tenderness, his right whimsical humor and, above all, a certain quiet.”
Also featured are interviews with Richard Mills, a beloved local storyteller and U.S. Forestry Service employee who died in 2021 at the age of 101. Mills, in faint health, talks about when he was chosen to work on the set. He shared that he thought he was too short, but his enthusiastic hand-waving got him hired.
After the film was shot, the forest raconteur gave tours of the filming locations and the Pat’s Island homestead. His son-in-law, Johnnie Pohlers, helped establish The Yearling Trail and was instrumental in blazing the Lake Eaton Sink Hole trails. Like his mentor, he led many interpretive forest walks.
Mills’ anecdotes include encounters between Rawlings and the bootlegger who introduced her to the Long family and the time Rawlings and “Gone With the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell visited the movie set together.
Peppered with fascinating, funny and tragic oral histories and snippets of preciously rare footage, “The Yearling in Florida” acquaints literature, film and Florida history enthusiasts to the people, places and encounters that inspired the Baxters, Foresters and other colorful characters, as well as their descendants such as Jennifer Pohlers, a media specialist at Forest High School.
Locals romped and stomped as stunt doubles; rustled bears, bear-hunting dogs and deer; labored in extreme weather to build fences and cabins and planted temporary crops only to have to dig them up again, and performed other strange and arduous tasks.
Speaking of difficult work, the documentary itself took three years to make because of the difficulty of trying to receive permission to use film clips from the actual movie from Warner Brothers. In the end, it was decided that using more stills, in addition to the home movie clips from the Gregory Peck Foundation, was a more expedient way to go.
“We wound up having to buy $1,500 worth of still shots,” Sheppard lamented, “and Donna completely redid the whole documentary using stills. When I say that it’s been arduous and tedious, I would say it with all boldface caps underlined and in italics.”
No matter, the footage from Peck’s home movies, provided by the lead actor’s daughter, Cecelia Peck Voll and son Stephen Peck, more than made up for any absence of footage from the original film.
“It was really a feather in Marion County’s cap, and I think it is underappreciated,” Sheppard said of “The Yearling” book and film.
“I know that the Scrub folks who contributed have never been recognized for their part of it and they made it so authentic.”
“From Novel to Movie: The Yearling in Florida” airs at 9 p.m. Aug. 8, in commemoration of author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ 127th birthday.
Visit wuft.org for information.
A birthday celebration will take place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Aug. 5 at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park, 18700 S. County Road 325, Cross Creek. For more information, visit marjoriekinnanrawlings.org