#442) Lassie Come Home (1943)

Lassie_Come_Home_(1943_poster)

#442) Lassie Come Home (1943)

OR “All Dogs Go to England”

Directed by Fred M. Wilcox

Written by Hugo Butler. Based on the novel by Eric Knight.

Class of 1993

The Plot: Lassie (Pal) is the well-behaved, unbelievably camera-friendly collie of Joe Carraclough (Roddy McDowall). Facing economic hardship, Joe’s parents (Donald Crisp & Elsa Lanchester) sell Lassie to the wealthy Duke of Rudling (Nigel Bruce). Lassie attempts several escapes, but is always returned to the Duke, eventually to his home in Scotland. The Duke’s granddaughter (Elizabeth Taylor) senses Lassie’s sadness, and helps her escape. The rest of the movie is Lassie’s incredible journey back to England, facing nature’s pitfalls and MGM’s roster of contract players.

Why It Matters: The NFR cribs from Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review, which praised the film’s “poignance and simple beauty”. The movie’s “rich color cinematography” is also highlighted.

But Does It Really?: How can I say no to a Lassie movie? “Lassie Come Home” is still a sweet, enjoyable film almost 80 years later, and Lassie has maintained an iconic status to this day (though that’s mostly thanks to the TV show). No film history would be complete without Lassie, and “Lassie Come Home” is the one that started it all.

Everybody Gets One: Rough Collie Pal was originally rejected for the role of Lassie (the character is female, Pal is male), but was hired as the original Lassie’s stunt double. Director Fred Wilcox was so impressed with Pal (and his trainer Rudd Weatherwax) that the original female Lassie was replaced shortly after filming began. Ever the professional, Pal successfully performed his stunts and tricks with few or no retakes. Good boy.

Wow, That’s Dated: The only obvious giveaway is the film’s prologue: a tribute to original “Lassie” author Eric Knight, who was killed in a plane crash nine months before the film’s release. The opening text hails the England-born writer as “a man of two countries”, but makes sure to emphasize that he died while serving for America in WWII.

Title Track: The title is a reference to the then common phrase “a come-home dog”; a dog that is trained to come home after it is sold so that the owners can collect more money. That’s why the film is “Lassie Come Home” and not “Lassie, Come Home!”

Seriously, Oscars?: “Lassie” received one Oscar nomination for Leonard Smith’s cinematography, losing to Universal’s remake of “Phantom of the Opera”. Smith would eventually win for another MGM movie about a boy and the animal he bonds with: 1946’s “The Yearling”.

Other notes

  • Although the film is set in England and Scotland, the beautiful on-location footage is from California, with a little bit of Washington State. The rapids scene was filmed on the San Joaquin River, allegedly near my hometown of Stockton.
  • I’m not familiar with Roddy McDowall’s early work as a child actor. In addition to being an endearing lead in a thankless role, he can really turn on the waterworks. It’s like a faucet was turned on behind his eyes.
  • That’s 10-year-old Elizabeth Taylor – in only her second movie – as Priscilla. Through no fault of her own, all I can think of when Liz is on the screen is the tabloid figure she would become in her adult years. Also, this clip, which is kind of appropriate for this movie.
  • Other casting notes: Priscilla’s grandfather the Duke is played by Nigel Bruce, best known as Dr. Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock. Veteran Disney voice actor J. Pat O’Malley plays the Duke’s antagonistic dogkeeper Hynes. Fun Absolutely True Fact: O’Malley was Dick Van Dyke’s dialect coach in “Mary Poppins”. Think about that as you listen to O’Malley’s accent in this movie.
  • Wow, Lassie does not want to be in that kennel. She is the Paul Muni of dogs.
  • Shoutout to Leonard Smith; that cinematography is beautiful. Even the drabbest of scenes pops out in Technicolor.
  • I’m having fun imaging all of Lassie’s scenes performed by that “Call of the Wild” guy.
  • Everyone’s good in this, but Dame May Whitty is the MVP. Even when her scene partner is a dog, she is not phoning this in. Side Note: Whitty’s on-screen husband is played by her real life spouse Ben Webster.
  • Edmund Gwenn is best remembered for playing Kris Kringle in “Miracle on 34th Street”, and his work in “Lassie” is another charming performance. Gwenn is the anti-W.C. Fields: he’s great with animals and kids.
  • This movie made me wonder if dogcatchers still exist. They do, they’re just called “animal control officers” now. Also, it’s not an elected position, so the phrase “You couldn’t be elected dogcatcher” makes no sense.
  • As with “Clash of the Wolves”, this movie knows to end with a shot of puppies. It makes a bad movie tolerable and a great movie even greater!

Legacy

  • “Lassie Come Home” was a hit, and MGM made six more Lassie movies over the next eight years. Only the second film – 1945’s “Son of Lassie” – was a direct follow-up to “Come Home”. Heck, in some of the later ones her character wasn’t even named Lassie!
  • In lieu of back payments owed to Rudd Weatherwax for the films, MGM gave the trainer ownership to the trademark and name of Lassie. Although Weatherwax initially used this trademark to tour Pal/Lassie throughout the country, he eventually agreed to a television series about the dog. “Lassie” ran on CBS for 19 seasons and is still one of the longest-running TV shows in primetime history. Side Note: Although several seasons centered around a boy named Timmy, he never once fell down a well.
  • Pal starred in all of the original Lassie movies, the TV series’ two pilot episodes, and even a radio series in the late ‘40s! After his retirement, Pal’s son and grandsons assumed the role of Lassie. Modern remakes and revivals meet with fan protests whenever a direct descendent of Pal does not play Lassie.
  • There have been several follow-up Lassie movies over the years, but the only true remake of “Lassie Come Home” came in 2005. The British made “Lassie” features (among others), Peter O’Toole and Peter Dinklage!
  • MGM kinda-sorta remade “Lassie” in 1954 with “Gypsy Colt”. Aside from this new movie being about a young girl and her horse, the two are remarkably similar.

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