Lassie Come Home

LASSIE COME HOME helped ease families war nerves for 88 minutes during 1943, putting their kids worries into whether a super-smart Collie was going to endure all manner of trials to get reunited with her beloved master. Besides making a new star out of a pooch named Pal, it further burnished the career of young Roddy McDowall, who also won the loyalty of My Friend Flicka that same year. In her second appearance, a preternaturally pretty 11-year-old named Elizabeth Taylor won fans (and secured a lifelong friend in Roddy). A raft of Hollywood’s most dependable Brit ex-pats in the supporting cast tackled the quaint clichés of British Isles expressions saturating the dialogue. As a kid’s movie, it was a winner, and still carries a charm charge down the years.

Yorkshire, England, during the Depression. The ‘Carraclough’s’ (Donald Crisp and Elsa Lanchester) are so strapped for money they decide to sell their schoolboy son’s pet collie. ‘Joe’ (McDowall) is heartbroken, as the resourceful Lassie, who repeatedly escapes her new master’s kennel. Eventually she undertakes a trek back from Scotland, hundreds of punishing miles wherein she encounters both kindness and trauma.

Directed by Fred M. Wilcox, the adaptation of Eric Knight’s novel is flush with incident, and is a visual treat with various locales in California and a few shots up in Washington State done up in Technicolor by cinematographer Leonard Smith. He was Oscar-nominated for the assignment.

Among those Lassie encounters on her heroic journey are Edmund Gwenn, Nigel Bruce, Dame May Whitty, Ben Webster, J. Pat O’Malley, Alan Napier and Arthur Shields. MGM’s $666,000 investment returned $7,500,000, the year’s 21st most popular diversion.

Hugo Butler wrote the screenplay. Followed two years later by Son Of Lassie, with Peter Lawford as the now-grown Joe (in two years 14-year-old McDowall became 21-year-old Lawford: MGM could do that). Further sequels led to the long-running TV series, a Sunday evening staple for millions of Boomer young’uns summoned by the wistful theme tune. *

* As a teenager, your canine-considerate host was fortunate enough to meet Lassie—or rather, ‘Hey Hey’, a direct-line descendant—during the final 1972-3 season of the series. My late brother-in-law Larry Pennell did 21 episodes as ‘Keith Holden’. Got to see, up close, how amazingly smart the dog was (though we didn’t shake paws, that was not allowed). Also was lucky to meet a couple of old-time Hollywood actors on the set: Henry Wilcoxon and Douglas Fowley. Neat guys. A swell memory.

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