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Lassie Come Home

Lassie Come Home
1943 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 89 min. / Street Date August 24, 2004 / 14.96
Starring Roddy McDowall, Donald Crisp, Dame May Whitty, Edmund Gwenn, Nigel Bruce, Elsa Lanchester, Elizabeth Taylor, Ben Webster, J. Pat O'Malley
Cinematography Leonard Smith
Art Direction Cedric Gibbons
Film Editor Ben Lewis
Original Music Daniele Amfitheatrof
Written by Hugo Butler from a novel by Eric Knight
Produced by Samuel Marx
Directed by Fred M. Wilcox

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

I guess you can't call this the original "dog" movie, as Darryl Zanuck had created a career for himself with Rin Tin Tin over at Warner brothers twenty years before. But Lassie became one of MGM's biggest movies of 1943, championing loyal doggie sentiment in an ersatz English-Scottish setting. Oh, and it also introduced one of MGM's biggest star discoveries of all time, at the ripe age of 11: Elizabeth Taylor. The future acting diva doesn't do much, but she took all the attention away from the imported Fox actors Donald Crisp and Roddy McDowall.


Out of work Yorkshireman Sam Carraclough (Donald Crisp) and his wife (Elsa Lanchester) must sell their son's pet, Lassie (Pal), much to the young Joe Carraclough's dismay (Roddy McDowall). The new owner is the local Duke of Rudling (Nigel Bruce) who has a heartless kennel keeper (J. Pat O'Malley) but a lovely young daughter (Elizabeth Taylor). Lassie keeps breaking free to return to young Joe. Her final escape is made from Scotland, and begins an epic journey homeward.

As a movie, Lassie is just too gracious and unpretentious to gripe about. It's the prototype for an interminable cavalcade of Lassie films - James Stewart even lowered himself by appearing in one - and every animal pet movie to follow. Ivan Tors made a bundle in the 60s with just about every animal that could conceivably be cuddled without getting your head bitten off - bears, dolphins, you name it.

The source story is a clear paean to dog-dom, written by a transplanted Englishman nostalgic about his childhood. Boy loses dog, dog is taken away to Scotland, dog moves hell and high water in a marathon escape to return to him.

In their later incarnations,Lassie-style animal pictures became really abusive of reality. Typical animal heroes seemed to understand complex human dialogue and empathized and identified with human problems way beyond any reasonable intellect. They also had functional ESP; dogs in war movies already seemed to know when their masters had bought the farm, a tradition that persisted into the 70s with sentimental scenes in epics like The Battle of Britain. It's not at all untypical for a dog star to follow complicated instructions like "find the kid, give the book to the professor and watch out for the bad guy's evil dogcatchers." The more fantastic the movie, the more acceptable this was, but still ...

Our Lassie is actually more down to Earth. She humbly shows her devotion to Roddy McDowall by showing up at his school every day. It doesn't take much in the way of brains to realize that many kids love their dogs or wish they had one, so that's a natural situation. Lassie's blind journey of hundreds of miles to return home is a phenomenon that's been documented many times in the real world. How many stories have you heard about dogs that seem to have psychic talents? The strangeness comes in the practically magical relationships Lassie forms with deserving people along the way. Like a gentleman traveller, she accepts the charity of a kind old couple (Dame May Whitty and Ben Webster) and joins with the cute dog of travelling salesman Rowlie (Edmund Gwenn of Foreign Correspondent). Lassie's hosts are able to intuit all kinds of things just by looking at her: That she's on a mission, that she'd like to stay but needs to be on her way. This allows the guest stars to play both sides of the relationship, as it were, thereby gleaning fat parts from a thin story.

When I was a kid Lassie was known as a tearjerker, but the movie doesn't do that for me now. I know the story is a literary original, but it seems tailor made for Louis B. Mayer's anti-Union politics. You can almost hear the mogul saying "See what it's like in England?" when we're shown the rampant unemployment, surely caused by labor agitation. Donald Crisp does his usual stoic-proud working man, forced to sell his son's puppy but still holding his head high.

Nigel Bruce's local Duke seems to be doing well, and he's certainly no villain. That label is reserved for the evil kennel master, the one who unreasonably wants Lassie to eat her food and to stop digging under or jumping over her dog run cage. The solution works out beautifully for the climax: Donald Crisp gets the kennel master position and is overjoyed at the thought of being a servant to the lord. Doggie Doo is different when it belongs to royalty, you know. The ending shows Lassie to be the happy mother of a bunch of puppies, which now seems to suggest that lil' ol' Roddy and Elizabeth's Priscilla are going to be, uh, busy as well. All it takes to break through class barriers, even in England, is a common love for a dog. When the Duke pays a visit to the Carracloughs, he might as well be bringing a glass slipper with him. In real life, when in his own studio fiefdom, Louis B. Mayer similarly demanded to be treated like benevolent royalty.

According to industry Lore, MGM talent producer Sam Marx found Elizabeth Taylor and thought he'd come across the most beautiful child he'd ever seen. I don't think Lassie was exactly a 'tryout' film, but Taylor's part is fairly limited. Frankly, except for a few scattered closeups, we don't get all that much of a look at her. But the publicity flacks had a field day photographing Elizabeth's violet eyes. She had this pet chipmunk that used to live in her pocket and crawl through her clothing, an anecdote related rather suggestively in a TCM mini-promo.

Everyone else plays it straight. Roddy McDowall manages to be a cloying kid yet not too aggravating, and with the dependable Donald Crisp and the underused Elsa Lanchester shows concern for the dog without going overboard. In the worst of this kind of picture, all human life on Earth is a secondary concern to whether or not the Kid is reunited with his dog/horse/monkey/dophin/bear/racoon/E.T. - you name it.

Lassie was a trained male dog named Pal. A wrangler named Rudd Weatherwax made a living training dogs for movies and provided generations of Lassies. Pal does indeed do a fine job of mimicking human reactions and following cues. He also somehow manages to minimize a certain part of his doggie anatomy, to keep his drag act undetected.

Finally, Yorkshire is represented by every patch of Southern California with a bit of green in it, and it gets pretty silly seeing everyone act so English among the browns of brush and eucalyptus trees. When it comes time for Lassie's odyssey, she traverses a lot of High Sierra wilderness of the kind unknown in England. MGM's a good excuse is that location filming was completely impossible during the war.

Warner's DVD of Lassie is a good disc of a popular movie that must have been overprinted into Technicolor extinction. The transfer is obviously new but the colors aren't too impressive and the registration not always perfect, indicating the use of a, "that's all there is" composite negative. So don't be looking for this to pop like some of the recent Warners restorations. I don't want to exaggerate as the disc is completely acceptable. But there are scratches, and the kind of viewer who pooh poohs minor image flaws won't be impressed.

The audio track is clear and free of distortion. The disc comes with three MGM Lassie trailers and a short subject about President Roosevelt's Scottie dog named Fala. It's a cute piece that reminds me of the completely cynical Warners cartoon, Fresh Airdale, the one about the evil mutt who will do anything to become Number One Dog. It was censored by the studio because the virtuous dog was supposed to be Fala. A couple of signs and an obvious White House were changed before the cartoon was released. Can't offend the President's dog, you know. If only today's pop culture was as respectful of elected officials.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Lassie Come Home rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good -
Sound: Good
Supplements: Short subject Fala, trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 7, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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