A common movie trivia game question is “Was Lassie played by a male or a female?”
The answer is male. The first movie Lassie and the first one to portray Lassie on television was Pal, a male rough collie. Most movie Lassies are male, including those in the 2006 English film Lassie. And why is that?
Male collies look better on the big screen than the females of the breed since they tend to have fuller coats year-round.
Lassie is known worldwide; that’s no surprise, since “she” has had many big-budget films and television series with her name on them. It all began with a short story by a Yorkshire-born author named Eric Knight. He wrote many successful works like the humorous The Flying Yorkshireman and the serious war drama, This Above All. But his fame comes from Lassie Come Home.
Set in Yorkshire during the First World War, the film gets under way when young Joe Carraclough’s poverty-stricken parents are forced to sell his beloved Lassie. Her new master, the duke of Rudling, is pleasant, but Lassie longs for Joe and repeatedly escapes, trying to get to her home.
MGM began casting for the film version of the story in 1942. Roddy McDowall played Joe, while Elizabeth Taylor was cast as the Duke’s young granddaughter Priscilla. Lassie (Pal) came from a ranch near Los Angeles.
Lassie’s (Pal) owner and trainer, Frank Weatherwax, acquired him by sheer happenstance. Pal’s first owner got tired of his behavior problems and gave him to Weatherwax. Weatherwax’s brother Rudd took Pal to MGM, hoping to have him audition for the role of Lassie.
MGM director Fred M. Wilcox told Weatherwax that since Pal had never been in a dog show, he could not play the lead role. Instead, he was relegated to stunt dog, and a show collie was selected to be Lassie.
A scene in which Lassie was to swim across a river was ready to be filmed, but the show dog refused to enter the river. Pal swam the scene in one take and when he came out of the water, instead of shaking himself dry as a dog would naturally do, Pal played the role to the hilt. He emerged looking tired and bedraggled, and, limping to the top of the bank, wearily lay down. The director recommended Pal to the producer, Louis B. Mayer, then and there. “Pal entered the water, but Lassie came out,” Mayer has been quoted as saying.
The inevitable sequels followed. Son of Lassie (1945) starred Peter Lawford as a grown up Joe who trains to be a Royal Air Force pilot, and is shot down over Norway by the Nazis. Lassie’s son Laddie (Pal) is determined not to be separated from Joe, even though he failed his war dog training. Laddie had stowed away aboard Joe’s plane but the two became separated in the crash. Laddie, still wearing his British war dog kennel tag, is injured escaping from the Germans and is helped and protected by little Hendrik (Billy Severn) and his sister Thea, played by Terry Moore in a very early role. The difficulties of life under the thumb of the Nazis are well depicted. June Lockhart is Priscilla, all grown up.
Many MGM films with “Lassie” in their titles starred Pal. There was Courage of Lassie (1946), in which he is a dog named Bill who belongs to a girl named Kathie Merrick (Elizabeth Taylor). Bill is forced to serve in World War II, but returns from the war traumatized, with a new habit of killing poultry.
Hills of Home (1948) was next for the incredibly busy collie. An old country doctor (Edmund Gwenn, who appears in most of the MGM Lassie films) adopts Lassie from a sheepherder who does not want her because she is afraid of water, and a sheepdog must be able to rescue sheep from water. Janet Leigh and Tom Drake provided the love interest.
In Challenge to Lassie (1949), she lies on her master’s (Edmund Gwenn’s) grave after the old gentleman dies. Her city passes an ordinance against allowing dogs to live in the churchyard, thus bringing the townspeople out to defend her, and purchasing a license for her.
Pal starred in The Sun Comes Up (1949), starring Jeannette MacDonald playing the role of Helen Winter, a bitter concert singer. Her husband died in the war, and her son was killed while saving his dog Lassie from being hit by a truck. Helen and Lassie move to the mountains of North Carolina and Helen does volunteer work at an orphanage. She has not decided whether she wants Lassie around, but the dog makes the decision for her when she saves the life of her favorite orphan named Jerry (Claude Jarman Jr.).
Chester M. Franklin, director of many a 1920s drama starring canine stars Rin-Tin-Tin and Peter the Great, unwisely took on the job for MGM’s The Painted Hills (1951), also known as Lassie’s Adventures in the Gold Rush. The lead collie’s name is Shep. The plot revolves around a man who lets greed get hold of him. He kills his gold prospecting partner, Shep’s master, when they find a huge deposit, and the collie drives him off a cliff.
In 1954 Frank Weatherwax’s brother Rudd was able to interest Robert Maxwell, producer of The Adventures of Superman (1953), in a new TV series, Lassie. It is said that industry executives expected the series to last no more than one season because of the box office failure of The Painted Hills. In true Hollywood fashion, financial backers tended to blame the actors, human and otherwise, for any shortcoming in a film.
The premiere episode, “Inheritance,” and the second episode, “Mr. Peabody,” both starred Pal, but by then he was 14 years old and it was time for his many sons and grandsons to play Lassie. Tommy Rettig played Lassie’s master, Jeff Miller. Lassie was a smash hit and won an Emmy in 1955. More Emmys followed in the years ahead.
One of Pal’s sons proved a real-life hero in 1955. Weatherwax’s boat was moored at a Catalina Island dock one night when the dog’s barking woke him up. Some boaters were in trouble out in the ocean, adrift without power or lights. Weatherwax towed them to the harbor and the U.S. Coast Guard awarded his dog a certificate of honor.
In 1957, George Cleveland, who played Gramps, died unexpectedly and in one episode the whole series changed. City folks Ruth and Paul Martin (Cloris Leachman and Jon Shepodd), buy the farm from Jeff’s mom. They also adopt Timmy (Jon Provost) who had been staying with the Millers that summer. Lassie does not want to move to town with Jeff; she wants to stay with Timmy.
Leachman and Sheppod left the show and June Lockhart and Hugh Reilly took their roles. Wrather Productions purchased the series. In 1964 the dog’s life is uprooted again. The Martins are given a farm in Australia and they cannot take Lassie with them. Lassie stays with forest ranger Corey Stuart (Robert Bray) for several years. In 1968 Stuart is disabled while fighting a wildfire and Lassie goes to live with some young rangers, is lost, and wanders around California, helping strangers solve their problems much like the dog in The Littlest Hobo (1963), a Canadian series. Unfortunately, The Littlest Hobo was a much better remake of Route 66 (1960) than was Lassie, and cancellation came in 1971. Lassie had lasted 17 seasons, making it one of the most durable dramas of American television.
Lassie’s Rescue Rangers (1973), a Filmation animated series, still brings back memories for many a grown-up today. In 1978 a Pal descendant was directed by veteran director Don Chaffey in The Magic of Lassie, a musical starring Stephanie Zimbalist, Mickey Rooney and James Stewart. For about a decade there were no Lassie films or regular television series. The famed collie then returned to television in the 1990s in not one, but two television series. The first, an Al Burton/Palladium Entertainment production, was The New Lassie, which aired from 1990 to 1992. The second was a Canadian series of 1997 released by Cinar Productions, entitled simply Lassie. A young veterinarian and her son Timmy (wow, what a coincidence, that name.) adopt an abused collie and have adventures. A 1994 film, Lassie, was released by Paramount Pictures, and starred Brittany Boyd and Tom Guiry as children who rescue a stray collie from the road while their family is moving from Baltimore to Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. She comes in very handy in their sheep operation. The Weatherwaxes still owned and trained Lassies for these productions.
Isle of Man Films and Classic Media Productions returned Lassie to the big screen in 2006. A remake of Lassie Come Home, Lassie went back to the character’s roots and starred Jonathan Mason as Joe Carraclough and Peter O’Toole as the Duke. Again, a dog related to the original Pal (Lassie number 9) joined the cast. The plot was very close to that of the original motion picture, and showed the poverty of many working class Britons in the years before World War II. It proved that a simple story about real people and real animals can still fill seats in theaters. The dogs in the movie steal each scene, but they are supposed to, aren’t they?
Lassie films and television shows have inspired Viewmaster reels, board games, stuffed animals, Dell comics, plastic wallet promotional items from Campbell’s Soups, two different brands of dog food (Lassie and Lassie’s Natural Way), a Melmac dishware set, Little Golden Books, Whitman coloring books and puzzles, and even a brand of California citrus fruits.
Moreover, Lassie has been a symbol for protecting the environment. First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, a tireless promoter of roadside beautification and resource conservation, awarded Lassie with a U.S. Citation for the Program for Conservation in 1967.
The original Lassie died in 1958. His beauty and talent live on, however. The Lassies of television and the movies celebrate the qualities celebrated by poet Lord Byron in his tribute to his dog Boatswain. Lassie possesses “beauty without vanity, strength without insolence, courage without ferocity, and all the virtues of Man without his vices.” Long may she dash across a motion picture screen.
Lassie Come Home (MGM, 1943)
Son of Lassie (MGM, 1945)
Courage of Lassie (MGM, 1946)
Hills of Home (MGM, 1948)
Challenge to Lassie (MGM, 1949)
The Sun Comes Up (MGM, 1949)
The Painted Hills (MGM, 1951)
Lassie (Robert Maxwell Productions, 1954-1957; Wrather Productions, 1957-1971)
Lassie’s Rescue Rangers (Animated) (Filmation, 1973)
The Magic of Lassie (Lassie Productions, 1978)
The New Lassie (Al Burton/Palladium Entertainment, 1990)
Lassie (Paramount Pictures, 1994)
Lassie (Cinar Productions, 1997)
Lassie (Isle of Man Films/Classic Media Productions, 2006)
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