“Lassie and me — we’d like some bread and jam.”
“Bread you’ll have. But jam, you’ll do without.”
Lassie was officially “born” in 1938 when author Eric Knight wrote his best-selling tale about a devoted collie entitled “Lassie Come Home.” Of course, the roots of the story go further back even than that — to the book’s setting of Yorkshire, England where Knight was born in 1897 and a place he would revisit during the Great Depression. Further inspiration came from Knight’s own close collie companion named Toots. It was in the mid-1930s while living in New York that Knight drew upon these various facets of his life to write the short story “Lassie Come Home” that would be the root of the whole Lassie phenomenon that continues to this day and has comprised numerous books, movies, television series, radio shows, and public appearances. The story was turned into a full-length novel that appeared in 1940, with film rights being acquired by MGM in 1942. Unfortunately Eric Knight didn’t live to see the filmed version of his book as he was killed in action in 1943.
Over the years there would eventually be almost a dozen Lassie films, but generally the best known and most popular of them are the original MGM one and that studio’s follow-up productions in the 1940s. Now, 61 years after the appearance of the first Lassie feature film and 50 years since the debut of the long-running Lassie television series, Warner Bros. has released the first three MGM films on separate DVDs.
Lassie Come Home — Sam Carraclough, an unemployed Yorkshire collier (coal mine worker), is forced to sell his son Joe’s beloved collie in order to get money to pay for food and rent. The buyer is the Duke of Rudling who takes Lassie to his home in Scotland where the dog becomes a favorite of the Duke’s daughter, Priscilla. Lassie longs to return to his young master, however, and after several attempts, he manages to escape from the Duke’s kennels and sets out alone on what will be a long and hazardous journey back to Yorkshire.
Son of Lassie — Joe Carraclough, Lassie’s master, is now an adult and joins the RAF during the Second World War. He is forced to leave behind Lassie and her son Laddie, of course. Laddie has all the intelligence of his mother but an overabundance of youthful enthusiasm and cannot understand why he cannot be with his master. He contrives to follow Joe to the airfield where he’s stationed and even stows aboard the plane when Joe has to go into action. The plane is shot down over Norway and Joe struggles to return to England with the help of the local resistance, unaware that Laddie is always one step behind him.
Courage of Lassie — After becoming separated from her mother, Lassie is found by a young girl named Kathie Merrick. Kathie trains Lassie to be a champion herder, but they are involved in a boating accident one day that finds Lassie first lost and subsequently found by a vet who sends him to an Army war dog training centre. Lassie finds herself in action against the Japanese in the Aleutians along with her trainer, but she eventually becomes affected by the sound of gunfire and is shipped home by train. She manages to escape into the wilderness and tries to find her way home to Kathie.
Although all three of the initial Lassie films maintain a high standard of entertainment and production value, the first one remains the best. Remaining quite true to its source material, Lassie Come Home is tightly scripted and tells a heart-warming story that is sentimental but never cloying. The dog Lassie (reportedly a one-year old collie without pedigree papers named Pal who was auditioned for the role by noted animal trainer Rudd Weatherwax) is of course amazing, but she is surrounded by a first-rate human cast that catches the flavour of the novel. Roddy McDowall (in the first of two 1943 family-oriented animal pictures — the other would be My Friend Flicka) is most appealing as Joe, managing to convey with ease the very close bond between dog and master. As Joe’s father Sam, Donald Crisp provides a heart-warming performance in the sort of role at which he excelled — the gruff, heart-of-gold fatherly figure of any one of Irish, Scottish, Welsh, or in this case, Yorkshire descent. Similarly, Nigel Bruce (of Dr. Watson fame) had a stock characterization for himself playing the somewhat caricature-like Duke of Rudling. Both he and Crisp would return playing the same characters in Son of Lassie. Elizabeth Taylor gained good notices as the Duke’s daughter, Priscilla. The film was her first one for MGM and she too would return in a later Lassie film, but as a different character. Filming was done throughout California and in Washington state as well. The use of Technicolor added much to the film’s appeal although the then-standard three-strip technique was eschewed on the location shooting for a new monopack process in which all colour emulsions were present on one base and required no special camera.
With the success of Lassie Come Home, MGM moved quickly to develop a sequel. Retaining some of the same characters from the first film and introducing a timely war theme, the studio produced Son of Lassie for release in 1945. Extensive location shooting was undertaken in mid-1944 throughout western Canada (as a stand-in for the film’s setting of Norway) at the likes of Banff, Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, and Patricia Bay, as well as at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. As mentioned above, Donald Crisp and Nigel Bruce returned in their roles from the first film although their parts were considerably reduced. Young MGM star Peter Lawford took on the role of Joe Carraclough and provided a very winning performance that meshed very well with one’s conception of the sort of person Roddy McDowall’s young Joe would have grown into. As Joe’s love interest, June Lockhart appeared as an older Priscilla and began her long association with Lassie (she would later star in the Lassie television series). The story is rather far-fetched and it goes on too long, but the film is characterized with typically high MGM production values including Technicolor once again. Wartime sensibilities made the film another highly-regarded effort and ultimately financially successful. Without the wartime environment, however, the contrived nature of the film’s plot is now harder to gloss over and ultimately makes the film a lesser entry compared to the original.
With Courage of Lassie, the Lassie films now departed from the dog’s beginnings with none of the original characters being used. There was a filmic connection to the two predecessors, though, in that Elizabeth Taylor returned, this time to play Kathie, the dog’s mistress (unfortunately in an at-times overwrought fashion). Getting top billing with Taylor was veteran MGM player and ever reliable Frank Morgan who appears as a rancher who trains Lassie (Lassie is named “Bill” in this film). The story once again had a wartime background although by the time the film was released in mid-1946, the war had been over for a year. A film-going audience by then tired of war-related films cooled somewhat toward the third film compared to the earlier ones. The film is also more disjointed than the others as it seems to tell two different stories before finally tying things up together. There is considerable location shooting once again with some good wildlife footage that is used to start the film, giving it an initial air of a Disney True-Life adventure film. Number three in the series is ranked number three in overall quality.
Warners’ transfers for all three films aren’t bad looking although certainly not up to the standard of other Technicolor restorations we’ve seen. There are plenty of scratches and speckles as well as assorted debris suggesting well-worn source material. Lassie Come Home is the lesser looking of the three overall. The monopack Technicolor process used for the original outdoor filming is likely a factor here in restricting Warners’ ability to work its magic. Still, colours on all the films are quite bright and the transfers are reasonably sharp; just don’t expect perfection.
The mono sound on each film is unremarkable. Dialogue is clear with only occasional background hiss. The wartime action scenes that should generate more intense sound are typically lacking in presence.
There are decent extras on each disc, either one or two shorts and various theatrical trailers. Lassie Come Home offers Fala, an unusual short on FDR’s dog along with trailers for all three Lassie films reviewed here. Son of Lassie has a fine Tom and Jerry cartoon, Flirty Birdy and the film’s theatrical trailer. Courage of Lassie has both a bland Droopy cartoon (Northwest Hounded Police) and a good Tom and Jerry one (Solid Serenade) plus the film’s original trailer and a re-release one.
Lassie enthusiasts will be pleased to have these vintage MGM efforts now available to them on DVD. Each film is diverting, although the overall quality declines slightly with each succeeding entry. The transfers are all acceptable, but not up to those offered on the best classic releases. Recommended as good family entertainment.