MGM opted to reconfigure Eleanor Atkinson’s 1912 novel Greyfriars Bobby into a Lassie film, substituting their collie for the Skye Terrier who loyally sat by the grave of its master until it was picked up by the local authorities, and slated for termination by the court of Edinburgh until reason saves the pooch.
Based on a true story, Atkinson’s novel undoubtedly goosed the tale with more drama, and MGM’s film version has Lassie being picked up in the streets by a poor farmer who raises her to adulthood, but never claims Lassie as his own - a decision that ultimately puts the dog in a dire legal state.
When the farmer, Jock Gray (Donald Crisp), dies one night after an attempted mugging, Lassie bolts back to Edinburgh, where she seeks out tavern owner John Traill (Edmund Gwenn), who ensures olde friend Jock is given a proper burial in the city cemetery. Lassie, however, refuses to leave her dead master’s grave, and is ultimately snapped up by a cold-hearted copper (Reginald Owen), and faces death by chloroform because the city cannot allow an unlicensed dog to run amuck, let alone live on the consecrated grounds where the city’s dead lie sleeping.
Traill and his son (Ross Ford) mount a defense campaign, arguing for Lassie since her grasp of English is virtually nil. To no one’s surprise, she’s saved from death, ensuring the beloved collie can once again time-travel to another period and keep MGM’s franchise going.
The first four films maintain a certain logical continuity – wonky, but somewhat more linear than the other sequels – and one can argue the use of the same Lassie stock company of actors in similar adventures set in different eras seems utterly bizarre: How can the same dog exist in Scotland and America during the 19th century, pre-WWI, WWII, and post-WWII, with the same group of character actors rotating parts of his / her friends?
The spirit and attraction to the emotive dog (aided by choice editing) transcends the illogic of the franchise, and the same familiar faces provide some soothing continuity when its lead character virtually time-travels – something Lassie’s original author probably never intended for his creation.
In Challenge, Lassie’s adventure is the same mix of dour moments, dangerous trekking, and hope: owner dies, state of grief, much wandering, future looks dim, escape from justice, re-arrest, and sudden freedom followed by raucous joy. Lassie’s escape includes hiding out with a local regiment and a mountain fort escape, and support among the locals, including its magistrate (Arthur Shields), a pretty dark-haired maiden (Geraldine Brooks), the local kiddies, and a sympathetic upper-classman who eventually joins the grass-roots spirit of salvation and figures out a simple way to legally circumvent the destruction order.
It’s all poppycock, but MGM’s 76 minute package is slick, and while filmed under a much cheaper budget (the same street sets and tavern interior from prior films are used), the drama works, although it’s clear the franchise is starting to run on fumes.
The Technicolor cinematography is lush, Andre Previn’s score (his second for the franchise) is really quite beautiful, and it’s fun to spot veteran character actors in tiny parts. Shields, in his second Lassie film (after Lassie Come Home) plays another wise & benevolent figure, as does Napier, with a more vital role as the deciding voice of the pooch’s fate than his smaller parts in Lassie Come Home and Hills of Home. Sara Allgood, who co-starred with Crisp in How Green Was My Valley (1941), has two or three tiny inky-dinky scenes with barely a mouthful of dialogue, whereas Gwenn defies logic, playing another major role after just starring in Hills of Home as a doctor (who dies), and a pots & pans peddler who loses his own beloved dog in Lassie Come Home. Also back from Hills are Reginald Owen, Edmund Breon, and Arthur Shields.
Lassie, of course, is brilliant, and director Richard Thorpe (The Sun Comes Up, Jailhouse Rock) makes sure to capture every whimper, whine, and glassy eyed stare every time Lassie’s onscreen.
The first four Lassie films were reissued in 2011 as part of a TCM omnibus, which includes Lassie Come Home (1943), Son of Lassie (1945), Courage of Lassie (1946), and Hills of Home (1948).
Strangely, the last three Lassie films - The Sun Comes Up (1949), Challenge to Lassie (1949), and The Painted Hills (1951) - remain unavailable on DVD. Lassie’s other adventures moved to radio (1947-1950), several TV series (notably 1954-1973), and a handful of film efforts to rekindle the franchise: The Magic of Lassie (1978), Lassie (1994), and Lassie (2005).
Atkinson’s novel was later adapted into two films: Donald Crisp amusingly starred in Greyfriars Bobby: The True Story of a Dog (1961), which was later re-edited into two parts for Disney’s TV series in 1964; and Christopher Lee played the Napier role in Greyfriars Bobby (2005).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan