Although MGM’s 1943 film version of Eric Knight’s Depression Era novel remained set in England, the time period was adjusted to a kind of halcyon, pre-WWII era when times were tough, but as the opening narration describes, people were honest and the shadow and gunfire of the next Great War was looming on the horizon.
MGM’s original theatrical trailer lumped Knight’s novel alongside several recent and soon-to-be major motion pictures with war themes (including the 1942 film version of Knight's war novel This Above All), and it’s hard not to miss the studio’s message that Lassie is more than a film about an attractive & loyal pooch: she’s a virtuous creature with tremendous loyalty to ordinary folks struggling to keep a roof over their heads when money and resources are ebbing very low.
The doggy film was and remains a simple form of virtuous escapism, and it’s an amazingly simple story of a dog’s long trek home after being sold by its reluctant family to earn cash to keep a father, mother, and son fed during dad's unemployment spell.
The film's first third unsurprisingly covers the affectionate relationship between family and pet, particularly young Joe (Roddy McDowall, fresh from the horsy film My Friend Flicka), who knows at 4pm, waiting under a big tree in the school yard is Lassie, ready to carry his books home like a loyal friend, if not his only friend, since Joe has no classmates with whom he converses. He is, in every way, a loner, making Lassie’s sudden sale to the wealthy Duke of Rudling (Nigel Bruce) all the more devastating.
Joe never tosses a tantrum because he’s a good lad, and while young, he understands his life is hard, and swallows the tough decision – a move that's perhaps aimed at contemporary wartime kids confused about their families’ own belt-tightening, and unexpected reduction of simple necessities and comforts.
Once she’s sold to the Duke, the focus goes to Lassie, adjusting to a new life in far away Scotland, and while she’s happy with the Duke’s granddaughter Priscilla (Elizabeth Taylor, in her second film role), the trainer and kennel manager is a cruel man, foiling Lassie’s increasingly desperate efforts to break free and run home.
Priscilla soon realizes Lassie belongs with Joe, but rather than confront the Duke, she allows Lassie to flee – a move that gives the film 40 mins. worth of adventures, but one that theoretically could / should doom the dog to a slow and terrible death from starvation, various predators, or nasty weather.
Along the way the regal pooch encounters an old couple who nurse her back to help after a hefty river swim, a pair of hunters (one played by a young Alan Napier, still looking quite middle aged), an itinerant pots & pans salesman (the ever-genial Edmund Gwenn) and his cute dog, and two determined dog catchers that threaten Lassie before the inevitable Happy Ending, nicely underscored by Daniele Amfitheatrof’s sentimental, high register strings.
MGM took advantage of their in-house talent pool and made use of the fine British talent which settled in Hollywood as WWII was wrecking havoc on British soil, and making Atlantic crossings difficult with Nazi submarines and gunships.
Elsa Lanchester (The Bride of Frankenstein) plays Joe’s mum, and Donald Crisp reteamed with McDowall after the pair appeared in How Green Was My Valley (1941). Like Taylor, McDowall was an emotive child actor, and he enjoyed a string of successful roles before switching to TV in the fifties. The performances of the kids, adults and Pal (who played Lassie) are uniformly solid, and as treacly as the story may be, its simplicity ensures the film has plenty of room to win over tougher audience members.
The film is also a show-stopper for Technicolor cinematography, with stunning fields, mountains, waterfalls, misty forests, and huge valleys blazing lots of greens, amber, and fall season hues. Cinematographer Leonard Smith was unsurprisingly brought back to shoot Taylor’s own animal film, National Velvet (1944), and Lassie’s third outing, Courage of Lassie (1946), the latter film also directed by Fred M. Wilcox (Forbidden Planet), and co-starring Taylor.
Warner Home Video’s transfer is made from an okay print that’s clearly been affected by age and wear in certain shots, and the transfer may have been created from an amalgam of best shots from various surviving prints. Pity the film hasn’t been restored, because in addition to being an amiable family film, it’s a fine example of outdoor Technicolor cinematography that would look ravishing in HD.
The DVD includes trailers for the first 3 Lassie films, and a Pete Smith black & white short “Fala,” a tongue & check adaptation of the book about President Franklyn D. Roosevelt’s little black pooch and its life in and around the White House environs. Director Gunther von Fritsch (The Curse of the Cat People, Flash Gordon) intercuts staged close-ups with newsreel footage of the President to create a simple narrative that’s told through the dog’s voice over (magically in English), but zero music score.
Originally released in 2004, this title is available separately or as part of the new TCM Lassie omnibus, which includes the first four films: 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).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan