After a series of postwar-themed films for Lassie – rescue dog in Son of Lassie, war dog in Courage of Lassie – MGM decided to flip back to the bygone era of quaint Scotland with quaint folks in The Hills of Home, which seemed to bring the character of Man’s Best Friend full circle… So what could follow next?
Well, a hybrid, of course. Pulling from themes and similar characters of prior pics, screenwriters Margaret Fitts and William Ludwig integrated aspects of postwar tragedy, small town Americana and the saccharine love between a widower / childless mother and an orphan into the story conceptualized by author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (The Yearling). MGM erroneously (misleadingly?) credited the literary source as a novel (there never was one), but the screenwriters managed to write an amiable family picture with a solid structure, a predictable wrap-up, and some choice dialogue scenes for the film’s supporting actors.
More importantly, they also figured out the logistics so Jeanette MacDonald (in her final feature film) could sing throughout the drama. Being a Lassie film, it couldn’t become a musical, so MacDonald plays celebrated opera singer Helen Lorfield Winter slowly recovering from the loss of her husband after WWII – a subtextual tie to prior WWII-themed Lassie films.
With only her son and husband’s dog Lassie, she’s able to regain her strength and renew her singing career, but in spite of a successful appearance in a musical programme at the local hall, she’s thrust into seclusion again when her son is killed, running across a busy street to stop an excited Lassie from leaping in front of a truck.
Feeling ire towards Lassie (‘it’s you’re fault!’) and unable to tolerate the clamor of shiny happy children, she heads off to a rented country cabin with Lassie (after making peace in the car). She finds local orphan / handy boy Jerry (The Yearling’s Claude Jarman, Jr.) reminiscent of her dead son, but it’s not until the final scene that she realizes the sun has indeed risen, and she can continue mothering a sprightly boy, and transcend the terrible tragic events of the past few years.
Jarman is affable and sympathetic, and it’s a shame MGM lost interest in the actor once he grew into adulthood. MacDonald manages to croon a few operatic pieces, but she sustains her character’s gravitas in spite of Helen being a rather snotty star. The writers play off the star aspect by having Helen avoid in-town visits, and the locals being suspicious of her identity and reasons for trekking into their small village. The best role belongs to Percy Kilbride (the slow-voiced patriarch of Universal’s Ma & Pa Kettle franchise), playing local general store owner Willie B. Williegood (surely the silliest name within the Lassie series).
Kilbride spouts advice, straight talk, and is the barometer of the village’s temperament, but he’s also a bit of a peacemaker, bridging gaps between Helen and the local women who initially scorn her, including tobacco-chewing Mrs. Golightly (!), played by Margaret Hamilton (The Wizard of Oz).
The most useless character is poor Thomas Chandler, owner of the rented house, who’s brought into the story purely to discover a sick Jerry at the doorstep during Helen’s brief period of absence, and helps nurse him back to health. Thomas is neither a romantic interest nor father figure; he’s just there for a few scenes, and strangely cohabitates with Helen in the house with no suspicions among the village of potential sexual impropriety. The lack of a purpose means actor Lloyd Nolan is reduced to feigning an air of authority and dignity – purely to help convince Helen she ought to be more aggressive and adopt Jerry as her own.
Lassie is given things to do by the screenwriters, but the mother-child bond is tantamount to any canine escapades, and Lassie’s major screen moment involves rescuing Jerry from a burning orphanage (a sequence also present in the finale of RKO’s big monkey movie, Mighty Joe Young, released that same year).
Also in the cast is Lewis Stone as Helen’s manager, and bit parts for Barbara Billingsly (Leave It to Beaver) and Dwayne Hickman (The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), who also had a bit part in Mighty Joe Young.
Like prior Lassie films, the casting drew from a pool of faces familiar to the family crowd, ensuring a sense of familiarity and continuity within MGM’s family film stream. Somewhat muted in this canine outing are moments of sprawling Technicolor vistas. A few scenes provide sloping mountain views, but for once in the series nature isn’t a major character; it’s been reduced to a literal backdrop, since Lassie isn’t required to trudge through anything beyond a field or a creek.
Andre Previn’s score (his first credited) features a great balance of schmaltz and emotionally charged theme variations that rarely delve into melodrama, and one suspects he realized the best way to augur the film’s tonal qualities was to write in contrast to the sweeping romantic style so dominant in prior films. The story was set in the present day, so it made sense to add some modernism into the scoring style.
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).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan