One of the most popular "dog stars" of midcentury America, Lassie, an intelligent, brave collie, demonstrated loyalty, compassion, and love toward humans and fellow animals in films for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from 1943 to 1951, in a television series from 1954 to 1974, in an animated Saturday-morning program from 1973 to 1975, and in a 1978 feature film update. Lassie's heroics included finding and rescuing lost people, caring for the sick and injured, and warning individuals about impending natural and human catastrophes. Through the Lassie stories, viewers gained an appreciation of the strong bond that can be forged between humans and canines and provided a role model for human interpersonal relationships.
The character of Lassie originated in a short story called "Lassie Come Home" by Eric Knight that appeared in a 1938 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. Knight had used his own devoted dog Toots as the model for Lassie, and the collie's story touched the emotions of the magazine's readership. Knight expanded the plot, published the story as a novella in 1939, and realized sales of more than one million copies. That attracted the attention of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), which offered Knight $8,000 for the theatrical rights to the work.
The dog that would eventually become Lassie was an eight-month old collie named Pal who, in 1940, was driving its owner to distraction. The dog chased cars, chewed furniture, barked incessantly, and rejected the idea of being housebroken. In desperation, the owner took Pal to the recently opened kennel and dog-training school operated by Rudd Weatherwax. Weatherwax accepted the challenge of training the rambunctious puppy, and within a week Pal had mastered basic obedience training. However, when notified that he could claim the dog, the owner hesitated. After enjoying a collie-free household, the owner was reluctant to disturb his family's peace and quiet with the return of the puppy. He struck a deal with Weatherwax by which the trainer would keep the collie in lieu of the training fee. Having trained dogs for Hollywood films, Weatherwax was impressed with Pal's intelligence and recognized that the dog could be groomed for a movie career. Within six months of receiving additional training, Pal's abilities far surpassed those of any other beginner with whom Weatherwax had worked.
Pal demonstrated those abilities during an audition for the lead in the MGM film Lassie Come Home, but he was initially not chosen for the featured role, which went to a pedigreed female collie. A nonpedigreed male, Pal was selected to be a double dog or stunt dog for the female lead. However, once filming began, Pal's performance in a pivotal scene—Lassie's struggle to swim the swollen Tweed River between Scotland and England—convinced the director, Fred M. Wilcox, to give the lead-dog role to Pal.
Lassie Come Home relates the story of an impoverished Yorkshire family. To sustain his family, Sam Carraclough (Donald Crisp) sells his son's beautiful collie, Lassie, to the Duke of Rudling (Nigel Bruce), who brings the animal to his Scotland home and to his daughter Priscilla (Elizabeth Taylor). Still devoted to young Joe Carraclough (Roddy McDowall), Lassie escapes and begins the long journey home to Yorkshire, enduring dangers and hardships as well as the kindness of strangers. Dog and master are reunited finally, and Joe is able to keep his dog.
The scene of high drama in the film is Lassie's struggle to swim the Tweed River. Director Wilcox selected the flooded San Joaquin River in northern California as the site for this scene. At a signal from Weatherwax, Pal jumped into the swirling water and swam toward the designated spot on shore. When the collie climbed out of the water, Weatherwax signaled him. Pal put his tail between his legs, his head down, and crawled up the bank looking exhausted. The director was astounded. According to David Rothel in Great Show Business Animals, Wilcox later told Weatherwax: "Pal jumped into that river, but it was Lassie who climbed out."
The overwhelming success of Lassie Come Home led to other Lassie film adventures: Son of Lassie (1945), Courage of Lassie (1946), Hills of Home (1948), The Sun Comes Up (1949), Challenge to Lassie (1949), and The Painted Hills (1951). Although Pal had earned millions for MGM, the studio dropped its option on Lassie after the last film and returned to Weatherwax all rights to Pal. This allowed Weatherwax to consider a Lassie television series. In 1953, Pal's son, named Lassie, shot a pilot for the series, set in the American rural community of Calverton. The Campbell Soup Company agreed to sponsor the half-hour weekly program, and Lassie debuted on CBS on Sunday, September 12, 1954. The human cast included Tommy Rettig as Jeff Miller, Jan Clayton as his widowed mother Ellen, George Cleveland as Jeff's grandfather George "Gramps" Miller, and Donald Keller as Jeff's friend Sylvester "Porky" Brockway. Lassie became an instant hit with viewers as well as with critics. In 1954, Lassie won an Emmy Award for Best Children's Program. The following year, the show captured another Emmy Award and the prestigious Peabody Award.
Cast and location changes occurred during the nearly two decades of the Lassie television series. In September 1957, the Millers sold the farm to a childless couple, Paul and Ruth Martin, played by Jon Shepodd and Cloris Leachman. Jeff Miller gave Lassie to seven-year-old orphan Timmy (Jon Provost) who joined the Martin household. In September 1958, Timmy's parents were being played by June Lockhart and Hugh Reilly. By 1964, the Martins left the farm to take advantage of free land in Australia. Timmy went with them, but Lassie remained behind because of animal quarantine regulations, so Lassie acquired a new master, U.S. Forest Ranger Corey Stuart, played by Robert Bray. In 1968, after Ranger Stuart was injured in a forest fire, Lassie was given to two young rangers, Scott Turner (Jed Allan) and Bob Erickson (Jack De Mave). However, Lassie roamed independently through many of the episodes.
Lassie remained in production for three more seasons, from 1971 through 1974, but the program was syndicated to television stations across the country. In the first season, Lassie wandered the countryside without human companionship. The last two seasons found a new home for Lassie with the Holdens on a ranch in California. Throughout the various series, the role of Lassie was always played by Pal's descendant. From 1973 to 1975, Lassie returned to television in an animated, Saturday-morning adventure, Lassie's Rescue Rangers.
In 1978, the story of Lassie Come Home was updated and Americanized in the film The Magic of Lassie, featuring James Stewart, Mickey Rooney, Alice Faye, Mike Mazurki, Stephanie Zimbalist, Pernell Roberts, and a sixth-generation descendant of the original Pal as Lassie.
Lassie was honored with nine PATSY Awards from 1958 to 1971. Given by the American Humane Association, the PATSY (Performing Animal Top Stars of the Year) is the animal equivalent of the Academy Award. In 1973, Lassie was the first inductee to the American Humane Association's Hall of Fame. In December 1975, Esquire magazine included Lassie among its collection of "Great American Things," putting the collie in the good company of, among others, Fred Astaire, Walter Cronkite, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Robinson, and John Wayne. Lassie remains a familiar icon in the pantheon of animal actors in American popular culture, especially to the Boomer generation who grew up with the television series in the 1950s.
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