Posted by Moira Finnie on February 11, 2009
No interviews, please. That’s always been one of the blessings of animals in movies. These stoic creatures don’t complain and they don’t explain in public, no matter how much we anthropomorphize their reactions to the world. Nor do they ever tell us their views on life, love or politics. They just are, enduring our endless attempts to project onto them our longing to understand and bridge the gulf that inevitably lies between us.
Since the upcoming Oscar award ceremony has yet to feature a Best Animal Actor Award, I started to muse about which of the warm blooded mammals found in the movies who’ve beguiled me over the years might be a prime candidate for an Oscar–if they gave one. There are horses, (Flicka, Trigger, and Black Beauty, for instance), cats, (Thomasina, Pyewacket, Rhubarb), pigs, (Babe, Wilbur), lions, sheep, pumas, deer, and even wild boars to choose from, ( the latter make great villains, as anyone who’s seen Home From the Hill and The Yearling will testify).
Since a merger between the PATSY Awards and those given by AMPAS each year is highly unlikely, I’d like to make a case for at least one Academy Award worthy creature whose charismatic presence in the popular imagination has continued to this day. (The PATSYs are the Picture Animal Top Star of the Year given by the American Humane Association, an award created to prevent animal cruelty on movie sets after a notorious accident on the set of Jesse James (1939) finally got the public’s attention about the treatment of animals during filming).
There’s a story told that Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM from 1924 to 1951, when asked what makes a good story, would claim that only three emotions were important. To illustrate this, he’d tap his forehead, heart and genitals. Slight vulgarity aside, this evening, (2/11/09) if you watch Lassie Come Home (1943) at 10pm on TCM, you may give a moment’s thought to the Technicolor cinematography of lensman Leonard Smith. The cinematographer, who also brought color to animal stories in National Velvet and The Yearling, was honored with an Academy Award nomination when this first Lassie movie was released. You may also conclude that this movie manipulates at least two out of the three essential Mayer emotions and, over 70 years after it was first published as a short story in The Saturday Evening Post in Deccember, 1938, it still tugs at something essential in some of us. If I had my way, an Academy Award might have been forged just for the expressive dog who played Lassie, surrounded by the skilled humans who were her supporting cast, (particularly the exceptionally sensitive acting of Roddy McDowell and Edmund Gwenn–not to mention Rudd Weatherwax, the trainer of the dog, Pal, who played the leading role). Recently, in wondering why no one at AMPAS ever gave Lassie an Oscar, I reviewed a few of the best of the Lassie movies from MGM’s seven features made between 1943 and 1951.
The story of Lassie Come Home was brought to life by a man who had little share in the spectacular success that resulted from the filming of the story, which was expanded into a novel in 1940. If you’re an inveterate credit reader (and who isn’t?), you might also ask yourself who was Eric Knight, and why did MGM dedicate Lassie Come Home to him?
The cynic in me would reply that they knew a hot franchise when they saw one, which is exactly what Lassie became for the studio and it’s probably easier to honor writers who aren’t around to quibble about the liberties that you take with their creation. The writer Eric Knight, born in 1897, was a talented fellow with a strong artistic bent and a love of animals, particularly dogs. He had a sometimes checkered writing career after growing up on a farm in Yorkshire, England. He moved to the United States as an adolescent to be with his mother who had remarried an American, though Knight later returned to the UK to serve a stint in the British Army in the First World War. He eventually studied art in New York, worked for several newspapers, lectured on writing at the University of Iowa, and eventually became one of the first respected film critics in the daily press in the 1930s. Knight and his second wife, Jere, also farmed in Pennsylvania for a time, where they kept many dogs, particularly Collies. Upon moving to Hollywood to pursue a writing career, a small terrier they had brought with them was hit by a car. To ease their sorrow, Knight bought a Collie female puppy who was soon christened “Toots.” While never a show dog, the animal’s love, loyalty and intelligence endeared her to her new family. Her particular attachment to Knight grew so profound that he sometimes took her with him when he went on book tours to promote his growing number of imaginative books, which dealt with a range of subjects, including some keen and sympathetic observations of American life, the coming war, children’s stories of aviation, and eventually that Collie story. “Toots” eagerly learned new tricks whenever her friend had time to teach her and, like the dog in Lassie Come Home, she was said to know, as if by osmosis, the time when Knight would return after being away on business and would wait by the stone wall outside his home. He wrote Lassie Come Home to help support his “serious writing”. If only he’d known what a rich vein he’d tapped into at the time.
In addition to his best remembered dog tale, Knight, writing under the alias of Richard Hallas, produced a dandy pulp novel in 1938 called You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up (available here). This California based story of gambling and lust still holds up as an outstanding example of the developing genre that would today be considered noirish in tone and theme. Written in the style of James M. Cain and Nathaniel West, it is a bit difficult to connect this hard-boiled fictional work with the heartwarming story of a boy and his dog. One theme that is present in this work, and recurs in Knight‘s other, best known adult novel, This Above All, is the author’s keen awareness of the social pressures in Britain and the United States caused by money, class and the bitterness and heartbreak that those stresses caused, especially during the Depression years. This Above All (1942), though it now seems a bit dated as a movie, (which was filmed by Anatole Litvak, a friend of the author, starred Joan Fontaine and Tyrone Power), was a much better novel before being bowdlerized by the Production Code for the movies. It is, along with his other books, a reflection of the author’s concerns with the brutal, often surly world of class ridden Britons inured to cant and calls to national duty after WWI, labor unrest, and the approach of a new, more deadly war. The hero of the book, (and the movie) is a deserter, redeemed in part by his love of his upper class girl, but resigned to finding the strength to fight from his own determination to change his own society after the war. A critical and popular success, the interesting aspect of the book is the way that it helped Knight to gain a foothold in Hollywood just before he joined the U.S. Army as an officer.
Near the end of his forty-five years, Knight was assigned to work closely with director Frank Capra on his critically acclaimed Why We Fight series of documentaries, which were intended to educate the fighting forces of the Allies by outlining the history behind the opposition to the Axis powers. Capra, who was utterly won over by the charming Yorkshireman, described Eric as a “rollicking good companion” who had ”all the talents that could be compressed into a single writer: Wit, compassion, sensitiveness, an intriguing style, and a great, great love for human beings.”
Knight, who never lived to see Lassie come to the screen, was able to visit the set at least once. In his letters to friends, he describes his bemusement when the production manager of the planned movie sent forth an edict asking all his studio personnel to ”Please photocable close-up of dog’s face. Would like to see animals looking pensive, happy, and other possible expressions you can secure.” Collaborating with veteran screenwriter Hugo Butler, Knight and his co-writer incorporated word for word many of the scenes and dialogue that I must admit still move me when read or seen in this powerful movie. On January 13, 1943, the transport plane he was flying over the jungle in Dutch Guiana crashed mysteriously, killing all hands on board.
The film of Lassie Come Home, which opened at the Radio City Music Hall in October of 1943, captured a simple beauty and poignancy of the original story without mentioning the ongoing global conflict, though the movie gave viewers enough vicarious anguish to help expiate their wartime anxieties. The dog, played by a rough Collie named Pal, trained by the now famous Rudd Weatherwax, was surrounded by a remarkably gifted cast, led by McDowell, Donald Crisp and Elsa Lanchester as his gruffly pained parents, Nigel Bruce as the Duke of Rudling, an exquisitely beautiful 11 year old Elizabeth Taylor, and, perhaps best of all, Edmund Gwenn, as an itinerant peddler. In thinking about the movie realized, it occurred to me that the series of vignettes it told through the eloquent eyes of the dog, and by dwelling on the experiences of separation, letting go and the abiding love felt for those we miss, this film must have been a powerful echo of the audience’s emotional state, even though it dealt with an impoverished peacetime world. On another level, the movie evoked that MGM fondness for a softened view of our allies, endowing British society with a humane feudalism (personified by Nigel Bruce, of course), that smoothed over any resentment felt by the lower classes.
The success of the first movie, directed by journeyman Fred M. Wilcox, who would go on to helm two Lassie sequels, as well as the beautifully made The Secret Garden (1949) and The Forbidden Planet (1956), caused MGM to quickly produce a sequel, Son of Lassie for release in 1945 under the direction of B movie veteran S. Sylvan Simon. The film, featuring rising contract player Peter Lawford as a grown up Roddy McDowell, emphasizes how a grown up Roddy McDowell as Joe Carraclough might experience war as well as giving him a love interest, (played by June Lockhart, who would later play in the Lassie television series). The use of color location shooting was 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 added to the film’s beauty though the derring-do of the plot was not particularly involving, despite the presence of Donald Crisp and Nigel Bruce briefly reprising their roles. Asking the audience to believe in Lassie in the RAF strained credulity even though the dog playing Lassie was again remarkaby expressive and likable. The movie, which was a hit, did make a few of Lassie’s co-stars review their career path with from a different professional perspective. Robert Lewis, the noted actor, director and a founder of the Actor’s Studio, lingered for some of the war years as a contract player at MGM. While he almost went mad with boredom, he was apparently a favorite of Mr. Mayer, who agreed to cast Lewis “opposite one of his biggest stars”, according to the actor’s memoir. The actor found out that the “big name” that he would be appearing with on screen was Lassie. When the production was taking a train to Canada for location shooting, Lewis, cast as a Nazi guard, was given the lower berth of the sleeper, with bigger name Peter Lawford in his upper berth. Lassie received the only bedroom sleeper on the train. When Lewis, Lawford and Lassie all had to film a scene in icy Patricia Bay, the canine movie star was immediately wrapped in velvety towels when emerging from the water and placed in front of a heater. Lawford and Lewis were supposedly lucky if they could snag some Scotch from a friendly electrician to warm up.
“…[A]t the very least”, wrote the actor, “I had an opportunity to study the remarkable acting technique of Lassie. He was the complete Stanislavskiite. Requiring an emotional memory exercise to get to a fever pitch high enough to make the dog bare his teeth and snarl at the enemy (me), Rudd Weatherwax, Lassie’s personal trainer and Method coach, had only to “rev up” a motorcycle.”
Co-star Peter Lawford‘s remarks at the time of the production echo some of Lewis’ sarcasm. According to the young actor, “[t]hey took better care of the dog than they did of me. If there were any stunts, Lassie was protected at all costs and I was on my own. He was affectionate with me because I had raw meat concealed in my clothes. While filming in British Columbia, Lawford said that “I had a hotel room and the dog had a suite of rooms. But I got top billing for the first time so it was worth it.
While Peter Lawford‘s popularity soared when the movie was released, he eventually confessed that “[i]f you do a film with an animal, it will upstage you every time. All he has to do is wag his tail and no one pays any attention to anyone else.” From this viewer’s perspective, as much as I usually get endless pleasure seeing the Nazis get their just desserts in just about any movie, this one really drags, despite Lassie‘s unexpected ferocity and determination under fire. The immediate follow-up in the series, however, remains one of my favorite Lassie movies of all.
Courage of Lassie (1946), which I first saw about three years ago had me from the first “woof”. In this movie, Fred Wilcox is again in the director’s chair and under his firm hand Lassie is now transformed into a shell-shocked WWII veteran returning to civilian life with a wicked case of post traumatic stress disorder, making those bipeds in The Best Years of Our Lives look like total slackers. Again played beautifully by the expressive Pal, the poor girl goes through h-e-double hockey sticks before winding back in the arms of a lovely youngster whom you may have heard tell of—one Elizabeth Taylor, who is intensely touching if a bit neurotic throughout this movie. This movie, filmed on location in, among other places, Lake Chelan in magnificent Washington state, gave Lassie, (now an American dog) who, after being raised by the truly charming Taylor in a rural paradise is one day kidnapped and hustled off to serve as a trained combat dog, serving in the Aleutians and elsewhere before making her way back home. The movie gave Lassie the most opportunities to show a range of expressioin, with a couple of near death experiences, leaps from trains, planes and trucks, amnesia, encounters with bounty hunters and the real possibility to walk the last mile. One wonders how the Academy could have failed to notice such versatility and dedication to a role on the dog star’s part. Honestly, I thought that Lassie was going to wind up drinking Thunderbird and sleeping in an alley or worse before Frank Morgan, the overwrought Miss Taylor and a handy telegram from the War Dept. cleared her clouded mind and her police record. Did I get caught up in the story and shed a tear or two by the end? Naturally.
While MGM began to falter as public tastes, power shifts and business models changed the postwar climate, Lassie continued to make movies–some quite touching, as in Hills of Home (1948), which reunited the dog with Edmund Gwenn in a Greyfriar’s Bobby type story set in Scotland once again, and some rather poorly told, such as the limp The Painted Hills (1951) with Lassie as a prospector’s dog out for vengeance. Despite this waning of interest, Lassie, odd as it may sound, even had a radio show from 1946-1949, a Dell comic book at one time, and a eventually a really cheesy cartoon program.
Perhaps the shift in attitude toward Lassie might have been read at the public relations event of the decade at MGM, when, as always, bragging that “they had more stars than there are in heaven”, the studio celebrated its silver anniversary in 1949 with a self-congratulatory luncheon gathering as many contractees together on a sound stage for a photo op for the ages, with the dazzling human contingent featuring Astaire, Gable, a couple Barrymores, and numerous others, gathered for a “class photo” and Lassie, who was seated separately, (seen at the left). While Lassie seems isolated, she/he nevertheless has by far the most comfortable seat…but who knows how the inner dog may have felt at the time? All I know is that the remaining Lassie movies made at the studio were listless affairs.
I realize that Lassie continued to play a significant role in the public imagination through the long running television series beginning in 1954, and in some attempted movie returns, but the movies from this earlier period still seem to have more resonance, tighter scripts, and more believable performances from both humans and animals. Besides, at least on the tv show, the people always seemed dumber to me than Lassie. I didn’t like to see her stoop to conquer that mass audience. Besides, the original Lassie program had the all time saddest theme music of any show, (if you haven’t had a good cry lately and feel the need, you can hear that surefire, evocative theme here.)
Despite the subtle and not so subtle changes taking place at the studio and in Lassie’s star status, there were certain advantages to investing the studio’s sometimes wavering faith in the dog–especially in the chilly atmosphere of the emerging McCarthy era. In 1947, an anonymous employee of MGM was telling reporter Lillian Ross that “We’d be in the hole if we didn’t have Lassie. We like Lassie. We’re sure of Lassie. Lassie can’t go out and embarrass the studio. Katharine Hepburn goes out and makes a speech for Henry Wallace. Bang! We’re in trouble. Lassie doesn’t make speeches. Not Lassie, thank God.” The inscrutable and immutable presence of Lassie, who rose like a comet at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the Tiffany’s of movie studios, between the turbulent years of 1943 and 1951, eventually moved on to television and, in recent years has, once again, provided the source material for a British made movie faithfully made from the Eric Knight book, with a particular emphasis on the family poverty as well as the love between a separated boy and his dog.
Now, I wish that I could be one of the cool kids and be flip about the cornball aspects of Lassie Come Home (1943) and all the other Lassie movies. However, that just isn’t possible for me, since I’m a fine example of a person guilty of anthropomorphism of animals run amuck and unlikely to change. Despite what all the animal behaviorists may unveil about the baser instincts of our clear-eyed dogs, I know better. Having shared my life with more than one dog, I know what it was like to have a dog who knew, instinctively, what time I’d be getting off the bus from school and was there, literally like clockwork, waiting for me. I also know, after burying a parent, what it was like to sit down on a stair for a moment after the hubbub of the day had ended and suddenly feel the nuzzle of my dog’s snout snuggle on my shoulder and rest there as he let out a small sigh. Driving around, I’ve had a dog in the back seat of my car, gently place his paw on my right shoulder, just to let me know he’s there. Lassie‘s spirit lives–Oscar or not.
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