Growing up in Depression-era Yorkshire, young Joe Carraclough (Roddy McDowall) is devoted to his dog Lassie. But Sam Carraclough (Donald Crisp) and his wife (Elsa Lanchester, former Bride of Frankenstein (1935)) are hit by hard times and forced to sell their beloved border collie to the Duke of Rudling (Nigel Bruce). His little granddaughter Priscilla (Elizabeth Taylor in her first major role) is sympathetic to Lassie’s plight and helps the homesick dog escape. Whereupon Lassie begins a long, arduous journey home to her loving Joe.
Based on the 1938 novel by Eric Knight, and bearing a dedication to the author and serviceman who was killed in the Second World War, Lassie Come Home remains an evergreen classic, a great example of MGM family entertainment and a fixture of children’s programming to this day. Originally intended as a low-budget, black and white effort, MGM gave this the full red carpet treatment including lustrous Technicolor - for which cinematographer Leonard Smith was nominated for an Academy Award - and a tiptop cast of veteran character actors and radiant youngsters. Working his magic behind the camera was Fred M. Wilcox, an unsung MGM hand who directed a great many memorable movies including The Secret Garden (1949), Forbidden Planet (1956) and the daring race-relations drama I Passed for White (1960).
As the opening narration declares this is the story of a dog but it is also the story of a strong and enduring working class people. Tough but tender performances from Elsa Lanchester and Donald Crisp - reunited with Roddy McDowall after the John Ford classic How Green Was My Valley (1941), another rough hewn but uplifting ode to rural working class life - ensure that while this may have been shot on American soil, there is nothing phoney about the characters. MGM may have been glossy, but they were never crass. In spite of the occasional spiteful supporting player like mean-spirited dog handler Hines (J. Pat O’Malley), there are no real villains in this story save for circumstance with poverty being the force that drives the Carracloughs to desperate measures. A beautifully played scene finds Mrs. Carraclough struggling to harden herself while she explains to Joe how they simply can’t manage a dog and a child on such a meagre income.
Unlike many “boy and his dog” movies, neither Joe nor Lassie are so single-mindedly devoted to each other that they are blind to other people’s feelings. Roddy McDowall is outstanding and Elizabeth Taylor - stunning, even in childhood - is adorable from the moment she bounces into frame, mimicking her grandfather’s footsteps. Her beauty and natural acting talent won immediate attention from filmmakers and moviegoers alike, before she leapt to superstardom the following year in MGM’s excellent National Velvet (1944). Taylor and McDowall were cast opposite each other again - minus Lassie - in a thematic sequel of sorts: The White Cliffs of Dover (1944).
Of course the star attraction is our canine heroine Lassie, played by the very male Pal who sired generations of successors to his famous screen role. Canine cross-dresser he may be, but Pal was one heck of an actor and ably carries the bulk of the episodic, but consistently engaging story. He crosses mountains, swims streams, befriends an elderly couple (a very moving interlude with real-life husband and wife Ben Webster and Dame May Whitty) and a travelling tinker (the ever-lovable Edmund Gwenn), who has his own well-trained pooch called Toots, falls afoul of a pair of thieving ne’er do wells and eludes dogcatchers with near fatal results. By the time “she” appears before Joe, bedraggled and half-starved, only the most hardened animal hater could fail to be moved.
As most will know, this film made Lassie a global institution and MGM made no less than six sequels: Son of Lassie (1945) directed by S. Sylvan Simon casts Peter Lawford as a grownup Joe in love with Priscilla (June Lockhart, future mom in Lost in Space) and under fire in WW2 till Lassie saves the day; Courage of Lassie (1946) brought Elizabeth Taylor back as child star with Fred Wilcox returning to the director’s seat; he was back again for Hills of Home (1948) while The Sun Comes Up (1949) saw future historical epic specialist Richard Thorpe take the helm. Thorpe also directed Challenge for Lassie (1949) which actually pilfers its plot from another famous tale of doggy derring do - Greyfriars Bobby!
Harold F. Kress directed the last Lassie movie for MGM: The Painted Hills (1951), although Pal continued to play the supernaturally intelligent collie in the popular Fifties television series that gave us the “Green Sleeves” theme tune and the infamous “Timmy’s trapped down a well” catchphrase. Even after Pal’s death in 1958, the show continued well into the mid-Seventies and thanks to near-constant reruns has sealed itself inside the collective pop culture consciousness of youngsters such as myself. Far more so than the frankly rubbish, 1980s series (wherein Jon Provost returned as a grownup Timmy) that perversely reversed the earlier scenario to having Lassie imperilled in every episode till her owners saved the day. What on earth would Pal make of that? Also worth mentioning is the British made Lassie (2005), which revisits the source novel with stellar results.