The Highlands of Scotland in the 1870s, where life had continued much as it had for centuries, and in this glen the community raised their sheep through the seasons, needing nothing but their local doctor to keep them well. He was William MacLure (Edmund Gwenn), a hardheaded but kindly man who was getting on in years and hoping to teach his successor in the ways of medicine. He would ride to his patients atop a white horse, but was persuaded that what he really needed was a dog to accompany him, and so accepted the offer of local farmer Milton (Rhys Williams) to take his new dog off his hands...
But there was a catch, that being that the hound was afraid of water. Now, this was a Lassie movie, so the usually fearless dog had to draw on all its reserves of acting skill to portray the dread of the liquid stuff, but not in a hydrophobic, rabid kind of way, rest assured. This episodic tale, or collection of tales, seemed to be very much in the vein of Doctor Findlay's Casebook, a runaway success in the United Kingdom, what with its Scottish setting and plainspeaking folk wisdom, and there are times when Lassie is neglected by the narrative for the sake of the physician and his worries. This was really a starring role for Edmund Gwenn, it appears.
Well, he had earned it after collecting his Oscar for playing Father Christmas in Miracle on 34th Street, thus making him instantly recognisable to generations of moviegoers, and Hills of Home was one of those efforts to showcase his talents, with everyone else, even Lassie, playing second fiddle. Naturally there are few scene stealers worth their salt more than acting dogs, but Gwenn gave the animal a run for his money with his irascible but sensible manner of approaching life, and his Scottish accent was better too. Not something that could have been said of certain other members of the cast, as Janet Leigh produced a truly pathetic attempt at a Highland brogue.
Leigh was the worst at the accents, but her screen boyfriend Tom Drake, as Tammas Milton, wasn't much of an improvement. Tammas is the young man who Dr MacLure has picked to succeed him, but in predictable dramatics, his father is none too pleased with this turn of events, as we had to have some conflict somewhere - this was the man who gave the doctor the dog, remember, thinking it was useless. But the doc brings out the best in people, whether they are aware of it or not, or even willing, and there's some business with him introducing the concept of anaesthetic to the glen, replacing the more traditional gallon of whisky administered to render patients unconscious.
Lassie proves her worth by acting as a test subject to show that the newfangled choloform is safe, but it's really that anxiety she has that is her most important obstacle to a fruitful life. MacLure does his best to teach her to swim, though there's only so much he can do, so it will take a major crisis to bring out the best in the pooch, another way that Hills of Home is pretty predictable. Not only that, but manipulative as well, going rather too blatantly for the tear ducts, though this still manages to make more sensitive viewers cry, and if you're not overly cynical about its machinations then it may well have some effect on you. Pal, the dog who played Lassie, certainly seems to be doing a lot of crying, which makes his role here one of the weakest of his career, not that he's bad in it, but he does come across as too much of a wimp even if Lassie wins the day at the end (almost). Music by Herbert Stothart.