Lassie’s place in the pantheon of great American screen icons is solid. For 50 years the collie whose long, glossy coat rippled in the breeze as she ran across panoramic fields of grass has been a friend of uncommon bravery, intelligence and loyalty to a lonely boy. And, by extension, to anyone who has sat in the dark longing for such an extraordinary companion.
While the dog’s character has always been unassailable, what is a matter of some confusion is its gender. The character of Lassie was invented by Eric Knight, a patriotic British writer who created “Lassie, Come-Home” initially as a short story in 1938 and expanded it into a novel that was published with great success two years later. Although Lassie is endearingly called “girl,” and although, at the end of the book, she becomes a mother, she has always been portrayed by male dogs.
So it should come as no surprise that the star of Paramount’s new “Lassie” feature, which opens Friday and also stars Helen Slater, Jon Tenney, Frederic Forrest and newcomer Thomas Guiry as Lassie’s best friend, was named Howard at birth. Presenting Howard as a female is only one of the Lassie conventions to which the makers of the current film remained faithful.
“Lassie is one of the more revered and timeless characters,” says Barry London, president of Paramount Pictures, “and I think it’s because the dog has always stood for the strength of the family and been the catalyst for a family pulling together. Lassie has always been a heroine, but what takes place in the story has to be believable. We recognized it was important to respect those elements, because they gave rise to the feeling so many people have--that they would like their family to be like Lassie’s.”
The current collie is the eighth generation directly descended from the first, and some say the greatest Lassie, whose name was Pal. Although a preternaturally beautiful 8-year-old named Elizabeth Taylor shared some scenes with Pal in his screen debut, Roddy McDowall was the lad closest to Lassie’s heart in the 1943 film version of Knight’s book.
McDowall was 13, a busy and experienced child actor. “I loved the dog,” he says now. “Pal was very, very elegant and highly intelligent.” Many other actors working on the MGM lot were equally enamored and asked Lassie’s breeder for their own collie pup. Among those who took Lassie offspring home were Richard Widmark and Tex Ritter, whose puppy was a gift for his son John.
McDowall says “ ‘Lassie Come Home’ was in a sense a propaganda film, because it showed the stamina of the British family, and extolled the virtues of these brave people on their little island. It was all part of a campaign to have the United States enthusiastically take part in the war, and the shared values of the British and Americans that that film and others of the period showed really helped make the Second World War the last popular war.”
In the 1945 sequel, “Son of Lassie,” McDowall and Taylor’s characters grew up to become adults played by Peter Lawford and June Lockhart. It was the last story in which Lassie and her family would be Brits. MGM produced six more Lassie movies in the 1940s and ‘50s, featuring Pal and his son.
The dogs were coached by Rudd Weatherwax, the animal training wizard who years before had made one terrier a star as Asta in the “Thin Man” movies. Pal had unusual markings for a collie--a distinctive, white blaze that bisected his face, a full, white collar and white front paws. Weatherwax felt strongly that each dog that succeeded Pal had to look as similar as possible. To produce one dog with a satisfactory resemblance, many litters of pups were bred whenever a new Lassie was needed to star in a movie or in the popular CBS series that ran for 17 years, beginning in 1954. But few of Pal’s descendants were as smart, healthy or charismatic. Part of Weatherwax’s genius was his ability to fake it; with considerable effort, he could make a less than stellar animal appear as talented as Pal.
Most important, Weatherwax guarded the Lassie mystique. “The public knew that the dog died after a number of years and another one would take over, and they accepted that,” says June Lockhart, who years after appearing in “Son of Lassie” went on to portray one of TV’s most popular moms on the CBS series for seven years. Weatherwax’s son Bob, who has continued the family business, says “The public doesn’t want four Robert Redfords or four Lassies. What ruined Santa Claus is you’d see one on every corner.”
Lassie’s film image has also been carefully maintained. She has appeared in stories set in a variety of locales, changed nationalities and inexplicably attached herself to new families. Yet she has always been the spunkiest of pets, rescuing helpless lambs from burning barns, warning her clueless masters when they were in danger, swimming raging rivers and fighting predators. Bob Weatherwax says, “She’s not the bionic dog, so we don’t have her do super-feats.” When directors have asked Lassie to do the impossible, Rudd Weatherwax would explain, “She’s only human, you know.”
MGM head Louis B. Mayer often treated her as if she were. Lassie was always prominent in studio group publicity photos. When visiting dignitaries toured the studio, the boss brought them to Lassie’s set first--Spencer Tracy could wait. The dog quickly became too important an asset to be shoved in an airplane’s baggage compartment. Mayer called his friend Howard Hughes, owner of TWA, and said, “I’d like Lassie to travel with the passengers on your planes.” Thereafter, Lassie occupied her own first-class seat.
Thanks to a fortunate accident of nature, the current Lassie is a magnificent animal, as regally handsome, responsive and outgoing as his ancestor. He was born four years ago on Weatherwax’s Canyon Country ranch. Weatherwax socialized Howard early, ensuring he was comfortable in crowds. Even before a Lassie movie was planned, the dog was in demand for personal appearances throughout the country, preferring to stay at the Essex House or the Plaza when he visits New York, because of their proximity to Central Park.
“The hotels say they wish they had more guests like Lassie,” his trainer says. “They just have to pick up a little of his hair. They don’t have to deal with cigarette holes in the carpet or spilled drinks.”
“Lassie” director Daniel Petrie admits that he grasped the essence of a Lassie film when he understood that it must be a dog movie with people in it, not the reverse.
“After I saw a few of the dailies I realized it was important to see what the emotional quotient is for Lassie,” he says. “So, from that point on, I looked at every scene from an entirely different point of view, and I began to include close-ups of the dog, just as I would of the humans.”
The script includes some typically ‘90s problems that engender the boy’s alienation and a timely interpretation of family values: Lassie is now part of a household that has financial problems and includes a stepparent, for example. London says, “When you’re trying to tell a story, you make the story speak with relevance to the times. We wanted to deal with real issues in the real world, but with the same sensibility that the old Lassie movies had.”