Silver Screen Standards: Lassie Come Home (1943)
Hollywood is releasing a steady stream of sentimental dog movies these days, from A Dog’s Purpose (2017) and A Dog’s Journey (2019) to A Dog’s Way Home (2019) and The Art of Racing in the Rain (2019), which makes this a perfect time to revisit one of the first and best of the genre, Lassie Come Home (1943). All dog movies that have come after the Lassie films owe a debt to the original, but none of them has managed to improve on it. Lassie Come Home is a superior dog movie for several reasons, including, of course, its canine star, but subtler elements also work to make this picture an enduring classic that viewers of all ages can enjoy.
Adapted from the novel by Eric Knight, Lassie Come Home tells the now-familiar story of a loyal dog who refuses to be separated from her beloved boy no matter the obstacles. Child star Roddy McDowall and veteran character actor Donald Crisp – who had already played son and father in the Best Picture winner How Green Was My Valley (1941) – provide the main human points of interest as Joe and Sam Carraclough, whose poverty drives them to sell Lassie to a rich duke (Nigel Bruce). After Lassie returns home twice from the Duke’s estate, she is taken to Scotland, where she escapes again and embarks on the long journey home to Yorkshire.
Lassie herself, played by a male dog named Pal, has become legendary, and in this first screen appearance, it’s easy to see why generations of dog lovers have fallen under Lassie’s spell. A magnificent rough collie with soulful eyes, Lassie manages to be remarkable but believable throughout her adventures. Unlike most of the current movie dogs, Lassie does not talk, and it’s just as well because her interior monologue would be very dull. “I’ve got to get home to my boy” seems to be her constant, driving thought. Lassie’s silence, however, is part of her appeal. She doesn’t have to tell us what she’s thinking because her actions clearly show it. Besides, this is not a cute, funny dog story. It’s a seriously moving story about hardship and devotion. Silence becomes it.
The significance of silence extends to the main human characters. Neither Joe nor Sam talks much in the film, but their actions show what they are feeling at every moment. Donald Crisp has a particularly effective way of being very still and silent at moments when Sam is too overcome with grief to do anything else. When Mrs. Carraclough, played by the inimitable Elsa Lanchester, tries to fill the men’s silences with words, she only ends up showing how useless they are. Though she claims multiple times that she’s glad Lassie is gone, it’s obvious that she’s heartbroken, too, and it tells us more that she keeps Lassie’s bowl close at hand even after the dog has been taken off to Scotland.
In addition to McDowall, Crisp, and Lanchester, Lassie Come Home boasts an impressive roster of top-notch actors, most notably a very young Elizabeth Taylor in her second screen appearance. The role would launch Taylor’s career at MGM and also provide a lifelong friend in McDowall. Filling in the other supporting roles are Nigel Bruce, Dame May Whitty, Edmund Gwenn, J. Pat O’Malley, Alan Napier, and Arthur Shields, a veritable who’s who of British character actors. Whitty and Gwenn have particularly fine scenes as kindly people who help Lassie along her way, while J. Pat O’Malley has the unenviable task of being a villainous servant who mistreats her.
Too often modern movies about dogs succumb to a temptation to be cute or clever; the going feeling seems to be that family movies require a lot of levity to be palatable, but Lassie Come Home avoids these traps without being mawkishly sentimental, either. We get a few moments of humor, but jokes would not suit a story about a family so desperate that they part with the dog they dearly love, and between the lines of the movie we can read the wartime mood and the film’s effort to remind us how stoic and determined the British people are in the face of adversity. As the film’s introduction observes, the creator of Lassie, Eric Knight, was himself killed in War World II while serving in the United States Army. There’s a seriousness of purpose underlying the film that has nothing to do with dogs but everything to do with loyalty, sacrifice, and perseverance, and that, too, makes Lassie Come Home a film that endures.
If you fall in love with Lassie and her human costars, you’ll find many of them reunited in different roles in the sequels: Son of Lassie (1945), Courage of Lassie (1946), Hills of Home (1948), and Challenge to Lassie (1949). TCM has a DVD set of the original and three of the subsequent films if you’re looking to get a head start on holiday shopping for the dog lover in your life.
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.