Monday, October 07, 2013

Lassie Is 70 (That's 490 in Dog Years)

It's hard for me to imagine a time when Lassie wasn't synonymous with the ultimate in a loving, devoted pet — and, as a result, the butt of jokes in which Lassie was some kind of superdog whose bark could be interpreted by its humans (i.e., "What's that you say, Lassie? Timmy fell down the well and broke his left leg in two places?") — but there was such a time.

I know that because the very first Lassie movie made its debut on this day 70 years ago. It stands to reason then that, before this day in 1943, no one knew who Lassie was.

In fact, she was never who moviegoers thought. Lassie was played by a male dog named Pal, and subsequent Lassies were played by Pal's descendants.

The adults in the movie were fairly well known to movie audiences in 1943.

Two movie veterans, Donald Crisp ("Mutiny on the Bounty," "The Life of Emile Zola," "Jezebel," "Wuthering Heights," "Knute Rockne, All–American," "How Green Was My Valley") and Elsa Lanchester ("The Private Life of Henry VIII," "The Bride of Frankenstein," "David Copperfield," "Sullivan's Travels"), played Roddy McDowall's parents.

Nigel Bruce, who played Dr. Watson in many Sherlock Holmes movies (and was featured in "Rebecca," Alfred Hitchcock's first American film), played Elizabeth Taylor's grandfather.

For viewers in the 21st century, "Lassie Come Home" isn't of interest only because it is the origin of the Lassie franchise.

It was practically the screen debuts of two youngsters who went on to have successful movie careers as adults — McDowall and Taylor.

I always thought it was easier to recognize McDowall in "Lassie Come Home" than Taylor. He was four years older and and had already appeared in several movies, including a Best Picture winner, and his face had taken on some of the characteristics that made it so recognizable as an adult. His voice did not yet sound like it would when he was grown up, though. It still had kind of a squeaky, boyish quality (come to think of it, didn't McDowall's voice continue to have kind of a squeaky, boyish quality when he was an adult?).

Most of the time, though, Taylor looked like any other 11–year–old girl. She was pretty in the way that 11–year–old girls usually are, but I doubt that very many people could look at her in "Lassie Come Home," which was only her second film, and see in her face the young woman who would win so many hearts later in her life. Yet there were times when the camera caught her face at a certain angle, and you could see the beautiful woman she would become in just a few short years.

Taylor's voice was already there. Well, perhaps not the same as it would be in her more adult roles, but she certainly sounded a lot like she would in seven years when she played Spencer Tracy's daughter in "Father of the Bride" — or even the next year, when she appeared in "National Velvet."