I have waited nearly seventy years to see this film; the story of a dog who couldn’t bear to be parted from her owner, a young Yorkshire boy called Joe. Watching it on Channel 4 the other day with 21st century eyes, I could see (or rather hear) the incongruity of its very Home Counties accents as spoken by American actors, punctuated by valiant attempts to authenticate the setting by the occasional insertion of ‘Aye, lad’ and ‘It’s champion, champion’. But the story and the production itself, although of its time, is still magic to me for very special reasons.
It was released in 1943 at the height of the Second Word War, when I was seven and had just been evacuated from London to the ‘safety’ of a farm in Staffordshire. I was the only evacuee billeted with the farmer and his wife and son, and very homesick as my mother had stayed in London to be with my father, who was exempted from military service. I had a difficult time at the farm, and after about a year was taken back to London.
It took me a while to recover from being away on my own, but in my absence my mother had been to the cinema to see ‘Lassie Come Home’. So, knowing how I loved animals, she began telling me the story of the film each night to help me sleep. London was still in the grip of wartime chaos, and if there was an air raid expected or a sudden siren later on, we would go down the garden to spend the night in the Anderson shelter, a corrugated iron structure offering protection from blast and flying debris - but not from a direct hit.
The shelter smelled of its damp concrete base and of the smoky remains of the previous night’s candles, which were the only source of light. There were thick woollen blankets on the three bunks, and my mother would sit on the edge of mine while I watched her face as she recounted to me Lassie’s dangerous journey back to Joe. The story caught my imagination at once, perhaps because it was about a beautiful and intelligent dog but also because, like me, Lassie had found her way home in the end. So I would ask for it to be told again, night after night, until my mother must have grown weary – though she never showed it.
Outside, the drone of planes overhead (which could have been Wellington bombers on their way to Germany or German planes about to bomb us) was punctuated by bursts of flak from anti-aircraft guns stationed a few miles away. But I was aware of ‘the war’, and to me these sounds were a normal background to the shadowy shelter - and Lassie bounding to meet Joe from school or struggling to find her way back from Scotland to Yorkshire across rivers and through strange landscapes.
Watching the film in 2012, scenes I’d only heard about seemed to find their allotted place in my memory, a seamless step from the eight-year-old me...to now. Roddy McDowall was Joe, Elsa Lanchester was his mother and Donald Crisp his father. Elizabeth Taylor, in the role of Pricilla, granddaughter of the tender hearted Duke who buys Lassie when the family is forced to sell her, was a natural actress who didn’t yet know how beautiful she was.
From my perspective it is difficult to review ‘Lassie Come Home’ dispassionately, but if I were to try I’d say that the training of the dog (a male collie called Pal) was exemplary and enabled him/her to carry the film effortlessly. Joe and his family were well cast, villains and heroes well defined but not in a cloying way, and Californian scenery was cleverly shot to look like Scotland and Yorkshire. Most importantly, the interaction between humans and dog throughout Lassie’s long journey was convincing and at times, moving. The film was nominated for several awards, and has been described as ‘one of the truly great family films’. It was praised by the New York Times in 1943 as ‘...a story of such poignancy and simple beauty that only the hardest heart can fail to be moved.’ So it’s not just me who loves it.
And that’s good to know.
by Viv Apple