75 Years of Lassie
Eric Knight's Drawing of Lassie

Wait...didn't Lassie premiere on television in 1954?

That is correct! The series will be sixty years old on September 12, 2014.

But the classic television series and all its followers (The New Lassie, Cinar's 1997 Lassie, the animated Lassie's Rescue Rangers), the unrelated anime series Meikin Lassie, and the 1940s radio series owe their inspiration to the seven movies made by MGM between 1942-1951, beginning with the film version of Major Eric Knight's novel Lassie Come-Home. However, few people remember that the book was originally a short story by the same name. The short story, once a standard in school readers and short story collections about dogs or animals (my own copy is from Collier's Junior Classics set, volume 7, The Animal Book), was originally published in the "Saturday Evening Post" on December 17, 1938. Therefore December 17, 2013, marks the 75th birthday of the faithful and canny collie character known as Lassie.

Eric Knight was born in Yorkshire, England, but lived most of his adult life in the United States. His short story was partially the recollection of stories of hard times in Yorkshire, but the collie protagonist was based on his own collie, Toots, who used to wait for Knight at the gate of his Pennsylvania farm when he was away. The following year he expanded the short story into a book, which has not been out of publication since. The book concentrates on Lassie's adventures in traveling from Scotland back to Yorkshire, eluding stockmen who think she is a sheep killer, being chased by dogcatchers, collapsing in exhaustion after swimming the Tweed River, which forms the border between England and Scotland, and, most famously, journeying with a traveling peddler and his little dog, whom Knight named Toots after his own collie. The emphasis in the short story is more about the reactions of the people around Lassie rather than about her; the unemployed collier who is forced to sell his son's beloved dog so his family can eat; the mother who covers up her true feelings with harsh words; the boy who deep-down understands why his father sold his pet but cannot be resolved to it; the wealthy kennel owner who learns, as the prolific collie-tale author Albert Payson Terhune always exhorted, "Any man with money to make the purchase may become a dog's owner. But no man—spend he ever so much coin and food and tact in the effort—may become a dog's Master without the consent of the dog."

Click on the drawing of Lassie for a surprise!

 

Lassie's Literary/Film Antecedents

A collie named Lassie appears in 19th century author Elizabeth Gaskell's (of Cranford fame) short story "The Half-Brothers." Described as "white-faced" and "ill-favored," this Lassie nevertheless has "intelligent eyes" and is instrumentsl in rescuing the narrator of the story.

A real-life Lassie is associated with the rescue of a man who was aboard HMS Formidable during the first World War, after it was torpedoed on New Year's Day 1915 by a German submarine. The bodies of some of the dead were brought to the port town of Lyme Regis, England, where a local pub offered to keep the bodies in the cellar until other arrangements could be made. The pub-owner's dog, a crossbreed collie named Lassie, started licking one of the bodies and huddling near it, whereupon it was discovered that the "dead" man, John Cowan, was alive. Due to Lassie's persistence, Cowan survived and recovered. It is said that Eric Knight probably would have heard this story as a child and may have based Lassie's name on this collie-mix.

It's very possible that many of Lassie's heroic deeds in the later movies as well as in the television series were based on some writer's recollections of the short stories of Albert Payson Terhune. A collie fancier from the early years of the 20th century, Terhune wrote three books about his "eighty-pound collie, thoroughbred in spirit as well as in blood," Lad, who, in the course of his literary adventures, rescued a lame child from a snake, made his way home from a dog show after being lost in New York City, chased innumerable burglars and sneak thieves, rescued his mate from a fire in the barn, among others. Sunnybank, the Pompton Lakes, NJ, home of Lad and Terhune's other collies, became famous with dog lovers everywhere, and they thrilled to the short stories and books about freakish Gray Dawn, blind Fair Ellen, mercurial Wolf, friendly little Jean, and others. Some of the Terhune collies became heroes of fictional adventures: Bruce, for instance, became a World War I messenger dog, while Treve became a ranch dog. Even Terhune's books that were not dog stories, like Loot! (later renamed Collie to the Rescue), usually had a collie somewhere in the story who did some type of noble deed.

Who was the first dog film star? Was it Rin Tin Tin, the German Shepherd dog Lee Duncan brought home from France after World War I who became a movie star and saved Warner Brothers' studio from bankruptcy? Or perhaps it was Strongheart, the 125 pound German shepherd who started his career at the same time as Rinty, and who inspired a brand of dog food?

No, the very first dog stars of "the silver screen" were collies! British filmmaker Cecil Hepworth created the first significant chase film when he filmed the 7-minute silent movie, Rescued by Rover. Hepworth's baby daughter Barbara played the child who is kidnapped by a poor and wicked woman (we can tell she's wicked; she drinks alcohol) after being snubbed by the baby's nanny. After listening to the nanny's hysterical story, "Rover," played by the Hepworths' own collie, tracks down the child and brings the baby's father to rescue her. This was one of the first films that had a narrative—earlier films were just slice-of-life scenes or practical jokes translated into visual form—and one of the first movie "hits." Hepworth actually had to film the story twice more because the negative fell apart from being reproduced so much! Hepworth also used different camera angles in his narrative, including those at a dog's eye view, which was rare for the early film era.

Rover was featured in several sequels, including Rover Drives a Car a.k.a. The Dog Outwits the Kidnapper, Baby's Playmate, A Plucky Little Girl, and Dumb Comrades. Hepworth recalled of the dog after he died in February 1910, "Even his name was only an assumed one for theatrical purposes. His real name was Blair in commemoration of his Scottish origin. He was a true friend and a great companion, but my most persistent memory of him is the way every morning in life he jumped up on a washing basket by my dressing-table and waited and longed for a dab on the nose from my shaving brush. Then, with every expression of ineffable happiness, he licked off every trace of soap and waited for more."

Following closely on Blair's heels in the United States was Jean, the Vitagraph dog, a Border collie. Sadly, few of Jean's films have survived, but here's 1910's Jean the Match-maker, on the National Film Preservation Foundation website.

There are also numerous "come home" stories associated with real-life dogs (not to mention real-life cats). The most famous of the come-home dogs in the United States may be Bobbie, the mostly collie who had accompanied his humans on a motor trip in 1923. The family was in Indiana getting gasoline when Bobbie disappeared. They looked for him for several days, then returned home to Oregon. Six months later he was found on his home territory of Silverton, Oregon, having walked from Indiana, crossing the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the high Sierra to return home. Read Bobbie's story here.

We'll be celebrating here through September 12, 2014...stay tuned!

 

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