Monday, February 20, 2012

Classic Movie Dogathon: Courage of Lassie

A litter of beautiful Collie puppies is running around and playing in a forest that borders on a lake. They are fearless and happy and occasionally kept in place by their mother. A boat arrives, driven by Frank Morgan, and collects the mother and pups, taking them away with him, except for one who has gone off on an adventure of his own. We follow this little guy as he plays with other animals and then realizes he has been away from his pack for a long time. We share his angst as he realizes they are traveling far away on the boat and he cannot get to them. This begins to instill the courage that the pup will need to survive.

Courage of Lassie was the second of three Lassie films helmed by Fred M. Wilcox. It is fascinating in that it is truly a dog's tale, as opposed to being a story that focuses on people who happen to have a dog. This work introduces us to a remarkable pup who ends up being tried in court. Wilcox had a gift for focusing on the visual aspect of film. The opening scene is devoid of people and dialogue for several minutes until Morgan arrives. Then the dialogue ceases again until the pup has grown over a few months, is almost drowned, and is shot by two boys. This is when the Collie meets a lovely young girl named Kathie, Elizabeth Taylor in her second Lassie film, who nurses him, loves him dearly, and names him Bill.  Kathie's family is hard working and she trains Bill to herd the family's sheep.

This dog's life is not an easy one and he undergoes many harrowing moments including making rescues in a blizzard and on a battlefield (he has been renamed Duke at this point). Courage of Lassie is a movie that draws the viewer in and keeps him firmly planted in his seat. It is frightening to see the Collie's actions on trial when he cannot speak for himself. Frank Morgan tries to speak for him but doesn't know or understand many of the circumstances that have brought Bill to this point.

Courage of Lassie tugged at my heartstrings especially in two ways. First, in many scenes in which the dog couldn't just say "My name is Bill and I live with Kathie. Won't you take me home, please?" Had anyone put a collar on him with a phone number or address it would have communicated this for him. Second, it highlighted the fact that war dogs can suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder just like human veterans.

Pal is the wonderfully talented male Collie who played Bill/Duke. He starred in all seven Lassie films and played Lassie in four of them. In The Painted Hills he was named Shep. Pal actually played Laddie in The Son of Lassie.


Be sure to check out the rest of the films in the Classic Movie Dogathon. Click here for the full schedule.

27 comments:

  1. Great review, toto! I haven't seen the LASSIE movies, but I particularly enjoy your comment that the film is about the dog more than his owners. I also really like the picture with Elizabeth Taylor hugging her canine because my dog is a fan of hugs, too, and she looks just as content receiving them! This was very fun to read!

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    1. Dog hugs and kisses are awfully sweet, Sark! I always enjoy when filmmakers remember the visual advantage of film and "Courage" does a fine job with that.

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  2. Toto, COURAGE OF LASSIE is my favorite of the famed Collie’s movies as well and your review is both heartfelt and insightful. I just saw this film for the first time recently and was mesmerized by the opening scenes which you described so vividly with the young pup fending for himself. His innocence and the tranquility of nature in those scenes provide an incredibly stark contrast with the later tense battlefield scene with Duke/Bill crawling through enemy lines as shells explode around him. I think this is the first film in which Elizabeth Taylor, then fourteen, received top billing (although she was the de facto star of the earlier NATIONAL VELVET). She’s quite good in a COURAGE OF LASSIE, as are Frank Morgan (who never gave a bad performance), Tom Drake from THE GREEN YEARS, and, of course, Pal. I hope your splendid review encourages others to check this wonderful canine classic.

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    1. Rick, I share your passion for "Courage." I just saw "The Green Years" literally the other day and enjoyed seeing Tom Drake again.

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  3. Rick, there's just something about these Lassie movies that always makes me cry. So I tend NOT to watch them very often. I don't know what it is about Lassie, but jeez, I get weepy. My favorite of the films is LASSIE, COME HOME (1943). I need a box of tissues for that one.

    I even used to cry at the opening credits of the Lassie TV show.

    Obviously I am deranged. OR else there's something about a collie dog that touches a long lost memory.

    I always liked the stable of British actors MGM had signed up. They were always handy to round out any film supposedly set in faraway places.

    Elizabeth Taylor was a very affecting young actress and so utterly beautiful.

    No, I didn't get weepy reading your review, I just enjoyed it. :)

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    1. Don't you just love a good cry during a movie? And, yes, Elizabeth Taylor was so believable in "Courage." I also liked her in "Lassie Come Home" but I think she had a chance to especially shine here.

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  4. I corrected myself re: the authorship of this review - it was NOT written by Rick, but by Toto. Of course, being a boob, I put the correction in the Greyfriars Bobby post. GAK!!

    My heart's in the right place, guys!

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  5. Toto - A touching tribute to this film and its players. I haven't seen this in so long and barely remember the details. I'll have to do a Lassie-a-thon at home one of these days.

    Great additiona to the Dogathon!

    Aurora

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    1. One of my favorite things about reading about films others like is wanting to revisit them. Seeing films again is rather like spending time with a cherished friend.

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    2. Love that! So true...

      (Almost made me cry.)

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  6. Excellent review. Lassie and Liz, how can you go wrong with that combo.

    Speaking of dogs, in today's Cleveland Plain Dealer:
    www.cleveland.com/pdq/index.ssf/2012/02/presidential_pets_a_look_at_co.html

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    1. Great combo indeed! I also really enjoyed your link. Quite frankly, I think having a pet can be quite calming and provide a welcome, nonbiased reprieve from the stresses of life.

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  7. Toto,
    No Dogathon would be complete without our beloved Lassie making an appearance and you picked a great one of the series to highlight.

    Such a lovable character and every script in the series was so well written, moving. You can make a 'dogcentric' picture with substance as evidenced here. Loved that you added a bit of trivia on Pat and his acting bio too.

    Elizabeth was an acting dynamo from such an early age, she could cry on a dime too.

    Thanks for your contribution, choosing a film that has stood the test of time. A real classic.
    Page

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    1. What a lovely comment, Page! I especially like your term "dogcentric." Elizabeth is so dear in "Courage" and I think her love for dogs and horses rings very true onscreen. I read that she had many dogs over the years and that she received a Collie pup who was the seventh generation from Pal on her sixtieth birthday.

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  8. Toto returns to do a post on Lassie--there seems to be some odd connection here, hmm. I've never seen a Lassie film; however, I have seen a few TV episodes. I like films told from the animal's perspective and this sounds like one. Glad to see a post from you, Toto!

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    1. Kim, I've had a few challenges over the past several months which seemed to affect my ability to write. But there's just something about dogs that gets me motivated. I love your profile picture, by the way!

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  9. Toto ~ thank you for your lovely review of a Lassie film, which is a natural for a blogathon dedicated to canines. I haven't seen "Courage of Lassie," but your evocative descriptions of a story told from the dog's point of view, and the many lives he leads, reminds me of another beautiful animal's story, "Black Beauty".

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    1. I love the 1994 version of "Black Beauty!" I cannot watch it without a box of tissues nearby.

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  10. Lassie must surely be the best known canine character in all film and television. Of the Lassie movies, I've seen only "Lassie Come Home," but this one certainly seems worth checking out, particularly with Frank Morgan, one of my very favorite studio-era character actors, and the ethereally beautiful young Elizabeth Taylor in the cast. Nicely done, with a great description of the use of the purely visual to tell the story, a must for any movie that concentrates on the dog more than the people.

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    1. Frank Morgan has such a masterful presence in his work. It may not be surprising to hear how dearly I love him in "The Wizard of Oz." And, my, what cheekbones!

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  11. Toto, it's great to see you here! I love your pick of films -- who could not love Lassie and enjoy this film? I'm not much for animal movies, but this was a good one. I loved your description of the pathos of the dog unable to communicate to human beings what he had been through, what he needed and wanted. Really good review, Toto!

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    1. Becky, in my professional life I help people with communication disorders. So I really hone in when someone can't express himself, even when he is a dog!

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  12. One of my favorite heart-warming stories, where I think I used a whole box of Kleenex. Liz Taylor, was an amazing child actress, who was also a dog lover…

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    1. Dawn, Elizabeth seems to genuinely love Bill in "Courage of Lassie" and I wonder if she learned to love dogs from her work on film or if she had a beloved pet prior to this experience. Whichever is the truth, I love to see her with Bill in this work!

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  13. Although I poke a little fun of Lassie in my contribution to the Dogathon, I have to say Lassie is a class act. And this film is particularly good because of Elizabeth Taylor. She was a phenomenal child actress. It's hard to believe that just a few years later she was clawing at Paul Newman's door...

    Excellent entry for this fun event!

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  14. Jill, I am a huge fan of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." I will bet that the sale of slips went up exponentially in 1958, when Liz changed from dog lover to become the Cat.

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