Hills of Home
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In 1943, MGM released Lassie Come Home, based on the novel by Eric Knight, about a boy and his dog parted by circumstance, and the trials the intelligent and loyal collie goes through to find her master again. The film starred a talented male collie named Pal, owned and trained by Rudd Weatherwax. Weatherwax and other members of his family were among the most prominent animal trainers in Hollywood. Some of the animal actors trained by them were "Asta" from the Thin Man series, "Toto" in The Wizard of Oz (1939), and Old Yeller (1957).
Lassie Come Home was such a hit that six more Lassie movies followed, all of them starring Pal, who had by then assumed the stage name and persona of Lassie, and had become one of MGM's top stars. By 1946, he even had his own radio show. Like many stars, he proved his versatility by playing other characters. The first sequel, in fact, was called Son of Lassie (1945), and he actually played a male - Laddie, the eponymous son. But in all the sequels, and whatever the name, the dog's character was always the same: handsome, dignified, brave, smart, and resourceful. "Greer Garson with fur," one critic called him.
Hills of Home (1948), the fourth Lassie film, reunited Pal with Edmund Gwenn and Donald Crisp, who had appeared in Lassie Come Home. Gwenn plays an old Scottish doctor who saves the female dog from a cruel master. The dog in the story is afraid of water, and the doctor tries to cure her of her phobia. Since Pal was an excellent swimmer, it took all his acting skills and Weatherwax's training expertise not only to put across the character's water phobia, but to show the dog conquering her fear in order to rescue Gwenn.
Hills of Home was the final Lassie movie directed by Fred Wilcox, who had made his directing debut with the original Lassie Come Home, and also helmed Courage of Lassie (1946), starring Elizabeth Taylor. Wilcox may have been good with kids and animals, but according to co-star Janet Leigh, he wasn't much help to adult actors, especially inexperienced ones like herself. Hills of Home was Leigh's third film, and her second in which the California-born actress had to do an accent - she plays a Scottish girl. In her autobiography, Leigh recalled that her acting coach took extra time preparing her. And when Leigh began work on the film and met Wilcox, she realized why. Wilcox, Leigh recalled, "was a very nice man but an extremely weak director. An actor was really left on his own." Thanks to her acting coach's training, Leigh wrote, "I managed to squeak by without making a fool of myself." Wilcox made only a few more films, competently directing child stars in The Secret Garden (1949) and a robot in the cult favorite, Forbidden Planet (1956).
After appearing in three more Lassie films in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Pal starred in the pilot for the Lassie television series, before turning over the Lassie role to his son, Lassie, Jr. All the subsequent Lassies on television and film have been played by descendants of Pal. And all have been trained by members of the Weatherwax family: Rudd, his brother Frank, and Rudd's son, Robert. After many years of success on television, Lassie even made a movie comeback, in The Magic of Lassie (1978), co-starring James Stewart and Mickey Rooney. Neither that film, nor another version, Lassie (1994), were able to recapture the magic of the earlier films. Yet another remake, based on the original Eric Knight novel, began production in Ireland in April 2005, under the direction of Charles Sturridge.
Director: Fred M. Wilcox
Producer: Robert Sisk
Screenplay: William Ludwig, based on Ian Maclaren's sketches, "Doctor of the Old School"
Cinematography: Charles Schoenbaum
Editor: Ralph E. Winters
Costume Design: Valles
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Eddie Imazu
Music: Herbert Stothart
Principal Cast: Pal (Lassie), Edmund Gwenn (Dr. William McLure), Donald Crisp (Drumsheugh), Tom Drake (Tammas Milton), Janet Leigh (Margit Mitchell), Rhys Williams (Mr. Milton), Reginald Owen (Hopps), Alan Napier (Sir George).
C-97m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri