Lassie Come Home: The Book That Became a Great Dog Movie
The character of Lassie first appeared in a short story in the Saturday Evening Post in 1938. The story was by author Eric Knight who soon expanded the story to be a full-length novel, Lassie Come Home, published in1940.
The plot concerned a family in England (where Knight grew up) who is forced to sell their dog when they hit on hard times. The book tells the story of the dog’s adventures as he journeys to reunite with his young master. It was an instant best-seller and MGM rapidly snapped up the film rights for $10,000, making it into a movie starring Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor.
Lassie was cast from a selection of about 300 canine applicants. The director wanted a rough collie (also known as a long-haired collie, a breed of dog raised for herding in Scotland) to play the part. Though Lassie was a female character, the dog selected was a male as it had the thick, beautiful coat the director was looking for. The dog belonged to animal breeder Rudd Weatherwax who had received the collie as repayment from a friend for a debt. The dog was named Pal; in addition to his silky coat, he had a distinctive white blaze on his face.
The film was quite popular. Several sequels were made, and by 1947 Lassie had her own radio program. The original radio show used Pal for the barking segments but all other animal vocalizations were performed by humans. By 1954 Lassie made the transition to television, and while the show went through various iterations, it stayed on the air until 1975. The part of Lassie was always played by an offspring of the original Pal, however, selecting the right pup with a matching blaze of white on his face remained a constant challenge.
Lassie is one of only three dogs to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (The other two are Strongheart and Rin Tin Tin.) In 2005 Lassie was named one of Variety magazine’s “Icons of the Century” for the impact she has made on young people around the world since 1938.
A Little-Known Story Behind Lassie
Less than ten years ago, British author Nigel Clarke was at work on a book about shipwrecks, when he came upon a story about an incident that occurred in Dorset during World War I. Clarke believes that the inspiration for Knight’s story came from the real-life collie, named Lassie, who saved the life of a British seaman in the First World War.
On New Year’s Day in 1915 the Royal Navy battleship Formidable was torpedoed by a German submarine off Start Point in South Devon, with the loss of more than 500 men. In a storm that followed the accident, a life raft containing bodies was blown along the coast to Lyme Regis. In helping to deal with the crisis, the local pub in Lyme Regis, called the Pilot Boat, offered its cellar as a mortuary.
When the bodies had been laid out on the stone floor, Lassie, a crossbred collie owned by the pub owner, found her way down amongst the bodies, and she began to lick the face of one of the victims, Able Seaman John Cowan. She stayed beside him for more than half an hour, nuzzling him and keeping him warm with her fur.
To everyone’s astonishment, Cowan eventually stirred. He was taken to hospital and went on to make a full recovery. He visited Lassie again when he returned to thank all who saved his life.
The sinking of the ship was a severe blow to Britain during these early years of the war. When the officers heard the story of Lassie and what she did to rescue Cowan, they told it again and again to any reporter who would listen as it was inspirational and heart-warming.
Because the story was widely reported, Clarke feels that the odds are that Eric Knight read the story during the war years, or came upon the story later on. While Knight had moved from Yorkshire to the United States and served in the U.S. military, Clarke’s suspicion seems well-founded. In addition to both dogs being named Lassie, the story of her rescue of the sailor also bore a resemblance to the Lassie rescue stories.
What Happened to Knight?
After World War I, Eric Knight became a critic and a film writer. He moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, hoping to make his name in the movies. He met with many rejections, and and eventually returned to Yorkshire to be a journalist, where he wrote his story about Lassie. But he never knew the level of success the book achieved. In January 1944 Knight was helping Frank Capra film a documentary about the war when he was killed in a plane crash. He was only 45, and he died before the release of MGM’s film version of Lassie Come Home.