Number one tune in the hit parade at the
Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Studios in Culver
City, Calif., these days is "I Love a Lassie," dedicated, of course, to their
remarkable collie star, Lassie. In the scant half-dozen years since she's
been top dog and with only four films released -- "Hills of Home" is the current
one -- Lassie has so woven herself into the country's warp and woof-woof that
collies have risen from twelfth to third place in popularity among pure-bred
pets in American households.
Lassie is remarkable not only to
MGM but to the whole film industry.
Her photograph appears on the screen ahead of the titles of her films. A
Pulitzer Prize novelist, Marrjorie Kinnan Rawlings, has tailored a screen story,
"The Sun Comes Up," to her talents. By beauty standards, Lassie's too fat
(80 pounds), to [sic] tall (26 inches), her face is too wide and her upper jaw
sticks out too far over her lower one, and yet she is loved for her looks.
The parent of fifty children and grandparent of six, she still
retains her youthful allure. Despite having had six mates, she has no
morals clause in her contract. She has two stand-ins, has never been
photographed in anything but Technicolor, takes a bath only once every three
months. In fact, "she" is really a he. What other star can make
Lassie started life on June 8, 1941, a pup named Pal belonging
to a family in North Hollywood of whom all trace has been lost. He seemed
to be a smart little dog, but early in his youth he began to exhibit neurotic
tendencies. Every time he heard a motorcycle or automobile he would bark
frenziedly and run out onto the busy highway to chase it, usually followed by
the family's youngster.
Fearful for his child's safety, Pal's master asked a dog
trainer to break the pup of this bad habit. But Pal was too smart to take
the training. He had a D.I.Q. far beyond that of the average dog, and he
couldn't see anything in it for him -- all this lying down, sitting up and
heeling was just to keep him from the fun of running after cars. So a weke
later the trainer brought him back, having given him up as a hopeless student.
However, the dg's owner, having had a delightfully bark-less
week, asked the trainer to keep the pup in exchange for the tutoring bill.
The trainer, in turn, handed Pal over as payment for a $10 debt to Rudd
Weatherwax, a leading trainer of movie dogs. The pup, sick with mange and
distemper, was no bargain. His golden-white-and-black coat was thin and
dull. He still chased motorcycles. And he refused to respond to such
ABC's of dog education as "Sit.," "Lie down" and "Heel."
Patiently Rudd nursed the dog back to health. His
veterinarian gave Pal weekly inoculations against distemper. And then, all
of a sudden, the smart pup realized that cooperating with his owner was worth
his while. Affection, good food and medical care had begun to tell. But so
had the drain on Rudd's finances.
At that time, the agreement between the Animal Handlers and
Trainers Association and the movie companies, setting minimum daily fees of $15
for a pure-bred dog, $10 for a cross-breed, acting as "dress extras," and $25
for a trained dog responding to simple commands, had not yet gone into effect.
A studio paid a dog man whatever it could bargain him down to. Unless an
animal worked occasionally, it was a losing proposition to house, feed, and
doctor him. As there were no calls for collies, Rudd sent Pal to a
While Pal was happily living the life of Nature Dog,
MGM decided to film Eric Knight's
poignant story, "Lassie Come-Home," then a best seller among children's books.
Rudd Weatherwax was then working at Metro,
doubling a police dog he woned in stunts for a dog making a "b" film there.
When he heard the studio was seeking a collie, he rushed to the ranch for Pal,
who was a mess, his coat matted and burred, his ruff dirty and worn.
For weeks Rudd groomed and educated the collie, Arden-izing
and Rubenstein-ing him down to his dewclaws. He found Pal an increasingly
willing and patient pupil. When Rudd showed the dandified dog to Sam Marx
and Fred Wilcox, producer and director of the lassie film, they were so
overwhelmed by the Beau Brummel and his bag of tricks they agreed to give him a
screen test, even though they had already bought a prize-winning collie at a San
Francisco dog show to play the part.
One day soon after, the executives sat in a projection room
and ran off two tests, one of the San Francisco importation, the other of Pal.
By that afternoon, Lou Dorn, Pal's agent, was adding up his future commissions
on Lassie's (nee Pal's) five-year contract.
This contract, incidentally, which has twice been renewed at a
higher salary and still has three years to go, is said to be exceeded in
thickness, in all Hollywood, only by the sixty-nine-page legal umbilical cord
through which Humphrey Bogart
receives his weekly nourishment from the
Warner Brothers. It
is verboten to reveal the clauses or salary in Lassie's pact, on the grounds it
may make some two-footed thespians envious and unhappy, but rumor has it that
The Bark gets around $1000 a week for both film and radio work.
The star's day begins around 6 A.M., when he and his
3-year-old son, Laddie, his No. 1 stand-in and heir apparent, are let out of the
back door of Weatherwax's home on Laurel Canyon Boulevard at Pacoima in the San
Fernando Valley, to romp in the huge enclosed yard for a half-hour. Later,
the dogs breakfast on three cups of milk and a raw egg apiece. At 8
o'clock, they pile into the station wagon for the twenty-mile drive to the
studio, where they are due at 8:30.
Laddie, under the training of Frank Inn, Rudd's assistant,
goes right to work standing-in while lights and camera are adjusted, and
rehearsing with the actors who must judge their timing and their positions so as
not to obscure the dog from the camera's vision.
Lassie retires to his dressing room, a roofless clapboard
cubicle with a cot and a spindly-legged dressing table, and dozes until a
stagehand knocks and calls, "one minute" -- whereupon Rudd walks Lassie out
attached to a leash. One or two quick rehearsals now for Lassie's benefit,
two or three short takes with the cameras rolling, and Lassie is free to doze
some more until the grip men, electricians and camera men rearrange the
furniture, lights and cameras for the next set-up.
At lunch time, the two dogs are locked in the station wagon
while Rudd and Frank Inn grab a quick bite. Afterward, they drive over to
the big greensward on Lot 2 where the dogs play for twenty minutes. Then
back to the set until 6. If, at the end of the day, Lassie has put in two
full hours of acting, it's a lot, his soft life aided by the fact he's a Lass
whose heir isn't delicate. Rudd won't let the star, now middle-aged as
dogs go, exert himself unduly; and so Laddie, four years younger and with more
stamina, usually puts in a tougher day, particularly when he doubles for his Dad
in a stunt light jumping from a burning house, as he did in "The Sun Comes Up."
Even Laddie isn't overworked, though. If he's had a hard
morning, Frank Weatherwax, Rudd's older brother and partner, brings Major,
another stand-in and double, over after lunch and drives Laddie home to rest.
Rudd gets the script of each Lassie film about six weeks
before shooting starts. If it requires any special feat, he teaches it to
Lassie at home. For "Hills of Home," for instance, he rigged up metal
parallel bars and taught Lassie to tread them gingerly, for scenes in which the
dog had to cross a broken bridge. For "Son of Lassie," in which the dog
had to brave snipers, bombings and hand grenades, Rudd walked around the house
shooting a toy cap pistol to accustom Lassie to the sudden crackle of firearms.
By now, after six pictures, most of the deeds Lassie is called
upon to perform are part of his repertoire. Long ago he completed his
basic training in how to crawl, yawn, dig, lie down, eat, drink, open a door,
jump a hurdle, play dead, climb, scratch and escape from a leash, on command.
Lassie never becomes flustered when bulbs explode, guns shoot
or a spotlight happens to crash on the set. He learns new lessons quickly
and doesn't forget old ones. So keen is his comprehension that he knows
the difference between actually drinking and pretending to drink. In a
recent scene, he had to drink vegetable broth. Rudd doesn't want Lassie to
bloat himself between meals, and ordered him to lap the liquid noisily but not
to drink any. The action was photographed several times, and when the
shooting was finished, the bowl was still as full as when it was first placed
While scenes are being shot, Rudd literally sweats out his
responsibility as the dog's trainer. Just out of camera range, he tensely
gestures and whispers commands to Lassie. Animal actors take instructions
only when they are facing their masters; which means Rudd must crawl under
chairs, poke his head through windows or, as in "The Sun Comes Up," have a hole
drilled in a living room wall, so Lassie can always see his face.
Whenever Lassie scratches low on a door, Rudd is on his knees
on the other side of it, whispering into the crack between them, "Come and get
it, come and get it" -- "it" being a dog biscuit. When Lassie seems to be
gazing adoringly at Edmund Gwenn, or Jeanette MacDonald, he's really gazing
adoringly at Rudd's left pants pocket, which holds pieces of biscuit, his reward
for a scene well-played.
To get Lassie to open a door, Rudd covers the door-knob with a
slit-open rubber ball, then commands him to "Get the ball." When Lassie
stretches his full length up on a door, seemingly wanting out, he's actually
playing with his master, who's on the catwalk above him, dangling a cord to
which is tied a net rag Lassie plays with at home.
Early in his career, Lassie didn't know how to kiss. To
entice him into licking Roddy McDowell's
[sic] cheek, they had first to smear it with ice cream sent over from the
commissary. Lassie has since learned to enjoy some of man's customs.
He now kisses without any such inducement.
Lassie's skills are due to his environment. The
intelligence with which he acquires these skills is due to heredity.
There's no record of his parentage, but Rudd thinks he may be a product of the
champion collie line bred by the late Albert Payson Terhune.
In any case, Lassie is now the most valuable canine property
in the world, and Rudd won't entrust him to the kennels in the rear of his own
home which house fifty other dogs he and his brother, Frank, use in movie work.
Lassie and Laddie live right in the house (bought with the former's earnings)
with Rudd, his wife, Mae Esther, and their children, Jack, 19, Joanne, 16, and
Robert, 7, the latter a V.I.P. among his schoolmates because he's related to the
Fortunately, Mrs. Weatherwax is a homebody. Otherwise
she might easily resent the time and attention her husband gives to the star and
his stand-in. After a long day at the studio, Rudd must still devote his
evenings to them. First, he serves them dinner, two pounds of meat and an
occasional pint of cottage cheese each. Then he takes them on a two-hour,
five-mile walk to they'll keep trim and fit. And, finally, he massages and
brushes their lustrous coats, using a nylon hair brush.
By then, Rudd can just about make it to his room and flop into
bed. Lassie is still chipper enough to stand at the side of Rudd's bed and
be patted and hugged, a nightly ritual, before he retires to his own bed, a sofa
in the glassed-in patio.
Most of the actors in Lassie's pictures have great admiration
for the dog's intelligence but, like the little boy whose book told him more
about penguins than he cared to know, they get more of Lassie in their scenes
than they care to have. They feel that dogs, like babies, should be
neither screened nor heard. They're scene-stealers. Some Lassie
co-stars have been known to mutter into their beers over the dog's life they
think they lead. Jeanette MacDonald's utterances, when told the studio
planned to team her and Lassie, were not exactly ones of joy.
On the other hand Edmund Gwenn, Lassie's most frequent
co-star, seems to have genuine affection for the dog, to whom he gives a "well
done" pay after each take, and with whom he shows monumental patience.
When an otherwise perfect scene must be reshot because Lassie has grasped
Gwenn's right hand, instead of his left, the actor will play the scene time and
time again until the dog does it right. Indeed, patience is the keynote of
success in working with animal actors. The trainers have it, of course,
and so do a few actors, like Gwenn, and a director like Richard Thorpe, who has
done the dog's last two films. Fred Wilcox had it but now, having earned
his Croix de Grrr, he has thankfully gone to purely biped direction jobs.
What, besides a beautiful tri-color coat, soulful brown eyes
and great intelligence, has Lassie got that makes the public go for him?
Dr. Lucien Warner, of Claremont (California) Men's College, an authority on
animal psychology, says Lassie's screen character has the courage, loyalty and
dependability we would like to find in our fellow man and too often don't.
Uncertain of the responses of our fellow man, we make of lassie a substitute who
represents a constant in a changing, insecure world.
Whatever the psychological basis for Lassie's appeal, the
public has certainly taken him to its heart. Ministers, school teachers
and club leaders have lauded his good character in sermons and lessons.
When Lassie limped in a scene, thousands of moviegoers wrote furious letters
castigating the studio. All of them were assured the limp came from a
piece of crewing gum under a paw, and, besides, there's always an SPCA man on
the set to guarantee kindness to the dog. So man fans of Lassie try to see
him personally on Sundays that Rudd has been forced to remove his listing from
the phone book.
Due to Lassie's enormous global following, the book, "Lassie
Come-Home," has been translated into ten languages and has remained a top seller
in juvenile literature since it was published in July 1940. Moreover, its
publisher reports, it is now official reading matter in virtually every
public-school system in the United States."
Dog owners who listen to Lassie's radio show over 163 stations
of the NBC network every Saturday afternoon apparently understand every syllable
when "Lassie Speaks for Red Heart," his dog-food sponsor, because the packer of
the product says its sales have nearly doubled since Lassie began to talk about
How long is such devotion apt to last? That depends,
probably, on the stories the studio puts Lassie into. Audiences always
like fine animal actors, but not in the same old plot. Rin-Tin-Tin faded
when people tired of the sameness of his pictures. Robert Sisk, Lassie's
current producer, realizes this, of course. His greatest problem is
finding suitable vehicles, a job in which the
MGM story department is constantly
Less of a problem than stories is a successor when Lassie
takes his final bow-wow. As long as there is a Rudd Weatherwax, there can
be a Lassie. Laddie is already trained to carry on the family name.
As further insurance, Lassie's mates, who get premarital health examinations,
are eugenically selected on the basis of: "Is this female collie apt to produce
an offspring that looks like Lassie, with a white blaze down its forehead?"
Meanwhile, Lassie the First, who's nearing 8 and whose life
expectancy is fifteen years, promises to reign for a good long while.
Probably 1949's profits on The Bark's next film, "Highland Lassie," as on all
his previous films, will have the Metro-Goldwyn-Moguls doing a Highland flight
-- aye -- to the tune of "I Love a Lassie." Let Leo the Lion indulge
himself in Ars Gratia Artis. From Lassie they get Pix Gratia
HELEN COLTON is a free lance who has contributed articles
to this newspaper from Hollywood for the past five years on a variety of
© 1949 New York Times