This week we’re featuring stars of the silver screen who, though they couldn’t speak, drew millions into the theaters in Hollywood’s Golden Age.
If Rin Tin Tin is the biggest canine luminary in Hollywood history, Lassie, the collie introduced in 1943, comes in a close second.
She began life as a fictional character in a short story by Eric Knight that was expanded to a novel then, in 1943, to MGM’s feature, Lassie Come Home. One of the great tearjerkers in Hollywood history, the plot had an economically strapped family forced to sell off the family’s beloved pet collie, who, in turn, escapes from a new owner to return — (where else?) home.
The picture starred Donald Crisp and a very young Roddy McDowall (pictured top above with his canine friend). Lassie Come Home grossed over $4.5 million at the box office, a genuine fortune at the time. Inevitably, sequels followed: six titles through 1951.
For some strange reason, Lassie’s name was changed to “Bill” and “Shep” in two of the pictures. Anyway, there’s “Bill” (aka Lassie) posing with Elizabeth Taylor in 1946’s The Courage of Lassie, the second of the sequels.
For the half dozen initial Lassie pictures, her role was actually played by a rough collie by the name of “Pal.”
The canine was such a hit onscreen that his owner toured with Pal (as Lassie) in shows, fairs and rodeos around the U.S. Then when the screen Lassie’s screen career wound down in 1951, Pal appeared as the collie character in tv versions launched in 1954. After Pal’s subsequent retirement (he died in 1958), he had sired a line of descendants (Bow, Howard, Mason and Dakota) who continued to play the collie character up until 2005.
Triva note: When another child star, Bonita Granville, retired from acting in the early Fifties, she worked behind the cameras as the co-producer of a Lassie tv series. Her nearly 40-year marriage to wealthy businessman Jack Wrather — who produced the Lassie tv series as well as the Lone Ranger series — ended with his death in 1984.
The Saturday Evening Post declared that Pal as Lassie had the most spectacular canine career in history. That notion was buttressed by the fact that Lassie was almost as popular on tv as in the movies. A case could be made that since Lassie’s all-media parlay — the canine was featured in, besides movies, radio, tv, toys, comic books, animated series, and other media — she outstripped Rin Tin Tin.
We will allow movie historians to settle that one.