Eighty years ago Saturday, “Lassie Come Home” opened in theaters, featuring a pair of child actors who would go on to great Hollywood fame: Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor.
The real star of the movie, however, was Pal: a male rough collie who would play the role of the female title character in a series of movies over the next decade.
The First Lassie Film: 'Lassie Comes Home'
The character of Lassie was created by author Eric Knight, who wrote a story about a collie, reluctantly sold by a poor family who then escaped her new owners and then wandered cross-country from Scotland to Yorkshire to reunite with the boy she loved
The story, which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in December 1938, was so well-received that Knight expanded it into a novel published in 1940. It was just a matter of time before Hollywood came knocking.
While the movie version was set in Scotland and England, it was filmed in Washington state and Monterey, California. Fifteen-year-old British actor Roddy McDowall played the poor schoolboy who was forced to give up his dog. Nigel Bruce — already famous for playing Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes films — played the rich Duke who buys and attempts to relocate Lassie. A last-minute replacement playing the Duke's daughter was 11-year-old Elizabeth Taylor.
Hollywood Dog trainer Rudd Weatherwax supplied a 1-year-old male collie named Pal to play the part of Lassie. Pal reportedly earned $250 per week while making the first “Lassie” film while Taylor made only $100 a week.
“Lassie Come Home” would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Color Cinematography. What's more, it would be a big box office hit, making MGM Pictures a tidy profit and inspiring a series of sequel movies — many of which would feature Pal.