Above all, “Lassie Come Home” is a heartwarming, frequently heartbreaking testament to the bond between a boy and his dog. Penniless lad Joe Carraclough (Roddy McDowall) is devastated when his desperately poor Yorkshire parents (Donald Crisp and Elsa Lanchester) sell his beloved dog, Lassie, to a wealthy dog breeder (Nigel Bruce) in Scotland. In the breeder’s ownership, Lassie languishes in a cage and is misused by her new owner’s nasty servant Hynes (J. Pat O’Malley.)
Lassie repeatedly tries to escape, only to be dragged back and imprisoned by Hynes. One day she gets away for good and embarks on the 1,000-mile journey back to her family. Lassie suffers many hardships and meets several kind people on her trip, but never forgets where she belongs- in the arms of her boy Joe.
Chances are, this movie is going to cause some serious feels even for the most hardened filmgoer. For one thing, the child actor (who went on to play flim-flam artist ‘vampire slayer’ Peter Vincent in the original “Fright Night”) is almost too convincing. In the scene where he realizes Lassie won’t be meeting him in the schoolyard after class anymore, McDowell buckles in an explosion of snot and tears. It really puts the sentimental, gently grating child actors of today to shame.
For another, Lassie goes through a living Hell to get back to her master. There were moments where I seriously wondered if the humane society was present at the time of this movie, for example, where Lassie swims through a muddy, slimy body of water and collapses, disheveled, outside the home of a caring, elderly couple.
Unfortunately, there were some corny elements, like a dastardly duo of villains named ‘Snickers’ and ‘Buckles’ (Those are their street names, yo) who give the kind carny Rowlie (Edmund Gwenn) an incredibly fake beating. However, my sister (who had read the book adaptation) refused to watch the scene where the gruesome twosome dole out a fatal kick to the carnie’s dog, Toots.
If you’re willing to put your cynicism away (it helps if you are a dog lover,) “Lassie Come Home” makes an entertaining, if oddly melancholy, watch. It does a good job of seeing Joe’s parents side of things as well; though it probably won’t matter, kids will likely hate them for selling Lassie anyway. Older viewers will see that what they did what they did out of desperation, not cruelty.
Classic film buffs might want to note that Elizabeth Taylor is featured as the breeder’s granddaughter, Priscilla. Frankly, it seems to me like the two sequels (“Son of Lassie,” “Courage of Lassie”) whose advertisements are featured on the DVD are probably not worth bothering with. For Chrissakes, “Courage of Lassie” doesn’t even have Lassie IN it. But I digress.
In summation, “Lassie Come Home” is a overlooked and effective family film, though probably not of the very young or very sensitive.