Lassie -A Dog’s Tale

The Original Lassie in 1943-Named “Pal” Starring in “Lassie Come Home” featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowall, Directed by MGM legend Fred Wilcox.

Fred is a MGM original, as is Lassie. In 1931, Fred was in charge of Recording and Scoring sound for MGM Features. I found this recording sheet in the bottom of a drawer. One of the older documents with his- name on it- in existence. His sister was married to Nicholas Schenck, the theater chain entrepreneur along with Marcus Loew.

Lassie walking up Copperfield St., MGM Backlot 2.

My Art Department still of Copperfield St, MGM Backlot #2

1943-Copperfield Courtyard.

My MGM Art Department still from the same location Before/after- Lassie set.

“Lassie” looking for home at MGM Copperfield Court. Same loaction as my Art Department still below.

This is a production still for Lassie set. B/W vs color. This film was to be done originally in B/W.

The famous Watterloo Bridge, Lot 2 -1943

A picture I took in 1973- of the bridge set used in Lassie Come Home

Need caption

Here we are trespassing on the same bridge.

MGM Park Avenue/Waterfront area, here depicting Scotland. In “Challenge to Lassie”, our courageous and loyal collie finds herself non-collared, non-licensed and (non-law abiding). Just a fellow fugitive trespasser…

This is a MGM Art Department Still shot for this film. Challenge to Lassie-1949

Provisions and Hotel sign can clearly be seen mathing my studio still above.

Two of my all-time favorites…PaL and Roddy McDowall. This started a series of six Lassie films at MGM.

Pal was one of 1,500 dogs auditioned. He was rejected for being a male. A prize winning collie show dog was selected. Rudd Weatherwax, Pal’s owner, was hired to train the star selected, while Pal was hired to do- STUNTS.

Similar to the way Johnny Weismuller’s career started on “Tarzan.”

What a pretty couple… “Some of my best leading men were dogs or horses” – Elizabeth Taylor

You better have finished your homework!”

“This is the same way Johnny Weismuller’s career started” on Tarzan.

1949 Installment…seen in the following four pictures.


Even the Devil can’t fool a dogkid!

Lassie at a swank party thrown by Ray Anthony-He is a male -one Lucky Boy!”

Pokey with June Lockhart

Pokey with Don Norden Sr. in 1960. That’s pops 57 Chevy and our house, across the way. MGM is the tall trees in the distance. Esther Williams pool and a haunted cemetery lie at the base of those Eucalyptus trees.

Pokey, taking a break from his Lassie T.V series.

Lassie and owner/handler-The legendary Robert Weatherwax, son of Rudd. The handlers and the dogs spanned generations.

I got my lines down-How bout you guys?”

The TV series… “Lassie Jr.” is the lead now.

I wonder what Lassie talked about?”

Couch time is very important for these hard working animals.

My dog Thora loves watching Lassie during her quality couch time…

Lassie…in between parts, delegated to The Animal Actor Stage at Universal Tours.

This almost never ending series lasted long enough for me to be part of it. 1989-92, this was a Universal Series, starring Dee Wallace and Christopher Stone with a star from the B/W series, Jon Provost. Pretty cool he was reconnected to Lassie

Lassie joined Rin Tin Tin and Strongheart as dogs on the Hollywood Blvd walk of fame. One missing famous dog is Asta. A movie veteran Terrier that starred alongside Myrna Loy, William Powell, Cary Grant, and Katherine Hepburn. Asta needed a better agentit belongs on this strip of famous stars. Asta-also known as Skippy, depending on the film, never played a hero- relegating it to a background star.

In 1943-This Tale Begins:

The first ever “Lassie” was planned as a low budget, black and white children’s film. Pal, was rejected for the role, because his head was too flat and eyes too big. 1,500 dogs applied. Pal was hired to do stunt work with animal trainer and legend Rudd Weatherwax. Their job was to make the star lead “look good.”

A female show dog was chosen for its looks. It needed a lot of training. Pal was a grizzled veteran.

During the course of filming, a decision was made to take advantage of flooding in central California. The opportunity for spectacular footage of the surging San Joaquin River was too tempting to resist. The female lead was still in training and refused to enter the raging waters. “Pal” saved the day.

A Star is Born, the sequence of shots involves Lassie swimming the river, hauling himself out without shaking off, attempt to crawl, then finally, lay on his side motionless. Lassie successfully completed the task all in one take shots, prompting director Fred Wilcox to-” tear up.” In response, the producers let the female lead go and the male legend “Lassie” was born.

Female Collies shed more than males. That too was a noticeable problem with her coat disappearing as the weather warmed. From this point on this series would have a male lead. The first six weeks needed to be reshot. MGM decided to upgrade this film to “A” status. Technicolor would replace B/W. Publicity would promote this full boar.

In 1951, MGM felt this series had run its course. Following “The Painted Hills,” the studio “MGM” and Rudd reached an agreement, parting ways. Rudd would own Lassie’s rights. Television Producer Robert Maxwell convinced Rudd the future for Lassie would be television. They came up with a concept with a boy and his dog on a struggling farm in Mid -U.S.A.

Now casting begins, “Pal” would be the casting director, and whatever lucky boy has chemistry with our dog lead-“wins out.” Pal and Tommy Rettig bonded and two pilots were shot using Pal and Tommy. Pal, now double digits in age, was set to retire with his off-spring, Lassie Junior, ready to perform as series lead. He was three and had two years extensive training. After viewing the pilots, CBS added this series to its fall line-up.

Fast forward again-the 70’s;

Rudd worked with another aspiring legend named Frank Inn. Frank’s claim to fame was a terrier named Benji. Frank happened to be visiting a fellow trainer who lives across the street from me named Glenn, who assisted on the Lassie TV series. Movie Dogs often visited my neighborhood. One day Glenn called me over to meet Frank Inn and his little side-kick Benji.

The duo just returned from LAX from NYC. The trip originated in France, and Frank’s spirit was still up in the air. Air France flew Concord S.S.T’s back then, and the pilots on board wanted Frank and Benji in the cockpit. We are talking supersonic flying, this plane creates “sonic booms” when coming in to land. Benji opened this door of adventure for Mr. Inn. Frank was still “sky high” as he shared his story, while for Benji, it was just another day.

Animal handlers are absolutely amazing individuals. We take for granted these animal’s reactions in films. But these innocent creatures need non-stop acclimation to movie sets that are so distracting. So much can go wrong, especially with the exotic breeds. I have seen young lions brought on to stages, caged or chained, not to be in a scene, but to get somewhat used to all the lighting and activity without going wild. Training starts extremely young and being comfortable around so many humans in a film setting is not an easy task.

This series carried on so long, I worked on it at Universal. They produced the final series often using the Universal Backlot. They own the rights to it now, acquiring it from The Weatherwax family.

“Paws Up” to all the skilled trainers who have the ability to communicate with these extraordinary creatures.

Written and lived by…Donnie Norden.

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