DVD: Courage of Lassie (1946)

April 9, 2011 | By

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Film: Very Good/ DVD Transfer: Very Good/ DVD Extras: Good

Label: Warner Home Video/ Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: August 24, 2004

Genre: Family / Lassie / Drama / War

Synopsis: Laddie the dog runs away from his master and becomes a war dog in 1943.

Special Features: 2 1943 cartoons: Droopy in “Northwest Hounded Police” + Tom & Jerry in “Solid Serenade” / Theatrical and Reissue Trailers

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Review:

Lassie’s third film may rank as one of the oddest, largely because it morphs from a saccharine girl + dog love story into a wartime drama about post-traumatic stress disorder for WWII vets, with a courtroom wrap-up.

On the one hand, the script by Lionel Houser (A Christmas in Connecticutt) is ballsy for trying to balance kiddie, family, and adult themes into a popular G-rated franchise, but it’s also a crazy quilt, and yet each segment switches tracks at points where the characters are clearly trapped in a rut; the shifts aren’t exactly natural, but they’re needed to keep the story going.

The film’s first 20 mins. have a pup, newly abandoned by its mom and siblings, stranded on one side of what’s apparently an island, where it slowly grows up with Nature’s children – bears, wabbits, blackbirds, squirrels, skunks, and more – before it runs from a wolf and is sent by the rapids to a new lake.

There it encounters little Kathie (Elizabeth Taylor), who’s convinced it’s her perfect ticket towards convincing her family she ought to have her own sheep herd. When she gives chase, the dog is mistakenly shot by two hunters (one played by an adult Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer), so she takes him to her friend Harry (Wizard of Oz’ Frank Morgan), a veteran sheepherder who lives a quiet, solitary life while his son is an enlisted man in WWII.

When the dog recuperates, Kathie names him Bill (making the film’s title a cheat. ‘Courage of Bill’ is more like it), and the two prove their mettle when they rescue a group of stranded sheep during a terrible winter storm. Everything goes just ducky for Kathie until Bill is struck by a truck during a mundane herding effort, and the drivers hastily take him into town for medical aide rather than searching for his owner – little Kathie, munching an apple at the top of an apple tree.

Perhaps she should’ve been working, and not passed off her job to Bill, but the dog is eventually nursed by to health, and when he’s never claimed (Kathie doesn’t get no newspapers out in God’s country), he’s donated to the War Dog school, where he’s trained to fight alongside marines against the Japanese in the Phillipines under his new name, Duke.

Duke accomplishes a daring rescue, but the trauma turns him nutty, and when he’s shipped back for rehabilitation, he escapes, sensing he’s close to Kathie. Unfortunately, Duke needs nourishment, so he goes against his herding ways and picks off chickens from locals. One day they find him and give chase with their shotguns, and Duke / Bill runs past Kathie, who again gives chase and finds him hiding out in a cave.

Initially, Bill’s trauma has him growling , and Kathie trips and conks herself out, but seeing her lifeless, makes Bill snap again, and he recognizes the girl whom he last saw more than a year earlier.

Kathie tries to keep Bill under the local law’s radar, but he’s eventually seen, and a court trial has him almost convicted of malice and destined for destruction until old Harry sees the military tattoo on Bill’s ear, and gives a successful plea to the judge, reading off Bill’s remarkable war record.

Now healed, Bill returns to Kathy, and stops her incessant sobbing under a tree, where her salty tears were starting to corrode the oak’s tender root system.

That’s ‘Courage of Bill,’ and it’s four films in one: Kipling’s Jungle Story in the first act, a straight heartwarming Lassie tale in the second, a war drama in the third, and a plea for Americans to understand and help war vets transition into civilian life in the fourth act’s PTSD drama (released the same year as the definitive PSTD postwar film, The Best Years of Our Lives) before it snaps back to a Lassie film.

MGM’s original trailer actually treats the story as hard drama with a sweeping, melodramatic Lassie score, whereas the 1972 kid matinee trailer not only edits everything down into a G-rated action montage, but omits any war material, and the god references tied to a speech Harry gives Kathie before she agrees to accept Bill as her own:

HARRY: A man goes to church to talk to a god he can’t see, but a dog, he can see his god that he loves… and talk to him and obey his commands all day long. You’re Bill’s god… and all he wants is to love you and have you tell him what you want him to do.

KATHIE: You mean I’m really… what you said… to him?

HARRY: Yes.

KATHIE: It’s a very odd feeling… to be someone’s god.

It’s a peculiar speech where one would think the Catholic Legion of Decency might have objected to a person being placed on a god-like scale, even if it’s towards a dog, yet it did fit in with the film’s ongoing theme of loyalty and devotion, fidelity to being a good citizen, and Harry’s courtroom defense speech to the judge (which is really well-written and performed in such compact simplicity) harkens back to the god speech, and is used to symbolize close the chapter on Bill’s dark past:

HARRY: And so I ask you… on his record as a first-class soldier, to give him a break Let me take him back to the little girl who is his god… and who loves him so much.

In 1946, this faux Lassie film (actor-dog Pal playing Bill while billed as Lassie in Courage of Lassie when the character’s really Bill / Duke played by Pal) was tailored for the times, but as the ’72 reissue trailer on the DVD attests, the film had to be resold as a classic family film starring Elizabeth Taylor ‘when she was young!’ instead of a drama. The wartime sequence was hardly cutting edge, particularly in light of bloody WWII dramas such as Beach Red (1967), but a war film isn’t something the kids would want after Lassie had been on TV from 1954-1973.

The character actors are all uniformly solid, whereas teenage Taylor is still learning the ropes of her trade, being wide-eyed and Happy or Sobbing Immensely with Quivery Voice and Facial Redness. Pal (Lassie / Bill / Duke) is excellent, and he’s the only reason the genre swaps aren’t so jarring. (Mind you, it is unnerving to see Pal and other dogs in the war unit – largely German Shepherds – performing around explosions and gunfire. A more detailed dramatization of this training occurs in the propaganda drama War Dogs, made a year earlier by Monogram.)

Warner Home Video’s DVD offers a generally clean print with minor visible digital compression in open sky shots, and the print gets a bit soft in focus during the last few reels.

Extras include the aforementioned 1946 and 1972 trailers, and a pair of cartoons from 1946 (both of which were coincidentally scored by Courage of Lassie’s co-composer, Scott Bradley).

“Northwest Hounded Police” was directed by ex-Warner animator Tex Avery, and stars Droopy as Northwest Mounted Sergeant McPoodle. Armed with a jurisdictional multipass, Droopy tracks down an escaped pooch from Alka-Fizz Prison (“No Noose Is Good Noose”). The pair run all over North America, with plenty of grand facial explosions, ludicrous hiding spots (inside a lion’s ass!), and a prison fog horn tuned to mimic notes for “B.O.”  – the old Warner cartoon gag where characters would smell body odor, and make their declaration to audiences like a fog horn.

“Solid Serenade” has Tom tying up dog Killer so he can serenade a hot catty mama with his double bass and the song “Is You Is or is You Ain’t My Baby” (actually sung by Buck Woods), until Jerry’s inability to sleep from the racket starts another war. Solid matter frequently hits heads and other aspects of cat and dog anatomies, and directors Hanna and Barbera flaunt some risqué imagery when the female cat is briefly glimpsed on a balcony wall, with her naked ass on display before Tom’s upper head covers it up.

Originally released in 2004, this title is available separately or as part of the new TCM Lassie omnibus, which includes the first four films: Lassie Come Home (1943), Son of Lassie (1945), Courage of Lassie (1946), and Hills of Home (1948).

Strangely, the last three Lassie films – The Sun Comes Up (1949), Challenge to Lassie (1950), and The Painted Hills (1951) – remain unavailable on DVD. Lassie’s other adventures moved to radio (1947-1950), several TV series (notably 1954-1973), and a handful of film efforts to rekindle the franchise: The Magic of Lassie (1978), Lassie (1994), and Lassie (2005).

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© 2011 Mark R. Hasan

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Related links:

DVD / Film:  Lassie Come Home (1943) —  Son of Lassie (1945)  — Hills of Home (1948) — Painted Hills, The (1951) — War Dogs (1942)

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External References:

IMDB — Fan Site — War Dogs info: 12 —  Soundtrack Album Composer Filmography

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Buy from:

Amazon.com – TCM Greatest Classic Film Collection: Lassie (Lassie Come Home / Son of Lassie / Courage of Lassie / Hills of Home)

Amazon.ca – Tcm Greatest Classic Films: Lassie

Amazon.co.uk – Tcm Greatest Classic Films: Lassie [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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