Film: Painted Hills, The (1951)

July 10, 2011 | By

Return to: Home Blu-ray, DVD, Film Reviews / P to R

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Film: Weak/ DVD Transfer: n/a / DVD Extras: n/a

Label: n/a/ Region: n/a / Released: n/a

Genre: Family / Lassie

Synopsis: A dog seeks revenge for murdering its owner – a tireless and kind-hearted prospector.

Special Features: n/a

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Review:

The fact MGM pumped out two Lassie films in 1949 and waited 2 years to produce what would be their seventh and final installment in their franchise signifies the studio’s gradual disinterest in the character, perhaps sensing they’d exhausted viable adventures for what was still the world’s best-known dog.

Hollywood likes to saturate a wave of interest with a tsunami of like-material, so their 1949 theatrical double-header was probably tied to the radio show which lasted 1947-1950 on ABC, and then NBC; as the kids were still enthralled with the pooch, MGM probably figured releasing a spate of films was a perfect move to take advantage of fan hunger before interest began to show signs of ebbing.

The production of two Lassie films in one year – The Sun Comes Up and Challenge to Lassie – also mandated tighter budgets, and certainly the latter film suffers from a heavier use of interior sets; there’s just a handful of scenes where characters are filmed in front of splendid mountain vistas.

Painted Hills (also billed as “Lassie’s Adventures in the Goldrush”) also lacks the rich pedigree of character actors (no more Edmund Gwenn and Donald Crisp), but it was similarly developed from a non-Lassie property – Alexander Hull’s Shep of the Painted Hills. The core revenge story of a loyal dog catching and punishing the killer of its master is apparently the same as the novel, but MGM’s promo material naturally emphasized the film as another “exciting” Lassie adventure – even though she plays a character named Shep.

Former silent era / early sound director and occasional second unit director Chester M. Franklin (The Yearling) produced the film (his lone effort), and the studio gave ace MGM editor Harold F. Kress another crack at directing a film – one of only five in a career saturated with plum editing assignments, including his Oscar-winning work on the studio’s complex 3-strip Cinerama epic How the West Was Won (1962), and Fox’ The Towering Inferno (1974) – the latter among several high-profile disaster films for producer Irwin Allen.

To ensure Lassie was still surrounded by a cast of familiars, doomed prospector Jonathan was played by veteran character actor Paul Kelly (The Roaring Twenties). His surrogate son Tommy was played by Gary Gray, a generic child actor who previously appeared in RKO’s Pal series, in which a boy and his beloved dog deal with all manner of dangers.

(Strangely, Lassie was played by dog actor Pal, whereas RKO’s “Pal” character was alternately portrayed between 1948-1951 by Ace the Wonder Dog and Flame the Wonder Dog, two pooches whose wondrous capabilities were generally restricted to shorts and Poverty Row productions.)

MGM’s budget on Painted was tight, but there were decent mountain and river locations, although it is peculiar the Technicolor film required the services of two cinematographers. One suspects Alfred Gilks was pulled away to film Gene Kelly’s An American in Paris, and Harold Lipstein (The River’s Edge, Pal Joey) finished the job.

There’s also a specific moment in the film’s midsection where Tommy simply vanishes. In a cabin scene, Jonathan demands the increasingly jealous Lin (Bruce Cowling) hand over his gun, and in a later scene we see Tommy getting ready to leave, with Jonathan already wearing the gun belt. One suspects Gray was either unavailable the day the production filmed the gun exchange scene, or the schedule was mucked up, creating a major discontinuity. In the finished film, Tommy’s suspicious absence forces viewers to think he’s either by the river, managing the river sluices himself, or is having a long & dangerous walk in bear country.

In another scene, Lin discovers the mine opening covered in a recent rockslide – the end result of a major action sequence that seems to have been scrapped from the production schedule. A possible reason for this gap is perhaps the shooting schedule was cut down, forcing director Kress to direct his actor with extra gravitas, and make up the short running time with an earlier mining montage that shows the once-friendly miners all happy & smiley-faced from staged reaction shots or outtakes.

True Boardman’s script is simple, but one can see wonky seams all over the place to flesh out the film to a mere 64 minutes – barely qualifying as feature film length. Like prior installments, Lassie runs away (even though she likes Tommy, she misses owner / giant-bearded prospector Jonathan), and there’s a lengthy, brooding sequence where she’s near-death from poison, sneakily administered by the now-villainous Lin.

Painted is a much darker Lassie film, and Pal handles the tasks well. She’s suspicious of Lin’s involvement in the death of her master, but unable to avoid him when hunger pains become dire and she eats meat poisoned by the gold-hungry murderer. When she’s found dying by Tommy’s Indian friend Bald Eagle, Lassie is miraculously saved by Indian prayer – a moment perhaps intended to broaden the franchise’s spiritual underpinnings about faith & destiny, but coming off as just plain hokey.

Boardman’s dialogue is generally bad, and the worst material was allotted to Gray, who whines, feigns tears, and interacts with the Native American characters like they’re next-door neighbours just passing by. For those who’ve seen the idiot child character of Dondi (1961), little Tommy feels like his American cousin – a bit more sophisticated with syntax, but just as grating. Tommy’s generally annoying demeanor is probably the reason a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 edition exists.

Lassie’s miraculous recovery happens fast, and it doesn’t take long for Lin to meet his own demise, which is equally contrived, but has one novel aspect: tracking Lassie to the edge of a snow-covered cliff, he discovers the gun he planned to use has frozen itself to his hand – a nice grisly touch that allows Lassie / Shep to mete out justice.

Daniele Amfitheatrof, who scored the first Lassie film, returned for the franchise’s finale, and provides some great brooding passages once the pooch is pushed over the edge. Lassie’s performance is heavily enhanced by the score, and Amfitheatrof manages to convey the complexities of a dog realizing a family friend has become a monster.

Apparently Painted is part of 8 films made between 1950-1951 whose copyright MGM erroneously failed to renew, which is why the title is available from various public domain sources. Unfortunately, the copies are made from surviving prints or sub-standard VHS masters (the copy at Archive.org resembles splotchy watercolours), and it’s high time Warner Home Video dig into its vault and release a proper transfer, wither from the negative, or a cleaned up Technicolor print. 2013 will mark the 70th anniversary of MGM’s first Lassie film, and fans would be delighted if a box set offering HD transfers were released that year.

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© 2011 Mark R. Hasan

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Related links:

DVD / Film:  Challenge to Lassie (1949) —  Courage of Lassie (1946) — Hills of Home (1948) — Lassie Come Home (1943)  — Roaring Twenties, The (1939) —  Son of Lassie (1945) — Sun Comes Up, The (1949)

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Related external links (MAIN SITE):

DVD / Film:  River’s Edge, The (1957)

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External References:

IMDB Fan Site —  Soundtrack AlbumComposer Filmography

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