Pal rides again! In Fred M. Wilcox’s Courage of Lassie, the irrepressible little scamp from whose seed all dogs who ever played Lassie are descended plays an orphaned collie. The little guy is left behind in an idyllic, Technicolor wilderness after the old fisherman who owns Lassie rows off with her and what he thinks are all of her puppies.
There follows a delightful montage of the little collie frolicking in the woods for days with birds, other four-legged beasties, and even a big black bear. This being a kid’s movie, however, you can be sure that gut-wrenching tragedy is right around the corner. Sure enough, the collie puppy and his little fox friend are caught in stormy rapids, and the fox is washed away, presumably to his death. The puppy, balanced on a tangle of branches, safely makes it to shore. Seemingly unfazed by his little buddy’s demise, the puppy’s next move is to happily run off with Elizabeth Taylor’s pants, and a lifelong bond is formed.
Taylor was 14 years old when she appeared in this film. Just like Pal, she’s playing a different role than she played in the film Lassie Come Home (1943). I think Taylor was a fantastic child actor. Just like in National Velvet (1944), she takes material that could be laughable or treacly and performs it with such conviction that you can’t help but be swept along. As Kathie Merrick, she believes in her dog, whom she names “Bill,” even though her family doesn’t think he has what it takes to be a sheep-herding dog.
By the end of the film Bill will prove that he not only has “the right stuff” in the pasture, but that he can be drafted and serve under heavy fire just like any other red-blooded American boy.
Bill goes through a lot in this film. He’s shot by a couple of dopey young hunters with quick trigger fingers, he’s run over by a truck while herding sheep across the road (and carried off by the well-meaning driver who doesn’t realize Bill belongs to someone), he’s renamed “Duke” at Dr. Colman’s Dog and Cat Hospital in the big city, and he’s trained for war and shipped off to the Aleutians to fight the Japanese.
“Duke” performs bravely despite a bloody neck wound, dragging himself through the mud to deliver a message, then leading the reinforcements back to the troops. He saves the day, but suffers from shell shock. He escapes the train that is taking him home and runs off into the area of the country where he remembers being with Kathie. Unfortunately, his PTSD has taken a toll, and he lives as a feral animal, raiding hen houses and killing local livestock. Kathie saves him from a farmer’s bullet, but he’s still put on trial as a mad dog.
Things look pretty grim for Bill until Harry MacBain (Frank Morgan, who played Prof. Marvel and the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz) makes an impassioned plea for understanding. This is the most interesting part of the film, since MacBain has looked up Bill’s war record, and his speech is a thinly veiled reference to human veterans who may be acting differently after their service overseas. Violent, antisocial behavior and drastic personality changes can be a byproduct of serving in combat, he says, and we on the homefront shouldn’t be so quick to judge our returning veterans. Even if they’re not lovable border collies.