Corracciones: Coraggio di BILL!
Lassie’s wartime experience was somewhat different in her second film, Son of Lassie, where Pal the dog played both Lassie and her not-so-bright offspring Laddie, and it’s the latter who gets whisked off (almost as a prank) to Norway on a reconnaissance mission, only to get separated from his master Joe, dodging evil filthy Nazis until the inevitable reunion, and fast flight, fight, and straight trip home to June Lockhart and her big hugs and kisses.
In his third film, billed again as Lassie, Pal plays an orphaned pooch named Bill adopted by a teenage Liz Taylor in Courage of Lassie, which really should’ve been called Courage of Bill. Bill eventually runs into multiple hardships, gets donated to the war effort, becomes a war dog, is paired with a combat unit in the Philippines, and is sent back home due to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, where more havoc is wreaked on a local level, resulting in a near-mauling of Liz, and a courtroom trial deciding his fate.
Seriously. This is a kiddie film.
I’m not sure what the hell Warner Bros.’ brass were thinking, but this is the strangest entry among the first four Lassie films, and yet it kind of works, and is fascinating for the jarring plot and mood shifts that happen every 20-25 mins. It’s compelling, dark, bizarre, and only a handful of scenes are really kid-friendly, which is why the studio recut the trailer into a faux happy doggy montage for a 1972 reissue round as a matinee series.
If kids were traumatized by Bambi’s mom dying, I wonder if they comprehended a dog experiencing shell-shock syndrome. I don’t think the producers were trying to compete with adult dramas like The Best Years of Our Lives (also released in 1946), but rather trying to make the franchise timely and fresh, but whether audiences were game for the upgrade is a mystery.
In the second film, Lassie / Laddie’s war experience was the direct result of a gag, whereas in Lassie / er, Bill’s third film, it’s realist social commentary. Besides, the only way you could re-direct Lassie into another cinematic war adventure was through official military channels as a war dog.
That aspect and the dog’s trauma initially seem absurd (Bill gets PTSD flashbacks), but there’s little way any creature could survive bombs, gunfire, and daily near-death experiences without some mental trauma, and it’s not dissimilar from adopting a dog that’s been abused in the past, and gets defensive and snarly when it smells alcohol among rowdy men.
Trauma even figures in the fourth film, Hills of Home (1948), where Lassie refuses to cross water because her prior owner would mock-drown her for letting a sheep get killed. Not exactly kiddie stuff.
In any event, in this second installment of Dog Tales, I’ve uploaded a review of Courage of Lassie [M] (Warner Home Video), as well as a review for a newfound rarity: War Dogs [M], a 1942 propaganda film produced by Monogram to motivate folks into donating their dogs for the war effort.
It’s a bit technically rough at times, but makes for a natural compliment to the Lassie film because it covers in more docu-drama style war dog training. It’s also FREE, because it’s part of that increasingly large pool of movies and other media now in the public domain – works whose copyrights have lapsed, and are essentially available gratis to read (Project Gutenberg Canada, and its main hub, Project Gutenberg), hear or view (via Internet Archive).
Mark R. Hasan, Editor