Lassie Come Home (United States, 1943)

Figure 1.--Lassie is shown here with RoddyMcDowell. Roddy wears the short pants suit that he wore through much of the film.

Lassie Come Home is on of the classic films of the 1940s. It starred of course Lassie and a young Roddy McDowell. While an American movie it dealt will as poor Yorkshire (English) boy and his beloved dog. It wass one of a series of sentimental films shot in America and England which were thought to help support morale during the war. The film was set during the World War I era, but Roddy's costume seems more in keeping with what English boys were wearing during World War II. Roddy continued wearing short pants suits even after coming to America.


MGM purchased the movie rights for Eric Knight popular story in 1942 and in the middle of World war II set about shooting the film. It was released in 1943, the year Knight died. The film was directed by Fred W. Wilcox. The screen play was written by Hugo Butler. Like all the Lassie sequels turned out by MGM between 1943 and 1951, "Lassie Come Home" was shot in Technicolor. It was one of many sentimental fims made during Wotld War II. These films expressing the values Americans and Brits held which were considered to play a role in furthering the war effort.


The cast of course was dominated by Lassie and a young Roddie McDowell. Lassie, a female, collie, was played by the male collie Pal. Roddie had come over from England. Roddie plays Joe Carraclough whose familiy owns Lassie, but who must sell huim. Roddie was 13 years old when he made Lassie Come Home. Roddy as a boy, even after he came to America, actually wore the short pants suit that he wore in this movie. I believe he continued wearing shorts until he was 14-15 yearrs old--including short pants suits and kneesocks. Presumably this was a concious decission designed to extend his acting career as a child star. Several still pictures, and also "news reel" footage showed Roddy at movie premiers and studio social functions all neatly outfitted in a formal short pants suit with knee socks. These appeared to be publicity shots made when he moved to the United States at age 13, and was under movie contract, so I'm sure that the movie studios had a say in what he wore for things like that. From what I've read about other child stars, the studios had a personnal stock in their child actors, and made a habit of wanting to make them marketable as child stars for as long as possible, so insisting that even new or mid-teenagers like Roddy continue wearing short pants suits probably was a decision on their part rather than Roddy's. He was, however, from a country where older boys did, in fact wear short pants suits for school and everyday life, so it also may have been a mutually agreeable arrangment. The film also has a very young Elizabeth Taylor who plays Priscilla. Her father buys Lassie for her. Other cast members included: Donald Crisp, Dame May Whitty, Edmund Gwenn, Nigel Bruce, Elsa Lanchester, Ben Webster, J. Patrick O'Malley, Alan Napier, Arthur Shields, John Rogers, and Alex Craig. Than the Tinker had a performing dog called "Tootes'

Figure 2.--This publicity shot show Roddy and Pal reading about Lassie.

Eric Mowbray Knight (1897-1943)

Eric Mowbray Knight was a Yorkshireman that moved to Pennsylvania. He wrote many other books, but it is Lassie Come Home for which he is remembered. He wrote the book in 1938. Knight lived quite an event-filled, but short life. He was born during 1897 expalining how he could describe Yorkshire so beautifully in the book. His father was a diamond merchant who ran off to South Africa when Eric was quite young. His mother remarried to an American and moved to America. Eric joined her as a teenager 15 years old. He attended the Cambridge School of Latin in Massachusetts and also pursued art at the New York National Academy of design. He then taught at the University of Iowa. His primary interest was journalism and he worked for different newspapers. He also liked movies and was a noted movie critic for the Philadelphia Public Ledger. He worked in Hollywood writing films and was a favorite of Frank Capra. Knight's main goal in life, however, was to write the great American novel.


The movie was based on a classic children's book by Eric Mowbray Knight. Knight fotst published a short story which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post (December 17, 1938). It proved so popular that the John C. Winston Publishing Company secured the publication rights for an exapnded book version. The book was published in 1940 and became a popular best seller. The story has had instant appeal and has been published in over 25 languages. It has never gone out of print and is now considered a classic. This is a wonderful book, in part because of the wonderful illustrations, which are breathtaking in their beauty and their ability to capture the essence of a boy and a dog. But make sure you also buy the original Eric Knight Lassie Come-Home novel. For the heart and soul of the novel are absent from the text of this version, and the loss is grievous indeed. The novel shows real, cranky people struggling hard with moral choices, and hurting when they are bound to make the right one. The novel also guides the reader into concluding on her own that living things cannot rightfully be sold, unlike this version, which just blats it out. Moral lessons that children reach on their own are the ones that become deeply rooted, so it is a shame to deny them this process of moral discovery. The realism of the novel is absent from this version, which presents stick figures spouting politically correct platitudes that would be unthinkable in the communities that Knight described. The novel presents decidedly politically incorrect people who struggle to do the right thing. A child learns best from books that present life in its bewildering complexity. Without such guides, how will she deal with a real world that is not populated with politically correct stick figures?


The movie was set in Yorkshire coal mining village. I am not sure the time is ever specifically states in either the book or film. As there is much employment and the coal mine is closed, presumably it is set in the Depression of the 1930s. It had to be after World War I as the coal mines were running all out during World War I. There was, however, a great deal of umemployment in the coal fields after the War, especially in the 1930s. As the story was written in 1938, it of course had to be set before that. A HBC reader assures us that, "The novel is set in the depression years of the 1930s. There was the General strike of 1927 set off in support of the miner's pay cuts." A HBC reader who helped date the setting was intrigued with the depiction of the village. He writes "I am intreged by the size of the village and the number of children which exit at the beginning of the film. Each family must have had about 10 kids. If this is so then there school was populated with children from about 12 families." [Ferguson]

Story Line

Lassie Come Home is a beloved children's story. It is a classic tear jerker. The main character is Joe (Roddy McDowell). Joe's family is destitute. The impoverished family is forced to sell their prized collie. While her new master Nigel Bruce is pleasant enough, Lassie prefers the company of Joe and repeatedly escapes. Even when cared for by Bruce's affectionate granddaughter Priscilla (Elizabeth Taylor), Lassie insists upon heading back to her original home. This time, however, the trip is much longer, and Lassie must depend upon the kindness of strangers, notably farmers Dame May Whitty and Daniel Webster and handyman Edmund Gwenn. Lassie of course outwits every one and survives many difficult situations and a series or well intentioned as well as mean owners. Eventually after he overcomes huge obstacles he manages to return home. Priscilla liked Joe and helped him get Lassie back. It is not shown in the film but I susprct that she suggested to her grandfather- The Duke of Rudling to employ Joe's dad to be Kennel man. She had an influence over her grandfather. She asked Joe about caring for Lassie. All his suggestions she made to her grandfather and he gave orders for them to be implimented. Joe does not seem to have had friends. It was just him and Lassie. In the scenes when he leaves school none of his class mates say goodbye to him. Nor are they interested in Lassie. They just run out the school door. When his father began working for the Duke there is an upturn in their finances. Joe gets an hair cut, new clothes and a bike. He also makes friends with Priscilla because they go out biking. Joe has a friend, other than an animal, for the first time in his life. All the villagers would be miners who are out of work because the pit (mine) closed down.

Figure 3.--Roddy wore a kind of flat cap in the film. A boy from a more affluent family probbly would have worn a peaked school cap.

Village School

The scenes inside the school look reasonably accurate. We note a scene with the children leaving school. The outside of the school looks to us more like an American than an English village school. The costuming generally seems more reasonably accurate. Joe's clothing seems typical for the 1930s. He went to a village primary school. There would not have been a uniform. Boys did, however, before World war II commonly wear suits to school. HBC has begun to compile details about clothing in individual English schools. As far as we kknow, however, have not added any Yorkshire village schools to our archive.


Joe's clothing seems typical for the 1930s. He went to a village primary school. There would not have been a uniform. Many British school boys wore peaked hats, I'm not sure how common flat caps were for school children at the time. Of course tends in Yorkshire villages could have been different than in London. That may also explain his rather old fashioned looking boot-like shoes. A HBC reader from Lancaster (close to Yorkshire) writes, "Flat caps would have been worn by a child in the towns and countryside. You can see this in old Pathe newsreel footage of football matches and freeze frame a crowd scene. The shoes worn are not outdated, but modern footwear for pre World War II working class families. Lots of boys and girls wore clogs then. Leather shoes with leather soles and heals were coming into use and eventually replacing clogs. Joe's parents had clothed Joe in fashionable clothings. They would have bought the best they could afford. Nodoubt from the Co-operative Retail Society Store. Known as the Coop. They would have collected discount stamps on their purchases. This was called the dividend or divy and was a perk of being a member. You became a member by paying a membership fee. This you got back." Roddy's costume in the film is a short pants suit as a boy from a modest family might have worn to school. Note that it is not an affluently tailored expensive suit, but rather common looking. There is no fancy school tie or school badge on the pocket. His knee socks don't appear to have garters or elastic tops to hold them up, and his shoes are definately every day, non-dressy shoes. Even so, just the mere look of the suit with it's suggested formality, give him a well dressed "proper gentleman" look to an American viewer.


Lassie was become a major television program in the United beginning in 1954. Just as Roddie McDowall wore the typical clothing of an English boy, the American child actors who played Lassie's master wore the jeans and Keds that tipified American boys' clothing. There was a visitor from England in one episode--the only time HBC know of that a boy on Lassie appeared in short pants. HBC does not know if there was ever an English television production of Lassie.


William Ferguson, e-Mail messages, August 28 and 30, 2002.


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Created: August 5, 2000
Last updated: 6:25 AM 2/26/2005