The true tale of Lassie

Hollywood's most famous dog was in fact the brainchild of an Englishman, Eric Knight. Now she is back on this side of the Atlantic to film a remake of the canine classic. Cahal Milmo reports
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She is a film star considered so American that her portrait hangs in the MGM studio's hall of fame and her paw prints are cast indelibly in the pavement of Sunset Boulevard. After a lifetime of plunging into burning barns in the Midwest and chasing baddies in pick-up trucks, Lassie was such an embodiment of the Hollywood dream that she had her own aircraft and took dinner at the White House.

She is a film star considered so American that her portrait hangs in the MGM studio's hall of fame and her paw prints are cast indelibly in the pavement of Sunset Boulevard. After a lifetime of plunging into burning barns in the Midwest and chasing baddies in pick-up trucks, Lassie was such an embodiment of the Hollywood dream that she had her own aircraft and took dinner at the White House.

Imagine, therefore, the likely response to the scene that was being filmed yesterday in a former military barracks in Dublin, at the start of a new £5m feature film about the dog once voted to be more American than John Wayne.

As a cavalcade of red-coated huntsmen ride through the back-to-backs of the impoverished 1930s mining village of Greenhall, Lassie, for roughly the 687th time in her illustrious 67-year career of canine courage, barks her way to the rescue by preventing her owners' fresh washing from being trampled.

In the background, a landscape of craggy hills and wild skies resonates to the sound of gritty Yorkshire accents as the brown and sable collie with the trademark white flash on her nose sees off the Hooray Henrys on horseback.

Introducing Lassie Come Home - the remake.

Unbeknown to many, it is this environment of Depression-era Britain, rather than the crumbling mineshafts and swirling rapids of California, that forms the backdrop to the original - and authentic - Lassie.

Ed Guiney, the producer of the film, said: "Most people think of Lassie as being American. In fact, it is a classic British tale about triumph over adversity. It is a story that we have felt for a long time is ready to be retold to a contemporary audience."

The new film, a joint Anglo-Irish production with French backing which is scheduled for release in time for Christmas, will return the dog which racked up 675 episodes in the tear-jerking US television series to her nation of origin.

Almost.

Filming of the production, featuring a distinguished cast ranging from Peter O'Toole to Gregor Fisher - best known as Rab C Nesbitt - was taking place yesterday in the Clancy Barracks on the banks of the river Liffey in Dublin.

In the middle of next month, production will switch to the Isle of Man to complete shooting and, although post-production work will take place in London, none of the footage will be shot in North Yorkshire and the Scottish Highlands where the film is set.

Thanks to the magic of modern cinema and generous tax breaks offered by the Irish and Manx governments, locations stretching from the Wicklow Mountains to the rolling countryside of the Isle of Man will be converted to the poverty-stricken mining community that in 1938 inspired a Yorkshire-born American journalist to pen Lassie Come Home, a heart-warming tale about a dog and his schoolboy owner.

Eric Mowbray Knight, the journalist and would-be artist turned Hollywood scriptwriter and war correspondent who invented Lassie, was born in 1897 in the West Yorkshire town of Menston.

Details of his early life are sketchy. Among the versions of Mr Knight's youth is the story that his father, a diamond merchant, abandoned the family to live in South Africa, leaving his son to work in the mines to help keep the household afloat.

The family's fortunes improved after Mr Knight's mother married an American and moved to the United States, where her son joined her at the age of 15.

After a period at art school, the young Eric Knight entered journalism, first as a feature writer and then as a film critic after serving with American forces during the First World War. It was as a journalist that Mr Knight returned to his native land in the 1930s to write a report for the New York-based Saturday Evening Review on conditions in Britain during the Depression.

According to the Lassie legend, the reporter noted that people in North Yorkshire were so poor they were forced to sell their possessions for money to buy food. He was particularly struck by stories of families who sold their dogs for a few meagre rations.

The accuracy of such claims is uncertain but in 1938 a short story appeared in the Saturday Evening Review telling the story of Greenhall, a fictional Yorkshire village where "of all places in the world, it is here that the dog is really king". In the story, the hard-pressed Carraclough family, bedevilled by debts and unemployment, is forced to sell the collie, the beloved pet of the younger son, Joe, to the Duke of Rudling, who takes the dog 500 miles north to his country seat in the Scottish highlands.

The homesick animal bolts and after a journey in which she confronts villains and enlists the help of kindly strangers, makes her way home to be reunited with Joe in time for Christmas.

The writer rapidly discovered a talent for the lachrymose narrative. His widow, Jere, said: "At the end of each day, when Eric was writing it, he'd always read what he'd written to his daughter, Betty, and to me. And we'd sit there, with tears rolling down our faces over the sad parts, saying, 'You can't do that'."

The newspaper serial was so popular that Mr Knight, who based his lead character on his own faithful collie, Toots, was approached by a New York publisher to extend the tear-jerking tale into a novel, and two years later Lassie Come Home hit the bookstores. The success of the novel, which has been published in 25 languages, caught the eye of Hollywood moguls and MGM emerged as the successful bidder for the film rights in 1942 after paying $10,000 (£5,400).

Featuring an unknown child actor called Elizabeth Taylor, and a male collie called Pal selected from 1,500 hopefuls, the film attempted to remain faithful to

the novel by being set in Britain. Among its more immortal lines is the moment when Joe is told by his mother that he will never see his dog again: "You might as well know it right off. Lassie won't be meeting you at school. She's been sold."

The fact that the production was filmed in California did little to put off audiences or studio moguls. When he was shown the first version of Lassie Come Home, Louis B Mayer, the co-founder of MGM, is reputed to have wept. What was beyond doubt was his verdict on the 1943 film's canine protagonist: "A star is born."

Ace Collins, the official Lassie biographer, said: "In 1943, millions were fighting for their lives and people drew a lot of inspiration from the story of the dog that overcame hardship and came home. It was a metaphor that offered hope in difficult times."

On its opening weekend the film took $3m, and MGM began churning out sequels. Seven movies later, the franchise had earned the studio $285m, making Lassie the most lucrative animal star in cinema history.

When MGM tired of dog epics in the early 1950s, it sold the rights back to Rudd Weatherwax, the dog trainer who found Pal or "Lassie I", who in turn became involved with the CBC television series that went on to run for 675 half-hour episodes. For 17 years from the first programme in 1954, Lassie won the ratings war every Sunday night.

It was a runaway success from which Eric Knight never benefited. While serving as a major in the US Army, the red-haired Yorkshireman was killed when the plane in which he was flying crashed into the jungle of Dutch Guyana, now Surinam.

The crash was shrouded in mystery amid reports that it was on a secret mission to North Africa, laden with money and coded documents for British forces. It is a tale of derring-do which would doubtless chime with modern fans of Lassie, who in one of her many cinematic guises was once parachuted into battle against the Nazis.

The makers of the latest film, which has been written and is being directed by Charles Sturridge - who made the acclaimed Brideshead Revisited series - have pledged to remain faithful to the original plot, if not its location.

The production, a collaboration between Dublin-based Element Films, Mr Sturridge's own production house and the New York-based company Classic Media, which owns the rights to Lassie, had originally been due to shoot in Scotland and North Yorkshire. Speaking before filming was switched to Ireland and the Isle of Man, Mr Sturridge, whose recent work has included Shackleton and Longitude, said: "I come from a generation who grew up thinking it was an American TV series. I had no idea there was an original Lassie story set in Scotland. I thought there was a story which would make a great film, particularly because it's a story set in a great landscape."

The decision to change locations was taken because of tax breaks offered by the Irish and Manx governments as well as what one producer described as "jitters" about British tax policy, which has been criticised for driving a series of high-profile Hollywood productions away.

But while the makers have been forced to compromise on the setting, there has been no scrimping on recruiting the film's star performers. Alongside the likes of O'Toole and Oscar-nominated Samantha Morton, there will be not one but three dogs playing Lassie, largely to conform with animal welfare rules.

Producers declined to elaborate on claims that at least one of the dogs is a ninth-generation descendant of Lassie I. Two of the new Lassies are related, while the third, already "remarkably similar" to its co-stars, will be made up to be virtually indistinguishable.

Eric Knight would probably have been indifferent to such painstaking care to recreate his much-loved creation. As a writer, he had aspirations beyond tales of canine bravery.

As Ace Collins put it: "He always wanted to write the great American novel. He thought he had just written a dog story."

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