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Article 3

Top Dog in Hollywood

by Helen Colton

New York Times, February 27, 1949, page SM20

Number one tune in the hit parade at the Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Studios in Culver City, Calif., these days is "I Love a Lassie," dedicated, of course, to their remarkable collie star, Lassie.  In the scant half-dozen years since she's been top dog and with only four films released -- "Hills of Home" is the current one -- Lassie has so woven herself into the country's warp and woof-woof that collies have risen from twelfth to third place in popularity among pure-bred pets in American households.

Lassie is remarkable not only to MGM but to the whole film industry.  Her photograph appears on the screen ahead of the titles of her films.  A Pulitzer Prize novelist, Marrjorie Kinnan Rawlings, has tailored a screen story, "The Sun Comes Up," to her talents.  By beauty standards, Lassie's too fat (80 pounds), to [sic] tall (26 inches), her face is too wide and her upper jaw sticks out too far over her lower one, and yet she is loved for her looks.

The parent of fifty children and grandparent of six, she still retains her youthful allure.  Despite having had six mates, she has no morals clause in her contract.  She has two stand-ins, has never been photographed in anything but Technicolor, takes a bath only once every three months.  In fact, "she" is really a he.  What other star can make these claims?

Lassie started life on June 8, 1941, a pup named Pal belonging to a family in North Hollywood of whom all trace has been lost.  He seemed to be a smart little dog, but early in his youth he began to exhibit neurotic tendencies.  Every time he heard a motorcycle or automobile he would bark frenziedly and run out onto the busy highway to chase it, usually followed by the family's youngster.

Fearful for his child's safety, Pal's master asked a dog trainer to break the pup of this bad habit.  But Pal was too smart to take the training.  He had a D.I.Q. far beyond that of the average dog, and he couldn't see anything in it for him -- all this lying down, sitting up and heeling was just to keep him from the fun of running after cars.  So a weke later the trainer brought him back, having given him up as a hopeless student.

However, the dg's owner, having had a delightfully bark-less week, asked the trainer to keep the pup in exchange for the tutoring bill.  The trainer, in turn, handed Pal over as payment for a $10 debt to Rudd Weatherwax, a leading trainer of movie dogs.  The pup, sick with mange and distemper, was no bargain.  His golden-white-and-black coat was thin and dull.  He still chased motorcycles.  And he refused to respond to such ABC's of dog education as "Sit.," "Lie down" and "Heel."

Patiently Rudd nursed the dog back to health.  His veterinarian gave Pal weekly inoculations against distemper.  And then, all of a sudden, the smart pup realized that cooperating with his owner was worth his while.  Affection, good food and medical care had begun to tell. But so had the drain on Rudd's finances.

At that time, the agreement between the Animal Handlers and Trainers Association and the movie companies, setting minimum daily fees of $15 for a pure-bred dog, $10 for a cross-breed, acting as "dress extras," and $25 for a trained dog responding to simple commands, had not yet gone into effect.  A studio paid a dog man whatever it could bargain him down to.  Unless an animal worked occasionally, it was a losing proposition to house, feed, and doctor him.  As there were no calls for collies, Rudd sent Pal to a friend's ranch.

While Pal was happily living the life of Nature Dog, MGM decided to film Eric Knight's poignant story, "Lassie Come-Home," then a best seller among children's books.  Rudd Weatherwax was then working at Metro, doubling a police dog he woned in stunts for a dog making a "b" film there.  When he heard the studio was seeking a collie, he rushed to the ranch for Pal, who was a mess, his coat matted and burred, his ruff dirty and worn.

For weeks Rudd groomed and educated the collie, Arden-izing and Rubenstein-ing him down to his dewclaws.  He found Pal an increasingly willing and patient pupil.  When Rudd showed the dandified dog to Sam Marx and Fred Wilcox, producer and director of the lassie film, they were so overwhelmed by the Beau Brummel and his bag of tricks they agreed to give him a screen test, even though they had already bought a prize-winning collie at a San Francisco dog show to play the part.

One day soon after, the executives sat in a projection room and ran off two tests, one of the San Francisco importation, the other of Pal.  By that afternoon, Lou Dorn, Pal's agent, was adding up his future commissions on Lassie's (nee Pal's) five-year contract.

This contract, incidentally, which has twice been renewed at a higher salary and still has three years to go, is said to be exceeded in thickness, in all Hollywood, only by the sixty-nine-page legal umbilical cord through which Humphrey Bogart receives his weekly nourishment from the Warner Brothers.  It is verboten to reveal the clauses or salary in Lassie's pact, on the grounds it may make some two-footed thespians envious and unhappy, but rumor has it that  The Bark gets around $1000 a week for both film and radio work.

The star's day begins around 6 A.M., when he and his 3-year-old son, Laddie, his No. 1 stand-in and heir apparent, are let out of the back door of Weatherwax's home on Laurel Canyon Boulevard at Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley, to romp in the huge enclosed yard for a half-hour.  Later, the dogs breakfast on three cups of milk and a raw egg apiece.  At 8 o'clock, they pile into the station wagon for the twenty-mile drive to the studio, where they are due at 8:30.

Laddie, under the training of Frank Inn, Rudd's assistant, goes right to work standing-in while lights and camera are adjusted, and rehearsing with the actors who must judge their timing and their positions so as not to obscure the dog from the camera's vision.

Lassie retires to his dressing room, a roofless clapboard cubicle with a cot and a spindly-legged dressing table, and dozes until a stagehand knocks and calls, "one minute" -- whereupon Rudd walks Lassie out attached to a leash.  One or two quick rehearsals now for Lassie's benefit, two or three short takes with the cameras rolling, and Lassie is free to doze some more until the grip men, electricians and camera men rearrange the furniture, lights and cameras for the next set-up.

At lunch time, the two dogs are locked in the station wagon while Rudd and Frank Inn grab a quick bite.  Afterward, they drive over to the big greensward on Lot 2 where the dogs play for twenty minutes.  Then back to the set until 6.  If, at the end of the day, Lassie has put in two full hours of acting, it's a lot, his soft life aided by the fact he's a Lass whose heir isn't delicate.  Rudd won't let the star, now middle-aged as dogs go, exert himself unduly; and so Laddie, four years younger and with more stamina, usually puts in a tougher day, particularly when he doubles for his Dad in a stunt light jumping from a burning house, as he did in "The Sun Comes Up."

Even Laddie isn't overworked, though.  If he's had a hard morning, Frank Weatherwax, Rudd's older brother and partner, brings Major, another stand-in and double, over after lunch and drives Laddie home to rest.

Rudd gets the script of each Lassie film about six weeks before shooting starts.  If it requires any special feat, he teaches it to Lassie at home.  For "Hills of Home," for instance, he rigged up metal parallel bars and taught Lassie to tread them gingerly, for scenes in which the dog had to cross a broken bridge.  For "Son of Lassie," in which the dog had to brave snipers, bombings and hand grenades, Rudd walked around the house shooting a toy cap pistol to accustom Lassie to the sudden crackle of firearms.

By now, after six pictures, most of the deeds Lassie is called upon to perform are part of his repertoire.  Long ago he completed his basic training in how to crawl, yawn, dig, lie down, eat, drink, open a door, jump a hurdle, play dead, climb, scratch and escape from a leash, on command.

Lassie never becomes flustered when bulbs explode, guns shoot or a spotlight happens to crash on the set.  He learns new lessons quickly and doesn't forget old ones.  So keen is his comprehension that he knows the difference between actually drinking and pretending to drink.  In a recent scene, he had to drink vegetable broth.  Rudd doesn't want Lassie to bloat himself between meals, and ordered him to lap the liquid noisily but not to drink any.  The action was photographed several times, and when the shooting was finished, the bowl was still as full as when it was first placed before Lassie.

While scenes are being shot, Rudd literally sweats out his responsibility as the dog's trainer.  Just out of camera range, he tensely gestures and whispers commands to Lassie.  Animal actors take instructions only when they are facing their masters; which means Rudd must crawl under chairs, poke his head through windows or, as in "The Sun Comes Up," have a hole drilled in a living room wall, so Lassie can always see his face.

Whenever Lassie scratches low on a door, Rudd is on his knees on the other side of it, whispering into the crack between them, "Come and get it, come and get it" -- "it" being a dog biscuit.  When Lassie seems to be gazing adoringly at Edmund Gwenn, or Jeanette MacDonald, he's really gazing adoringly at Rudd's left pants pocket, which holds pieces of biscuit, his reward for a scene well-played.

To get Lassie to open a door, Rudd covers the door-knob with a slit-open rubber ball, then commands him to "Get the ball."  When Lassie stretches his full length up on a door, seemingly wanting out, he's actually playing with his master, who's on the catwalk above him, dangling a cord to which is tied a net rag Lassie plays with at home.

Early in his career, Lassie didn't know how to kiss.  To entice him into licking Roddy McDowell's [sic] cheek, they had first to smear it with ice cream sent over from the commissary.  Lassie has since learned to enjoy some of man's customs.  He now kisses without any such inducement.

Lassie's skills are due to his environment.  The intelligence with which he acquires these skills is due to heredity.  There's no record of his parentage, but Rudd thinks he may be a product of the champion collie line bred by the late Albert Payson Terhune.

In any case, Lassie is now the most valuable canine property in the world, and Rudd won't entrust him to the kennels in the rear of his own home which house fifty other dogs he and his brother, Frank, use in movie work.  Lassie and Laddie live right in the house (bought with the former's earnings) with Rudd, his wife, Mae Esther, and their children, Jack, 19, Joanne, 16, and Robert, 7, the latter a V.I.P. among his schoolmates because he's related to the famous collie.

Fortunately, Mrs. Weatherwax is a homebody.  Otherwise she might easily resent the time and attention her husband gives to the star and his stand-in.  After a long day at the studio, Rudd must still devote his evenings to them.  First, he serves them dinner, two pounds of meat and an occasional pint of cottage cheese each.  Then he takes them on a two-hour, five-mile walk to they'll keep trim and fit.  And, finally, he massages and brushes their lustrous coats, using a nylon hair brush.

By then, Rudd can just about make it to his room and flop into bed.  Lassie is still chipper enough to stand at the side of Rudd's bed and be patted and hugged, a nightly ritual, before he retires to his own bed, a sofa in the glassed-in patio.

Most of the actors in Lassie's pictures have great admiration for the dog's intelligence but, like the little boy whose book told him more about penguins than he cared to know, they get more of Lassie in their scenes than they care to have.  They feel that dogs, like babies, should be neither screened nor heard.  They're scene-stealers.  Some Lassie co-stars have been known to mutter into their beers over the dog's life they think they lead.  Jeanette MacDonald's utterances, when told the studio planned to team her and Lassie, were not exactly ones of joy.

On the other hand Edmund Gwenn, Lassie's most frequent co-star, seems to have genuine affection for the dog, to whom he gives a "well done" pay after each take, and with whom he shows monumental patience.  When an otherwise perfect scene must be reshot because Lassie has grasped Gwenn's right hand, instead of his left, the actor will play the scene time and time again until the dog does it right.  Indeed, patience is the keynote of success in working with animal actors.  The trainers have it, of course, and so do a few actors, like Gwenn, and a director like Richard Thorpe, who has done the dog's last two films.  Fred Wilcox had it but now, having earned his Croix de Grrr, he has thankfully gone to purely biped direction jobs.

What, besides a beautiful tri-color coat, soulful brown eyes and great intelligence, has Lassie got that makes the public go for him?  Dr. Lucien Warner, of Claremont (California) Men's College, an authority on animal psychology, says Lassie's screen character has the courage, loyalty and dependability we would like to find in our fellow man and too often don't.  Uncertain of the responses of our fellow man, we make of lassie a substitute who represents a constant in a changing, insecure world.

Whatever the psychological basis for Lassie's appeal, the public has certainly taken him to its heart.  Ministers, school teachers and club leaders have lauded his good character in sermons and lessons.  When Lassie limped in a scene, thousands of moviegoers wrote furious letters castigating the studio.  All of them were assured the limp came from a piece of crewing gum under a paw, and, besides, there's always an SPCA man on the set to guarantee kindness to the dog.  So man fans of Lassie try to see him personally on Sundays that Rudd has been forced to remove his listing from the phone book.

Due to Lassie's enormous global following, the book, "Lassie Come-Home," has been translated into ten languages and has remained a top seller in juvenile literature since it was published in July 1940.  Moreover, its publisher reports, it is now official reading matter in virtually every public-school system in the United States."

Dog owners who listen to Lassie's radio show over 163 stations of the NBC network every Saturday afternoon apparently understand every syllable when "Lassie Speaks for Red Heart," his dog-food sponsor, because the packer of the product says its sales have nearly doubled since Lassie began to talk about his diet.

How long is such devotion apt to last?  That depends, probably, on the stories the studio puts Lassie into.  Audiences always like fine animal actors, but not in the same old plot.  Rin-Tin-Tin faded when people tired of the sameness of his pictures.  Robert Sisk, Lassie's current producer, realizes this, of course.  His greatest problem is finding suitable vehicles, a job in which the MGM story department is constantly engaged.

Less of a problem than stories is a successor when Lassie takes his final bow-wow.  As long as there is a Rudd Weatherwax, there can be a Lassie.  Laddie is already trained to carry on the family name.  As further insurance, Lassie's mates, who get premarital health examinations, are eugenically selected on the basis of: "Is this female collie apt to produce an offspring that looks like Lassie, with a white blaze down its forehead?"

Meanwhile, Lassie the First, who's nearing 8 and whose life expectancy is fifteen years, promises to reign for a good long while.  Probably 1949's profits on The Bark's next film, "Highland Lassie," as on all his previous films, will have the Metro-Goldwyn-Moguls doing a Highland flight -- aye -- to the tune of "I Love a Lassie."  Let Leo the Lion indulge himself in Ars Gratia Artis.  From Lassie they get Pix Gratia Mazuma.

HELEN COLTON is a free lance who has contributed articles to this newspaper from Hollywood for the past five years on a variety of subjects.

1949 New York Times

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