Saturday, February 14, 2009

The TCM Movie Morlocks Blog: "Lassie Doesn't Give Interviews"

No interviews, please. That’s always been one of the blessings of animals in movies. These stoic creatures don’t complain and they don’t explain in public, no matter how much we anthropomorphize their reactions to the world. Nor do they ever tell us their views on life, love or politics. They just are, enduring our endless attempts to project onto them our longing to understand and bridge the gulf that inevitably lies between us.
Since the upcoming Oscar award ceremony has yet to feature a Best Animal Actor Award, I started to muse about which of the warm blooded mammals found in the movies who’ve beguiled me over the years might be a prime candidate for an Oscar–if they gave one. There are horses, (Flicka, Trigger, and Black Beauty, for instance), cats, (Thomasina, Pyewacket, Rhubarb), pigs, (Babe, Wilbur), lions, sheep, pumas, deer, and even wild boars to choose from, ( the latter make great villains, as anyone who’s seen Home From the Hill and The Yearling will testify).

Since a merger between the PATSY Awards and those given by AMPAS each year is highly unlikely, I’d like to make a case for at least one Academy Award worthy creature whose charismatic presence in the popular imagination has continued to this day. (The PATSYs are the Picture Animal Top Star of the Year given by the American Humane Association, an award created to prevent animal cruelty on movie sets after a notorious accident on the set of Jesse James (1939) finally got the public’s attention about the treatment of animals during filming).

There’s a story told that Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM from 1924 to 1951, when asked what makes a good story, would claim that only three emotions were important. To illustrate this, he’d tap his forehead, heart and genitals. Slight vulgarity aside, this evening, (2/11/09) if you watch Lassie Come Home (1943) at 10pm on TCM, you may give a moment’s thought to the Technicolor cinematography of lensman Leonard Smith. The cinematographer, who also brought color to animal stories in National Velvet and The Yearling,  was honored with an Academy Award nomination when this first Lassie movie was released. You may also conclude that this movie manipulates at least two out of the three essential Mayer emotions and, over 70 years after it was first published as a short story in The Saturday Evening Post in Deccember, 1938, it still tugs at something essential in some of us. If I had my way, an Academy Award might have been forged just for the expressive dog who played Lassie, surrounded by the skilled humans who were her supporting cast, (particularly the exceptionally sensitive acting of  Roddy McDowall and Edmund Gwenn–not to mention Rudd Weatherwax, the trainer of the dog, Pal, who played the leading role). Recently, in wondering why no one at AMPAS ever gave Lassie an Oscar, I reviewed a few of the best of the Lassie movies from MGM’s seven features made between 1943 and 1951...More on TCM's Movie Morlocks Blog


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