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Home / Art, Culture, Literature / BARKING IN TUNE The Sherman Brothers Sing-a-Long with Lassie: The Magic of Lassie (1978)

BARKING IN TUNE The Sherman Brothers Sing-a-Long with Lassie: The Magic of Lassie (1978)

The Magic of Lassie is the first Lassie film in almost three decades, and although it doesn’t have the tender charm and elegance of the original masterpiece Lassie Come Home (1943) or later fare such as The Courage of Lassie (1946) and Hills of Home (1948) it does deliver a Lassie for the seventies: here is a pooch that teaches us that greed turns people corrupt and immoral and that materialism is completely unimportant. She reminds us that companionship, friendship, unconditional love and unity are the things that matter the most. This is of course not entirely an exclusive seventies filmic ethos, movies such as National Velvet (1944), Old Yeller (1957) and Fearless Fagan (1952) have taught us that the devotion and love shared between a human being and an animal is the most nourishing and fulfilling and can happily exist outside of a desire to selfishly succeed or make a fortune. The Magic of Lassie harkens back to those times – those times that delivered the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and her beloved thoroughbred, the loyal golden retriever who unfortunately contracted rabies and the full grown lion who joins Carleton Carpenter on his induction into the US Army – and the opening number is a testament to this. It suggests that “we need that ole home town feelin’ again” – and this is what the musical tries to do. It attempts to bring back family entertainment untainted by cynicism and grit. But this proves to be an incredibly tricky task by 1978.

The film was of course released at a time where musicals were angry, rebellious, outrageous and completely dark and edgy, however this is one that attempts to deliver a serene, peaceful and joyous excursion while paying tribute to simpler times. But this does not mean that the film is without its underlying melancholy and deep sorrowful undertones. After all, it is a Lassie picture, and these films were capable of being incredibly maudlin and emotionally stirring, but just not as bleakly painted as this seventies doozy. And bleak The Magic of Lassie most certainly is. There are moments in the film that are painted with such palpable dense sombre tones that at times you really wish it lived up to its original promise it delivered in its opening number – you are invited to this halcyon movie musical that is cherry and bright and you wish it would stay that way, because when the film kicks into gear with the idea of Lassie having to leave her happy life at a vineyard to be taken in by a materialistic property investor (coded: bad guy), you’re left with a quietly morose plot, when what you kind of want to be settling in for is a nostalgic critter-flick. Being greeted by Hollywood’s legendary gravelly voiced man-for-all-seasons James Stewart, who sings this promise of good old fashioned entertainment early on, doesn’t help.

The film was of course released at a time where musicals were angry, rebellious, outrageous and completely dark and edgy, however this is one that attempts to deliver a serene, peaceful and joyous excursion while paying tribute to simpler times.

Stewart, of course an MGM contract player back in the day where the studio made their major contribution to the realm of cinema with their lavish (and low-key) musicals, was assigned to do Born To Dance in 1936 which marked the first and last time he ever sung on screen, that is until 1978 with The Magic of Lassie, which would be the only ever other time. Stewart looks incredibly tired in this film; there are moments where the wonderful old trooper looks as though he is just going through the numbers. However, there are scenes that truly give him the opportunity to perform. One such case is where he asserts his devotion to Lassie and becomes emotionally distressed at the thought of this beloved pooch having to go along with the likes of the investor who wishes to also purchase his family estate. Sadly, when the film opened to terrible box office, James Stewart went into semi-retirement, completely disheartened by the lack of interest in his Lassie vehicle.

Although Lassie and her cinematic adventures were namely a product of the forties, the seventies and early eighties was a period obsessed with dog movies – a dogsploitation craze was born. Dozens of films featuring canine stars popped out of nowhere: some horror films, some crime-centric cinema and some family adventure movies. Some of these films were either overtly saccharine or genuinely moving, while others were completely bizarre or wacky high concept outings. Benji (1974), which featured a lovely song sung by Charlie Rich called “I Feel Love”, was a massive success. The whole world fell in love with the terrier with the heart of gold and that sweet little face that could melt even the toughest of audiences. Benji (as played by the terrier cross Mr. Higgins and then later played by his daughter Benjean for later movies) was the dog for seventies audiences and sadly The Magic of Lassie just didn’t have the same appeal as the other dog movies to come out of the period. Mooch Goes to Hollywood (1971) (an extremely entertaining oddity starring the likes of Vincent Price and narrated by Zsa Zsa Gabor), horror films such as Dogs (1976), The Pack (1977) and Cujo (1983) which were incredible achievements and exceptionally successful, the Hanna-Barbera produced C.H.O.M.P.S (1979), Michael Winner’s star-studded tip-of-the-hat to the golden age of cinema Won Ton Ton, The Dog That Saved Hollywood (1976) and so forth were much loved cult favorites, while Benji (and some other woofers) reigned supreme in both film and television leaving the once world famous Lassie lagging behind.

But The Magic of Lassie does have some things going for it. Within the fabric of its depressing fatigue, the film is touching and pits megalomaniac industrial investors against the sweet connection shared between Lassie and her family headed by James Stewart with nuance and poignancy. Written by the fabulous Sherman Brothers who truly made a massive contribution to seventies movie musicals (both brilliant and bland) starting with Disney’s terrific Bedknobs and Broomsticks in 1971 and the surprisingly flat and uninspired The Aristocats in 1970 and then ending here for the decade, the film has a musicality in its plotting and its pace: but only when Lassie herself is on screen.

Screenwriter Jean Hollaway fine tunes the piece and helps in it moving steadily but unfortunately the film never does anything to involve us in the drama, the chase and the misadventure. Nor is the script strong enough to gradually build a concrete tension, and in all honesty there is a lot of room for this underdeveloped conflict. The movie crawls along rather than sprints, and when the stakes are high they come far too late for any of us to care. However, because this is a Lassie movie, we want her to reunite with her rightful family, but its only when the dog is on that our attention pricks up – and for some bizarre reason, she doesn’t feature in the film nearly enough.  This is a problem especially when there are some inspired lines that help in establishing the Lassie of this picture. Lassie’s astute perception is something that is demonstrated early on – she is weary of strangers crossing through her garden and when an undesirable comes through the plains only to have Lassie growl at him, her master, little Christopher (Michael Sharrett) asks his grandfather (James Stewart) “Why doesn’t Lassie like him?”. Stewart responds “Well he’s not very likeable”. In this film, good people are associated with loveable critters like Lassie, and this is a plot device that could have been developed further and injected throughout the script to give us a sense of what makes a good person a good person: which is entirely what Lassie does for her audience. She helps us understand honesty and compassion. The film also uses the very seventies narrative trappings of commerce over domestic comfort and union and it employs rather dark sensibilities most notably in the monologue delivered by Stewart who tells the story of Lassie’s birth. He explains that she came to him and his family when his son and his wife were killed in an accident; he says “It was like life in the midst of death”. The film also sprinkles some holy intervention as Stewart goes on to say: “She came from God. She needed us and we needed her.” This could be laughable, but when Stewart desperately pleads to the investor to not take Lassie, we feel his anguish and his deep sorrow and believe every word. The Lassie of the seventies could also be as much of a Christ figure as her counterparts in the dragon in Pete’s Dragon and Angela Lansbury in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, she is a dog who reminds us that superficial wants are completely unimportant, and that love and understanding is what truly matters. This of course comes up in earlier incarnations of the Lassie franchise as well as the television series, but here it is most palpable because the film is so out of its element in a decade marked by the excesses of glam-rock, the apathy of punk and the chaos of disco.

Something incredibly frustrating about the film is that the sometimes soaring music and the sometimes inspired performances are always let down by the subdued and pasty cinematography and direction. When little Christopher cries “If Lassie isn’t going to be in this family, then I don’t want to either!” and races off with Lassie by his side, the camera clumsily cuts away and doesn’t give us time to take in that highly emotional declaration. Also, some of the songs boast lyrics that are clever and whimsical, while others plod along and don’t serve plot or character whatsoever. Most of the songs in the film act as commentary over montages involving Lassie playing with her human friends and helping out or running away and so forth. Disney’s Bambi (1942) was one of the first films to employ this technique – the unseen Greek chorus that sings about the changing of seasons and so forth – and here in The Magic of Lassie it is used as well, but obviously without as much inspired beauty and technique. The main reason behind why Walt Disney and associates thought it was a good idea to fuel Bambi with these songs was because the feature itself only consisted of about one thousand words of spoken dialogue and they felt that audiences would get restless if there were long stretches of film without any talking. So the songs serve the film narratively (the changing of seasons and in turn the growing knowledge of the Prince of the Forest) as well as commercially (audiences getting a sense of a far more wordy, therefore easier to swallow, motion picture). In The Magic of Lassie, the songs are more of a soundtrack than a full blown libretto serving plot, character and structure. But this doesn’t mean that some of the songs aren’t good, it’s just that a lot of them do nothing to enhance the film.

“Nobody’s Property” is great seventies pop that sounds like the Sherman Brothers are trying to channel Burt Bacharach whereas “There’ll Be Other Friday Nights” is a strange ballad that pops out of nowhere and bogs the film down with a great big thump. It is completely unnecessary as it comments on the blossoming “romance” shared between a young lawyer and James Stewart’s granddaughter played by Stephanie Zimbalist who looks remotely bored in this picture.

The most appealing thing about this film is its intentions of being a good old fashioned adventure movie. However, it is so laden with misery and lacklustre that it doesn’t keep up with this promise at all. Another film to suffer in the wake of the incredible success of Star Wars, The Magic of Lassie was classed as “out of touch” and “not hip”, therefore it flopped at the box office and made James Stewart re-consider acting as a career in his twilight years. However, Stewart is not alone in MGM stars popping up in this mess of a movie. Alice Faye makes an appearance as a waitress singing along to Pat Boone who croons “A Rose Is Not A Rose”. Instead of being charming, it is a little bit cringe worthy – after all, here is an actress from such marvellous movies such as Sing Baby Sing (1936), The Rose of Washington Square (1939) and The Gang’s All Here (1941) wasted in a bit role in this out of step not-so-thrilling adventure flick. One of Faye’s contemporaries from the golden age of the Hollywood movie musical June Allyson would take on a remarkably different role than what she was known for in another dog-centric 1977 film with They Only Kill Their Masters. Along for the ride with Stewart and Faye is the mugging and maniacal Mickey Rooney who reunites with his old MGM alumni in the form of a collie named Lassie.

As far as the young cast go, it is headed by Michael Sharrett as Christopher. Once again, the seventies “latchkey” kid is embodied in this little boy who becomes a runaway, in search for Lassie. The sequence where he tries to find a truck heading to Colorado which is where Lassie has supposedly been taken is played out in a menacing manner to begin with and then completely turns into an ill-staged chase sequence where a truck driver races after the kid who clasps onto a sandwich made for him from Alice Faye. This is what the film does when Lassie is off screen. It is uneventful and tedious. We want Lassie back onscreen, because after all, the actors who aren’t James Stewart, Alice Faye or Mickey Rooney aren’t at all interesting. The other thing that lets the film down is that Lassie herself doesn’t get enough to do, there isn’t enough adventure in the film involving her. When she meets The Mike Curb Congregation, a bunch of banjo playing minstrels, in the park there is a sense of something fun and entertaining about to happen, but instead the film cuts to these hyper-happy left-over vaudevillians performing on stage at some country county fare. This is where the film then introduces opportunist characters who want to kidnap Lassie to make big bucks from her from a reward they found. Then a fire starts and it’s up to Lassie to put it out. She even rescues a kitten from the inferno! So all these incredible feats happen far too late in the movie. By this time the film has been so slow and stressed with mundane happenings that it doesn’t really matter that Lassie is performing these incredible stunts. Then what does the director do? Doesn’t stay on Lassie and her heroic efforts, instead cuts to Stewart and company preparing for a Thanksgiving dinner.

However, it’s during the Thanksgiving dinner that we get the moment that we’ve all been waiting for and the moment that makes the entire film worth sitting through. As James Stewart leads his family in prayer, saying thanks for all the good gifts they have been blessed with, we hear a distant barking. As the barking gets closer, James Stewart lifts his head and all seems right in the world. Along comes the lovely Lassie racing over the hillside, while a rapturous little Christopher runs towards her. Boy and dog are reunited and this is that magic of Lassie. The union of child and beast, the innocence and simple joy shared between two loving friends is what makes The Magic of Lassie worthwhile and with the gentle vocal stylings of Debby Boone singing the Academy Award nominated number “When You’re Loved”, there seems to be an excuse for all the misdirected and mishandled previous happenings. James Stewart, with tears in his eyes, watching his grandson and Lassie embrace and play in the middle of a lush green field, sums up the essence of the lasting legacy of dog-centric movies: unconditional love reigns supreme, goodness triumphs over greed, tenderness hits home and the power of the pooch is what makes all the worry through a day’s worth woes worthwhile.

About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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