Of Dogs and Mirkins.
Meet the most successful Drag Queen family in Hollywood history. Wherein George reports the true story of this trend-setting superstar and his celebrity offspring. And sort of answers the question, can a canine nepo-baby succeed?
Of course, I'm talking about Pal—the male pooch that broke hearts across America and the world as the female dog, Lassie.
Once upon a time, there was a stunt dog named Pal. For some reason, in the Hollywood of the 1930s, Pal was a common name for dogs. Hell, there was even cowboy Tim McCoy's horse Pal. This is not to confuse all the part-time cinephiles who already know that The Little Rascal's pit bull pup Pete was actually named Pal. He may have been called Pete on the set, but he has his checks written to Pal, The Wonder Dog. No, this Pal was a rough-coated Collie.
Pal was one of six pups born at Cherry Osborne's Glamis Kennels in North Hollywood. His birthday was June 4, 1940. Hey, that's just around the corner! I hope you have a present for your favorite dog in celebration. He was sired by show champion Red Brucie of Glamis, and his mom was Bright Bauble of Glamis, another champion show dog. These show dog names are ridiculous. Legend has it that Pal's family lineage dates back to the nineteenth century in England. His great, great, great, great, etc, grandpa was Britain's first great Collie, "Old Cockie." Imagine calling that dog in for dinner? "Cockie! Cockie! " Your neighbors might offer you a box of baby wipes.
Unfortunately, with Pal's large eyes and the white blaze on his forehead, he was not of the highest standards of the day and was sold off as a pet. It's better than a burlap sack and a bunch of rocks at the bottom of the Pacific. These animal breeders are a cold lot. An animal trainer, Howard Peck, purchased him for a couple of bucks, a nickel, and a sandwich. By the time Pal was eight months old, he barely knew any tricks besides sit. But he did excel in barking. Barking all the time. With the neighbors complaining, Howard brought Pal to expert Hollywood Animal trainer Rudd Weatherwax to get Pal to "knock it off with the barking, already!" While Howard was looking for a trainer, Pal developed another potentially dangerous habit of chasing motorcycles.
Note #1: Ruddle Bird Weatherwax (Man, what kind of drugs was his mother on after she gave birth?) was called Rudd by everybody-That's a lot better than Ruddle! (Not to be confused with the Rutles and their mockumentary, All You Need Is Cash. Brought to us through Monty Python's Eric Idle, Gary Weis SNL's first staff filmmaker and Music Video groundbreaker (Paul Simon's You Can Call Me Al, The Bangle's Walk Like An Egyptian, and George Harison's I've Got My Mind Set On You,) Python collaborator and Bonzo Dog Band's main man Neil Innes, and Saturday Night Live's producer Lorne Michaels.)
But I digress. Rudd trained a bunch of famous animals, sometimes with his brother Frank, including Toto and Spike, the star of Old Yeller. He was related by Marriage to Ruby Keeler, and his nephew, Kenneth Weatherwax, played Pugsly in the original Adams Family television show. "Cara Mia, en guarde!"
Now back to our feature presentation. Rudd worked with the dog and got Pal to stop barking. He failed to break Pal of his motorcycle-chasing habit. "It's the roar of the engine and the two wheels. I need the rush, man!" Howard Peck was disappointed and gave the dog to Weatherwax in exchange for the training fee. Weatherwax, in turn, gave the dog to some rube. But when he learned that Eric Knight's 1940 novel, Lassie Come-Home - an expanded version of his Saturday Evening Post short story- was being considered a feature film by MGM, Weatherwax sensed Pal was just the dog to do it. The Rube turned out to be smarter than he looked and charged Rudd ten bucks to repurchase Pal. If we adjust it for inflation, it's $216.69. Still a bargain, but pricey for a dog back then. Especially compared to what Howard Peck paid for him. (My last word on Howard Peck, when the Lassie Gravy train left the station, Peck sued, claiming he owned Pal and demanded his immediate return. The Judge disagreed and dismissed the case with prejudice. What a weasel!)
MGM's Lassie Come Home was supposed to be a low-budget, black-and-white film for kids. Pal was among the over 1,500 dogs who auditioned for the title role but was rejected because he was a boy dog. Also, the film's animal expert felt Pal's eyes were too big, his head was too flat, and, ugh, that white blaze right down the middle of his forehead, "So Ugly!" A prize-winning show collie (name withheld for privacy reasons) was hired to play the title character. Weatherwax got hired to work with the star, and Pal was hired as her main stunt double.
In the middle of production filming, there was massive flooding from melt-off in the high country of the Sierra Nevada mountains and the San Joaquin River, which irrigates most of central California's rich farmland. Some genius thought shooting a scene of Lassie swimming across the raging river would be awesome. "It would be way shredded, dude!" The female Collie (you're not getting her name from me) was still in training, and when they tried to get her into the water, she demurred. According to her lawyer's statement, "Getting into the raging flood waters would be too dangerous and potentially life-threatening to my client."
Of course, Rudd Weatherwax was on the set with Pal to get him used to the on-set goings-on. He offered to have Pal perform the scene. The sequence required five different set-ups where Pal swims across the river, drags himself out, and lays down exhausted without shaking the water off his coat. He attempts to crawl while lying on his side and finally lays motionless, wholly spent. Pal performed exceptionally well. The scene was completed in just one take. In contemporaneous interviews, Weatherwax said director Fred M. Wilcox (Forbidden Planet) was so impressed with Pal during the sequence that he had "tears in his eyes." In response, producers released the female Collie from her contract and hired Pal instead.
Feminist protestors picketed the studio, complaining that she was fired unjustly for shedding too much. Picketers held signs in front of the studio's gates with slogans like, "Bitches shed!" (hey, don't blame me, I don't call them that, the AKC does.) In truth, the unnamed female Collie came from back east, where dogs usually shed their winter coats in the spring. While most dogs in California do not tend to develop a heavy winter coat because of the warmer climate. (I'm sorry I made that last bit up. The protest bit, not the AKC bit, nor the climate thing.) MGM executives were so impressed with Pal's performance that they upgraded the production to an "A" film with full advertising support and the best public relations people. The big and expensive decision was made at the highest level at MGM. Louis B.Mayer himself green-lit the reshoot and the entire movie in Technicolor. This was huge.
They previously shot with the female dog for six weeks but were falling behind on the schedule. With Pal playing Lassie, the production went more smoothly, and they finished it on time. Pal seemed to enjoy making the film and rarely required multiple takes. As a bonus, he did his own stunts. (The rumor was that Pal was so enamored with acting he gave up chasing motorcycles. Another unsubstantiated story is that after production wrapped on Lassie Come Home, Pal went to New York City to study with Stella Adler and learn to be a Method Actor. But that's only a rumor I just made up.)
Note #2: As all you fellows out there realize, there's a problem here. Pal is a boy, so the make-up and hair stylist devised a way to create a Mirkin for Pal. A little history here, a Mirkin is a hairpiece to be worn, er, um, over a lady's privates. In the 19th century, prostitution was not acceptable but very prevalent. And as you may know, that period was not the cleanest environment. This is before electricity and indoor plumbing, not to mention before the creation of the latex condom. It became part of the prostitution business, well, the bordello business, to have the ladies be clean-shaven. But modesty is a virtue, and the Mirkin was created. Think of it as a hairy G-string. The gentleman would then inspect the goods, as it were, and if there were no critters, they would make a deal.
The Mirkin is traditionally made with Beaver fur, and I won't touch where that goes with a ten-foot pole. It is also the state animal of New York. I only tell you that to get your minds out of the gutter. I know you are all curious, but here it comes: The hair people created a covering for Pal that matched his under bits hair color and attached it by tying little clumps of his hair to the piece. A kind of primitive hair extension. When Pal wasn't working on set, it could be flipped back so he could do his regular dog business. After all, a dog can't tuck it away.
Now that Pal's willie, or let's say, his bits, were hidden from view, filming proceeded quickly. He was surrounded by professional actors, who all reported that Pal or Lassie was a perfect gentleman, gentlewoman, or gentle-dog? I could improve my use of pronouns. Even in high school, I wasn't so good at pronouns. If Pal is Lassie, I will refer to Pal as she or girl. And the shoot went without a hitch.
And now the story of Lassie Come Home: Set in Yorkshire, England, Mr. and Mrs. Carraclough (I had to look that up), played by Donald Crisp and (The Bride of Frankenstein) Elsa Lancaster, are hit by hard times and forced to sell their beloved Collie, Lassie, to the rich guy up the road, the Duke of Rudling, (Dr.Watson) Nigel Bruce, who has always fancied her. The Carracloughs' son, Joe, played by Roddy McDowall, grows despondent at the loss of his canine companion.
Side Bar: Roddy McDowall's career was filled with animals. He also starred in My Friend Flicka (Second Banana to a Horse!) That Darn Cat and played two parts as a chimpanzee in the original Planet of the Apes film series. To answer your question, old Roddy played both Cornelius and Caesar in the films, and on TV, he also played the character Galen, a young and inquisitive, friendly sort of chimp. I prefer to remember something other than that series. I will not admit to ever watching it, even under torture. Roddy McDowall was also a spectacular amateur photographer.
Lassie will have nothing to do with the Duke and finds ways to escape from his kennels and return to young Joe. The Duke captures Lassie and takes her hundreds of miles away to his estate in Scotland. There, Lassie meets the Duke's granddaughter Priscilla, played by a rising star, screen legend, and shill for a perfume that continued to show her commercial years after she kicked the proverbial bucket, Elizabeth Taylor. Priscilla senses the dog's unhappiness and plots for her to escape.
Side Bar: After seeing Elizabeth Taylor in Lassie Come Home, my father, a six-year-old, became so infatuated with her loveliness that he could do little more than dream of her. If he closed his eyes, she would appear. He planned to go to Hollywood, sweep her off her feet, and marry her. His crush was so deep that he became sick. Love-sick. Ultimately, things did not work out, and he did not marry her. If he had, I'd be at the club right this minute enjoying a brandy snifter, bragging about my family's estates, and not writing my usual nonsense.
Now back to our regularly scheduled article. Once out of the pokey, Lassie sets off for a long trek to her Yorkshire home. She faces many perils along the way, dog catchers, and a violent storm. Still, she meets kind people who offer her aid and comfort, including the lady from The Lady Vanishes, who was actually a lady, Dame Mae Whitty, playing a kindly old lady. (That's four ladies! I win the Kewpie doll for most ladies in a single sentence!) By the end, when Joe has given up hope of ever seeing his beloved pupper again, the exhausted Lassie drags her weary butt to her favorite spot in the schoolyard back in Yorkshire. There, Lassie is joyfully reunited with the boy she loves.
I know. It reads a little sappy, but it is also a perfect film. It works on every level. Kind of like It's A Wonderful Life that makes you cry every time you see it. I'm not the only one who thinks so. In 1993, Lassie Come Home was selected for the United States National Film Registry in the Library of Congress as "culturally, historically, and/or aesthetically significant." It doesn't stop there! The New York Times reported that during the film's production, MGM executives previewing the dailies were said to be so moved that they ordered more Lassie scenes be added to "this wonderful motion picture." Also, in the New York Times, the first film reviewer that mattered, Bosley Crowther, reported on October 8, 1943, and praised the film like this: "It tells the story of a boy and a dog, tells it with such poignance and simple beauty that only the hardest heart can fail to be moved."
Elsewhere, it was reported that "Pal's near human attributes" was just the canine talent director Fred Wilcox sought for the title role. It's a beautifully shot film, so it comes as no surprise that Lassie Come Home was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Color. (They used to differentiate between black and white films and color films. Giving each their own Oscar.) The movie was a big hit! According to MGM, it made $2,613,000 in the US and Canada and $1,904,000 overseas, resulting in a profit of $2,249,000. If it were today, the film would have made $39,496,832. Compared to the mega films of today with their billion-dollar box office, it looks like a pittance.
In the 1940s, the average American studio made about 35 films a year. Approximately 315 American movies were released in 1943, and the total earnings for the whole shebang were around $60,000,000. (that's a per-studio average of roughly $200K at the box office for each release) So Lassie Come Home was a big film. Oh, I might have forgotten to mention that World War Two was in full swing at the same time, making its success even more remarkable.
Now many actors throughout history have worked in drag. I think Fatty Arbuckle found a way to be in drag in every one of his films. Robin Williams won the Golden Globe for his performance as Mrs. Doubtfire so it shouldn't be a big deal, and in the golden age of Hollywood, it was commonplace. Don't even talk about Great Britain. They can't keep their actors out of dresses! With Lassie's success, of course, there would be sequels to Lassie Come Home. Between 1943 and 1949, six Lassie sequels were made for release to the cinema, starting with Lassie Jr. (Pal in Drag). In 1948-1950 Pal barked as effeminately as he could on the Lassie radio program. MGM's last Lassie picture, her seventh for the studio, The Painted Hills, was released in 1951. MGM executives felt Lassie had run her course and planned no future films featuring the character.
MGM executives then sought to break Weatherwax's contract and get out of the Lassie business altogether. They felt that Weatherwax was too concerned about protecting Pal and the Lassie image he had created from future diminishment at the hands of others. MGM owed Rudd Weatherwax a substantial sum of $40,000 in back pay. Weatherwax bargained for and received the Lassie name and trademark in exchange for forgiving the fees. MGM's lawyers laughed all through lunch about how they beat Rudd Weatherwax! They saved the studio what would be worth today about half a million, a small fortune.
And then Rudd moved Lassie into television, where Pal and then Pal's son Pal Jr. followed by his grandson's Spook and Baby, and their sons Mire and Hey Hey all took over the role and wore the Mirkin. (I looked and looked but couldn't find a reference for if they used the same Mirkin.) The Lassie program, or a Lassie program, ran in one form or another from 1954 to 1973. All the dogs in the series were contractually obligated to use a male dog in direct lineage to Pal. who still came to the set when his son took over the role. Pal would sleep on his dog bed on the stage, and the cast and crew called him The Old Man and would sneak him snacks. Tommy Rettig (Jeff, Lassie's boy in the first television show) recalled, "When Rudd would ask Lassie, Jr. to do something, if you were behind the set, you could see The Old Man get up from his bed and go through the routine back there." Pal died at the ripe old age of 18! Or roughly 126 for us. Rudd dug her grave himself and placed her in the grave. Afterward, he fell into a deep depression that lasted for several months.
Note #3: When most of us think of the Lassie TV show, we don't think of Tommy Rettig's Jeff. Most of us remember Jon Provost, who played young Timmy. "What's the matter, girl? Is mom in the well?" Well, audiences loved Timmy, and they kept him working for seven seasons until he discovered something better than a cross-dressing Collie: Girls.
His autobiography, Timmy's In The Well, is pretty entertaining. He worked with several of the dogs between television, motion picture, guest starring spots, and commercials. He worked on the show with Spook for five years straight. Though they were all great dogs, Jon Provost felt Spook was the smartest. (Spook continued to do Tommy's taxes and was the best man at his first wedding. I'm sorry, I made that up. I'm awful.)
Jon Provost continues acting and occasionally pops up on television, playing a senator or a judge. He works with The Young Artists Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to honoring youth performers and assisting in their lives by providing scholarships and assistance for young actors who may be physically disabled or financially unstable. The foundation, which teams with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to present a yearly award show, honored him with the Former Child Star Lifetime Achievement Award. Exeunt!
The casting of non-Pal bloodline collies in the role of Lassie has been met with protests. Oh, people lost their minds. It became fierce. In 1997, a new Lassie television series debuted on Animal Planet without a Weatherwax-trained dog as Lassie. A protest campaign was waged, and eventually, producers broke down and brought in a ninth-generation Weatherwax dog to the show! In 2020, the remake of Lassie Comes Home was released. But due to the pandemic, it was not widely seen.
According to the American Film Institute, Lassie is #39 among the 100 greatest film heroes. As you may have noticed, I have been sick over the last five weeks. Only a couple of posts. During that time, I watched many movies, including Lassie Come Home. We strive for transparency here at ICFH, so yes, I did tear up at the end. Lassie received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6368 Hollywood Blvd. East of Cahuenga at the corner of Cosmo Street (My dog's name!), between the Cosmo Smoke Shop and the St. Anthony drop-in medical and dental center. If you are out that way, pay your respects and leave a dog biscuit.