I mean, look at the confused expression on Pal’s face in the still above, from Challenge To Lassie. The object of everyone’s attention, and he’s staring off into space, no doubt thinking, “Just who the hell am I, anyway?”
Pal, a male dog, is playing Lassie, a female dog. For most Hollywood stars, an entire career spent in drag would require plenty of couch time to sort things out. Pal, of course, was not allowed on the couch.
It is generally agreed that Pal reluctantly agreed to appear as “Lassie” in the first Lassie film, Lassie Come Home, on the advice of his agent. From there, the story depends upon whose version you accept. Pal’s agent claimed that Pal knew very well that he would have to be neutered for the role; Pal maintains that he was told only that “there were a few cosmetic issues that had to be addressed” before the film went into production.
Lassie Come Home was such a huge hit that Pal was forever typecast as the bitch who could always find her way home. Pal fired his agent both figuratively and literally, proving that he could, in fact, find his way to anyone’s home when, long after filming had completed, the lack of an opposable thumb proved no barrier to the dog’s determination to set his agent’s house ablaze at 2 a.m. on September 29, 1943… barely two weeks before the film’s New York Premiere. The negative publicity surrounding this incident would have irreparably damaged the movie’s box office potential, and many historians believe that the agent’s subsequent death (which took place two days after the arson incident, from which he escaped unharmed) was not the anguished suicide over Pal’s defection that was presented in the press. (For more details on the fire, listen to Shawn Colvin’s Sunny Came Home, originally titled Lassie Come Home and changed at MGM/Turner’s request).
Intimates of Pal claim that the dog did not fully understand how far Eddie Mannix (left) would go after he promised the collie to “smooth things over and make this go away.” Pal subsequently decided to drop out of sight for awhile by signing with The William Morris Agency. This is plausible, because collies lack a sense of humor, meaning Pal probably did not realize the William Morris line was a joke.
In any case, Pal needn’t have worried. No charges were ever brought by the agent’s heirs.
Pal was next signed to star in a sequel, “Son of Lassie.” When Pal got the script, however, he was horrified to see that he would not be playing Lassie in the sequel, but rather “Laddie, Son of Lassie.”
“For this, I got neutered?” the canine was heard to mutter.
Again, Eddie Mannix (left) intervened, this time taking the dog aside for some straight talk. “There’s a thousand dogs out there who can limp, walk on their bellies, paw doors, and whine,” Mannix purportedly said. “Wake up and smell the kibble, Pal, you need MGM more than MGM needs you.” Louis B. Mayer himself was even more blunt with Pal, who wanted to go out but was kept waiting for three agonizing hours outside Mayer’s office. Finally ushered in to the great man’s presence, Mayer outlined the canine’s future at the studio in two words: “Sit. Stay.” Daring to defy Mayer, Pal went. On an expensive carpet.
Both physically and mentally castrated, the dog grudgingly did as he was told and prepared to reprise his role as “Lassie” in the third Lassie picture, The Courage of Lassie, even as his team of lawyers sought to break the contract. But Mayer and Mannix had one trick left up their communal sleeve: Pal was to be billed as “Lassie” in Courage of Lassie … but in the film, “Lassie” (now Pal’s legal name, but owned by MGM) would portray “Bill,” yet another male dog.
It was the final straw. Pal crawled on his belly to Mayer’s office, pathetically scratched at the door, and, when let in, rolled over on his back and whined, conclusively acknowledging Mayer as the alpha male at the studio.
Courage Of Lassie is today remembered primarily for the on-set incident that nearly killed Pal. A “post-Our Gang” Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer (who would die, ironically, in a shooting incident over a lost dog thirteen years later) portrays a young hunter in Courage of Lassie who accidentally shoots Bill (Lassie) (Pal).
No one can explain why Alfalfa’s gun was loaded with live ammunition; members of the crew claim to have checked and double-checked the “prop” rifle. There is a lingering suspicion that Switzer himself switched the blanks for live ammo, thanks to an unflattering interview suggesting this possibility given to the press by Roach star “Pete The Pup,” actually retired at the time and living in the Motion Picture Country Kennel/Retirement facility in Toluca Lake.
A week later, a short press release from the Motion Picture Retirement Center announced that two stalwarts of the silent screen had been euthanized: Roach’s beloved Pete The Pup and Charlie Bowers, a forgotten animator and slapstick comedian who had once dated Mannix’s wife Toni.
Pal recovered (it was just a flesh wound) but the magic spark that had endeared him to audiences worldwide as Lassie, Laddie, Son of Lassie, Bill, and, in his best dramatic performance, Terry Malloy, was permanently extinguished. He continued to pile on the years, seven at a time. He married, adopted, divorced, and remarried. He never reconciled with his children, who later wrote the scathing expose entitled The REAL Lassie, as told to Bob Thomas, published, ironically, in The Saturday Evening Post, where the first Lassie story had been printed 100 years earlier.
Pal died in 1958. In a moving eulogy delivered by close friend Charles Busch, he was remembered as “a dog unafraid to reveal his feminine side… with a masculine side that that was, and will be, sorely missed.” Many in the audience were frankly skeptical that “Lassie” was truly gone for good, and were convinced that the famous dog would somehow find her way back to this life.
Sorry. His way back to this life.