‘Lad: A Dog’ Has a Lass but no Lassie

Simple, predictable, anodyne dog fare.

This simple, pleasant, anodyne, predictable family movie about a collie comes across like episodes of TV’s Lassie strung together. In fact, its origins pre-date Lassie, thanks to Albert Payson Terhune, a popular writer who bred collies at his New Jersey estate of Sunnybank. His sentimental and melodramatic stories were collected into the 1919 Lad: A Dog, a huge bestseller 20 years before Eric Knight’s Lassie Come-Home, but the popularity of the Lassie show clearly encouraged Warner Brothers to make this movie.

This film refashions elements of Terhune’s stories into its shaggy showcase, as scripted by Lillie Hayward and Roberta O. Hodes; Hayward was Hollywood’s go-to gal for scripts about dogs (Penrod and Sam, The Biscuit Eater, The Shaggy Dog ) and horses (My Friend Flicka, Black Beauty ). The nostalgic movie takes place in an era of horse-drawn carriages at Sunnybank, where the owner (Peter Breck) is a writer who stands around in flannel shirts smoking his pipe and looking fondly at his pretty wife. She’s played by Peggy McClure, and viewers may wonder if she was cast for her passing resemblance to June Lockhart on Lassie.

Little Angela Cartwright, soon to star on Lost in Space (speaking of Lockhart), plays the crippled neighbor girl who loves Lad (don’t you just know where this is going?), and Carroll O’Connor is her gruff, crass, blowhard father redeemed by his awkward love for her. Jack Daly plays the local bad guy who dresses like a tramp and behaves with increasing psychosis. They all spend most of their time interacting with Lad, his mate Lady, and their two pups in various incidents, usually shot outdoors in pleasant colors by Bert Glennon.

Auteurists will be mystified to find director Aram Avakian attached to this film. An acclaimed editor who made a splash with Jazz on a Summer’s Day, he was enlisted to make this, his first fiction feature, but got fired over creative differences. In a 1969 interview in Life, he stated that he wanted to make a “camp, pop thing” instead of a standard sentimental film. He later made the avant-garde drama End of the Road and two good ’70s capers, Cops and Robbers and 11 Harrowhouse.

Ironically, he was replaced by Leslie H. Martinson, who became known for directing such “camp, pop things” as the 1966 Batman movie and the Raquel Welch movie Fathom. He worked mainly in TV, including the self-kidding Maverick. Here, however, there’s no kidding the material, although Maurice Dallimore and Alice Pearce provide rudimentary comic relief as servants; actually, Pearce is unusually unsympathetic. Martinson’s restrained TV manner serves the story, although the big fire (there’s always a big fire) is drawn-out and unconvincing.

RATING 4 / 10