The holidays are almost upon us, so I decided to curl up with my dog Sasha and watch a 1951 festive Christmas movie. Titled The Painted Hills, this western tells the story of two gold prospectors on the verge of striking it rich. Except that one gets a tad greedy and pushes his partner off a cliff. The deceased man’s old friend gets wind of what happened and goes after the murderer, with plenty of gunfire and brawls. Can you guess who plays the avenging hero? John Wayne? Clint Eastwood? No, our star is the roughest and toughest woman of the West. She goes by the rather odd name of Shep here, but you know her better as… Lassie.
Now, I can rattle off the names of every Godzilla movie in chronological order (in English and Japanese!), but my knowledge of Lassie movies is lacking. Yes, I know the old “Timmy’s in the well!” routine — but this movie knocked me for a loop.
Our story begins with kindly prospector Jonathan (Paul Kelly) and his faithful dog Shep (Lassie) riding through an Indian village and wishing all a Merry Christmas (greatly appreciated by the natives). Meanwhile, in town, Jonathan’s old partner has died, leaving his wife and son, Tommy (not Timmy), very distraught. Jonathan decides to leave Lassie — I mean, Shep — under the Christmas tree, complete with a bright red bow, as a present for Tommy. But Shep (Lassie) wants nothing to do with this transaction, and goes on a hunger strike. Worse, the local doctor, Chief Bald Eagle, deduces that Lassie has a broken heart. So soon the collie is back with Jonathan, who now has a new partner, a sleazeball named Lin (Bruce Cowling).
Jonathan unwisely informs Lin that he’ll only get a 25 percent portion of any gold they find. This doesn’t set well with Lin, so he tosses Jonathan off a cliff. He tells Tommy it was an accident. But the cunning canine knows better.
Lassie’s quest for vengeance leads her through hellish adventures that put the antics of tough guys like Bruce Willis to shame. Lassie and Lin get into two rough and tumble brawls, one of which sees Lassie flung through the air like a wrestler. Lin even poisons poor Lassie, who gives an Academy Award-worthy performance as she crawls along the ground in agony, searching for water. Not to worry: Bald Eagle comes to the rescue with tonic from town, along with some mystic mumblings thrown in for good measure. Lassie returns to Lin with a smug look on her face. Priceless.
During a violent thunderstorm, Lin pops a cork. He knows Lassie will somehow spill the beans, so he whips out his trusty gun and chases Lassie/Shep through a winter wonderland that miraculously developed overnight. Luckily, Lin has the sharp-shooting skills of a “Star Wars” stormtrooper, so Lassie manages to avoid a hail of bullets while swimming through freezing water and getting buried in mini avalanches. But then a lucky shot leaves Lassie bleeding! (My dog Sasha was traumatized at this point.)
Now Lassie is cornered at the edge of a cliff! The big showdown has arrived! Lin goes to fire the final shot — but there is one small problem: His gun is frozen to his hand! (Remember the old adage, “Never lick a frozen pole”? Lin didn’t.)
Knowing the ball is in her court, Lassie bares her teeth in a wicked smile. Without belaboring the obvious, Lin is toast.
As this holiday tale comes to a close, we must reflect on what we have learned, such as the value of friendship and trust among men. And the most important lesson of all: Don’t screw with Lassie.