Challenge to Lassie

Based on Eleanor Atkinson’s novel Greyfriars Bobby, Challenge to Lassie (1949) adapts the true story of a Skye Terrier in 19th-century Scotland who became famous after reportedly spending 14 years guarding his owner’s grave—until the dog’s own death in 1872. The following year, a prominent philanthropist (Lady Burdett-Coutts) erected a statue and fountain to commemorate the dog in Edinburgh—where they still stand to this day.

In Challenge to Lassie, sheepherder Jock Gray (Donald Crisp) picks up a stray puppy (Lassie) and teaches her the ways of herding sheep. When Jock dies after an being attacked by beggars, Lassie sneaks into the church graveyard each night to lie at his grave. Because she has no master, local law deems her a stray—and the punishment is death. When Lassie goes on trial, local pub owner John Traill (Edmund Gwenn) and the townspeople come to her rescue. The court pronounces her a free citizen of Edinburgh, thereby allowed to reside within the graveyard walls next to her master’s side.

By this point in the franchise, Lassie had assembled a reliable stable of human perfomers adept at working with the dog and each other. Nearly every actor with a starring or featured role in the film—Donald Crisp, Edmund Gwenn, Reginald Owen, Alan Napier, Edmund Breon, Arthur Shields, Lumsden Hare and Charles Irwin—had appeared in a previous Lassie film, usually more than once. Richard Thorpe (The Sun Comes Up) returned as director and André Previn composed his second and last score for the celebrated collie.

The music-and-effects tracks from Challenge to Lassie supplied by the studio were missing approximately 10 minutes of the score. In order to provide the most complete listening experience of this early Previn effort, FSM has taken these missing tracks directly from the film, incorporated in chronological film order along with the music-and-effects tracks. Below, asterisks (*) designate those cues taken from the music-and-effects track that contain sound effects, while a dagger (†) indicates that a track also contains dialogue.

10. Main Title and Foreword*
Against the idyllic backdrop of a herd of sheep, Previn’s main title begins with a majestic theme that harmonically recalls his earlier Lassie theme from The Sun Comes Up, followed by a variation of the theme set as a delightful Scottish jig on oboe, which will serve as Lassie’s theme. As the story begins, Edmund Gwenn’s voiceover reads onscreen text that appears over a painting of Castle Rock in 1860 Edinburgh, Scotland, setting the stage for the tale about to unfold. The brusque transition between the “Main Title” and the “Foreword” is a consequence of the patchwork efforts that resulted when the studio pulled together the music-and-effects tracks after the film’s release. (The transition is much smoother in the film.)
11. Market Day*
Lassie’s theme underscores a scene in which the camera pans down from Castle Rock to the town of Edinburgh as local shepherd Jock Gray (Donald Crisp) enters the market square to sell his sheep. A collie puppy, chased by a mangy mutt, runs across his path and heads into a bushel of vegetables as the cue comes to a close.
12. Lassie’s First Love*
Jock shoos the mutt away and pulls the puppy out of a crate. He notices that the dog has lines that bespeak a champion dog and assumes someone will come looking for her. Promising to share the reward money, Jock leaves the puppy with a blacksmith, Adam (Harry Cording). Gentle strings underscore the beginning of Jock’s affection for the dog. The rest of the cue features variations of Lassie’s theme on clarinet and other woodwinds.
13. First Lesson*
Jock tries to convince his friends that the puppy is a natural sheepdog. Alternating eighth notes in the brass keep a steady pulse underneath a lighthearted melody in the winds as the puppy herds a pack of baby ducks. (Previn used a similar idea in The Sun Comes Up—see “Tears for Two,” track 5.) A ferocious brass outburst that concludes the cue as a sheep frightens the dog was missing from this music-and-effects track.
14. Sheep Herding*
Out on the Scottish lowlands, Jock offers bits of advice on herding sheep to the young puppy. Staccato winds and brass punctuate the music as Lassie pays no attention to Jock’s suggestions to watch his other dog, Scott. The cue closes with an expansive rendering of Lassie’s theme.
Jock and the Flock*
High up in the snow-covered mountains, the puppy grows into adolescence and learns a thing or two about herding sheep. The music changes tempos and instrumental timbres to follow Lassie and Scott as they show off their skills.
15. You’ve Trained Her Well*
By the spring, Lassie has grown into the adult dog recognized throughout the series. The score’s main theme plays throughout as Jock allows her to herd the sheep to town by herself.
16. There’s My Bonnie*
As he gets ready to leave Edinburgh and set out for his ancestral home, Jock pays MacFarland (Lumsden Hare) to keep Lassie on his farm until her proper owner comes to claim her. Jock ties the dog to MacFarland’s wagon and says goodbye. Previn underscores the poignant scene with a gentle reading of Lassie’s theme.
17. Jock Is Attacked*
Two beggars attack Jock. Jagged, angular chords punctuate the fight as Lassie joins in the fray and chases them away. Lassie’s theme plays quietly on strings as Jock, battered and bruised, limps to a lodging house.
18. After the Fight*†
Exhausted, battered and bruised, Jock tells the whining dog to remain quiet or the landlady caring for him will put them both out in the street. Lassie’s theme plays tentatively on strings, while a high solo violin whines in pain.
19. Graveyard Lassie*
Jock dies from his injuries, and is laid to rest in the cemetary of Greyfriars Church, where dogs are prohibited. Lassie sits outside the church graveyard, whining. When Mr. Brown (Alan Webb), the caretaker, opens the gate for a delivery of straw, she sneaks in and lies next to Jock’s grave. A mournful cello leads to a solo oboe playing a suggestion of Lassie’s theme. As the cue concludes, a bugler from the local barracks sounds the arrival of sunset. The bugle will become Lassie’s nightly signal to go lie by the grave.
20. John Sans Pants*
Lassie seeks food and shelter from Jock’s friend, restaurant owner John Traill (Edmund Gwenn). After Traill feeds her, she wants to return to her master’s grave; she leads Traill back to the cemetery, but he loses track of her. Mr. Brown catches Lassie and returns her in a sack to the restaurant, but she will not stop whining and scratching at the restaurant door. Traill uses his suspenders to form a leash to bring her home with him. Lassie strains at the leash and Traill tries to hold up his pants as the two struggle down the sidewalk. Pizzicato strings accompany a perky oboe solo set against sixteenth notes in the clarinets.
21. Complaining Neighbors*
As Lassie keeps barking in frustration, John’s neighbors and his wife (Connie Leon) pop their heads out of their windows to complain. John’s son, law student William (Ross Ford), explains that he should turn the dog over to the police, who will look after her—although if someone does not pick up the dog in three days, the law says she must be put down. More pizzicato strings, solo oboe and a clarinet duet underscore the complaining neighbors. A stinger chord punctuates the word “chloroform,” followed by a muted trumpet call and the clarinet sixteenth notes as John and William “flee the jurisdiction” to save the dog.
22. The Journey*
Traill and his son take Lassie to MacFarland and ask him to care for her. To keep her safe, the farmer locks Lassie in his barn. Running triplets accompany her digging a hole under the barn doors, followed by a brief statement of the main theme as she breaks free. More triplets convey tension while she hides under a bridge from a passing cart. Lassie continues traveling over the mountains, accompanied by still more triplets and a lush rendering of her theme.
Lassie’s Last Lap*
As the skies darken, so does the music. A variation of Lassie’s theme develops in a minor mode as a storm breaks. With the ensuing sunrise and clear skies comes a major statement of the main theme. Lassie crosses a river, while Previn develops the main theme in a minor key. Brass build to an exultant climax in the major mode, followed by the main theme and Lassie’s theme as she emerges safe on land once again. The scene closes with her waiting in front of the church graveyard. Through most of “The Journey” and “Lassie’s Last Lap,” the film reuses footage taken directly from Lassie Come Home (1943), with the image reversed.
23. Lassoed Lassie*
Sergeant Davie (Reginald Owen), a new constable on the beat, finds Lassie in the church graveyard, throws a net over her, and carts her off. The music is dark and filled with tension, with bugle in the background. The music breaks free with strident chords as Davie throws his net over the dog.
24. No Exit*
Lassie escapes from Sergeant Davie and finds a temporary home with the local regiment at Castle Rock. When the bugle signals nighttime, she climbs out a window. Agitated sixteenth notes in low winds and a brief quote of Lassie’s theme on oboe underscore her efforts to find a way out of the garrison. She jumps on top of the rock wall and—with a glance below—sees that the only way out is to climb down the rocky cliffs. The bugle plays again and she runs to the locked gate, where the guard ignores her.
25. Cornered Collie*†
With no other way out, sixteenth notes in the strings propel Lassie over the castle wall. The sixteenth notes descend as she slides down the cliff.
26. Down the Cliffs*
Nursing her hurt paw, Lassie climbs down the treacherous rocks. This somber, dramatic cue builds tension with motives from the main theme and Lassie’s theme.
Here’s Lassie*†
The bugle and a brief statement of the main theme in strings accompany a bedraggled Lassie as she crawls through town to the graveyard.
27. I Cannot Apologize*†
Lassie is brought before the Lord Provost (Alan Napier) and the borough court, which must decide if the dog should be put down. When the bugle blows at sunset, Lassie breaks through the glass of the courtroom window to escape. The Lord Provost and his associates, who do not believe Mr. Traill, agree to accompany him to the graveyard to see if he has been telling the truth about Lassie’s actions and her whereabouts. A stately French horn fanfare underscores their arrival. The main theme in strings underscores the Lord Provost’s apology that he cannot break the law—because Lassie has no owner, she must be put to death.
28. Laugh After Laugh*† & End Title*
A mocking oboe underscores Sergeant Davie’s new post as a guard at the graveyard gate. French horn outbursts signal the arrival of soldiers coming to visit the dog. A brief statement from Lassie’s theme—as well as emphatic timpani and cymbal crashes—bring the score to a glorious conclusion.
End Cast
The main theme in strings underscores an onscreen message from the Humane Society and the end cast list—set against the backdrop of a blue sky. —