The Painted Hills

M-G-M’s gold-mining adventure The Painted Hills (1951) stars Lassie (also known as “Pal”) as Shep, a loyal collie who seeks vengeance against the man who killed her master. In the late eighteenth century, Shep’s elderly owner, Jonathan Harvey (Paul Kelley), strikes gold in the mountains. Upon his return to town, Jonathan finds that his partner Frank Blake has died of pneumonia, leaving behind his wife, Martha (Ann Doran), and son, Tommy (Gary Gray). Martha informs Jonathan that newcomer Lin Taylor (Bruce Cowling) has been helping the family through this crisis and that he became Frank’s partner shortly before he died; Lin advises Jonathan not to register his claim until he is sure he has found the bulk of the gold out in the mountains.

Before Jonathan sets back out into the wilderness to look for the rest of the treasure, he leaves his beloved Shep with Tommy, who is heartbroken over the death of his father. Shep forms a bond with Tommy, but comes to miss his master and eventually refuses to eat. When Lin brings Tommy and Shep into the mountains to visit Jonathan, they find him bedridden in his cabin, shivering with fever; they nurse him back to health and he tells them that in working his way toward the mother lode, he has collected more than $6,000 in gold. Tommy and Lin stay on to help Jonathan work, but Jonathan quickly becomes aware of Lin’s greediness and conniving nature—the more gold they pan, the more apparent it becomes that Lin does not want to share the fortune with Jonathan and the Blakes. Jonathan sends Tommy back to town to instruct Martha to register their claim, but once the boy is gone, Lin murders Jonathan by pushing him off a cliff.

Shep discovers his master’s grave and realizes that Lin is responsible, prompting the villain to cover his tracks by poisoning the dog within an inch of her life. After Shep drags herself to a stream and receives treatment from a tribe of Indians, she brings Tommy back to Jonathan’s grave. The boy becomes convinced that Lin killed Jonathan, but his accusations fall on deaf ears. Shep subsequently chases Lin up into the mountains and forces him off a cliff to his death. Having achieved justice for her master, Shep is reunited with a grateful Tommy.

Adapted by True Boardman from Alexander Hull’s novel Shep of the Painted Hills, the film was the seventh to feature Lassie/Pal in a starring role. With a cast consisting mostly of unknowns, M-G-M banked on the appeal of Lassie to sell their picture, putting her front and center in the film’s marketing campaign to the exclusion of the human cast. While director Harold F. Kress keeps the action moving efficiently, and the core relationship between Jonathan and Shep rings true (thanks mostly to Lassie’s performance), the film garnered mixed reviews from critics, who harped on its unconvincing, stilted dialogue and wooden performances. Still, the color cinematography and impressive High Sierra mountain scenery drew universal accolades and Lassie’s performance also received good notices, particularly her convincing work for the scene in which she is poisoned.

Daniele Amfitheatrof’s experience on 1950’s Devil’s Doorway and Copper Canyon made him a fitting choice to score Lassie’s adventures in the old west. His pastoral music features a circular main theme, characterized by an octave leap. Supportive of Shep’s friendships with Jonathan and Tommy, while also complementing the film’s majestic scenery, Amfitheatrof varies the yearning theme to reflect moods of joy, heartache, mystery and villainy. The score also contains recurring motives for key supporting players: a religioso hymn represents Jonathan’s preacher friend, Pilot Pete (Art Smith); Lin receives a nasty descending motive for brass; and a bold pentatonic theme depicts a tribe of Indians who save Shep’s life. Even when these subsidiary ideas get the spotlight, the main theme appears in different guises in nearly every cue, with the melody’s first four pitches often extracted to form an easily identifiable self-contained motive.

1. Main Title
A thunderous brass fanfare gives way to warm, bucolic readings of Amfitheatrof’s main theme as the opening titles play over shots of Jonathan (Paul Kelley) inspecting a mountain stream. Delicate renditions of the theme follow when the scene transitions to a wide shot of the High Sierras with voiceover narration telling of the love between Shep (Lassie) and Jonathan. Shep roams the misty wilderness to mysterious, impressionistic settings of the melody, with the score building momentum once she hears the call of her master and charges across the landscape to join him.
He’s a Millionaire
Upon Shep’s arrival, Jonathan excitedly tells the dog that he has struck a vein of gold. A carefree, bouncing version of the main theme plays as they travel back to town to inform Jonathan’s partner, Frank Blake, of the good news; a tribe of friendly Indians greets them when they pass through their encampment.
2. I Need Your Help
After Frank’s former partner Lin Taylor (Bruce Cowling) tells Jonathan that Frank has died of pneumonia, the digger visits Blake’s widow Martha, (Ann Doran) and son, Tommy (Gary Gray). Tragic chordal strings and woodwinds play as Jonathan enters Tommy’s room to console him; he offers Shep as a gift, but Tommy declines. Outside the boy’s room, sequential, guilt-ridden variations on the main theme sound as Jonathan wrestles with his conscience and tries to convince Shep that he should stay behind with Tommy.
A delicate rendition of “The First Noel” underscores Tommy awakening in his bed on Christmas morning, with playful woodwinds following him into living room.
Hairy Present
Light, festive material gives way to “The First Noel” and the main theme as Tommy finds Shep sitting in front of the Christmas tree; Jonathan has left the dog as a present and returned to the mountains in search of more gold.
Shep’s Longing
Forlorn strings play through a montage of Shep and Jonathan pining for one another from their respective locations. Grave developments of the main theme sound as Shep refuses to eat and becomes ill; Tommy asks his mother to call for the Indian doctor, Bald Eagle (Chief Yowlachie).
3. Back to Jonathan
A revitalized version of the main theme plays when Tommy informs Shep that they will be traveling to see Jonathan and the grateful dog accepts a bowl of milk. (Only a retake of the first part of this cue has survived, so the second half of “Back to Jonathan” does not appear on this CD. In the film, the main theme optimistically underscores Lin, Tommy and Shep arriving at Jonathan’s cabin. The material takes a sour turn when they discover the digger laying in bed with a fever; Lin prepares to treat Jonathan while Shep lies beside his ailing master.)
Once Jonathan recovers, he informs Lin and Tommy that he has retrieved $6,000 in gold from a nearby stream; the visitors resolve to stay on to help him find more. A subsequent gold-collecting montage plays to chipper readings of the main theme—backed by country fiddle string accompaniment—for the team bringing riches back to the cabin. The cue ends ominously as Lin nervously looks out the cabin window, his greed already setting in.
4. Visitor
An austere line for strings (treated contrapuntally) plays as a stranger enters the empty cabin and rummages about. The cue becomes increasingly sporadic and tense as Lin suddenly appears, punches the intruder and throws him outside. Jonathan arrives on the scene and angrily intervenes, commanding Lin to check the stranger’s saddlebag; a solemn hymn plays on woodwinds as Lin pulls out a pair of bibles.
Pilot Pete
Amfitheatrof reprises the austere material from “Visitor” as Jonathan introduces Lin to Pilot Pete (Art Smith), a traveling preacher who has come for dinner; Jonathan warns Lin not make the mistake of raising his hand to the preacher again.
5. Holy Pete
The following morning, Pilot Pete blesses Jonathan and departs, with Amfitheatrof developing the preacher’s hymn-like material. The score mounts anxiety for Jonathan’s subsequent confrontation with Lin; the more gold they collect, the edgier Lin becomes, so Jonathan seizes his gunbelt and wraps it around his own waist.
Good Girl
Time passes and shimmering minor-mode tension underscores Lin attempting to steal back his weapon from under Jonathan’s pillow while the old man pretends to sleep. Shep growls at Lin, forcing him to abort his plan and leave the cabin; as soon as he is gone, Jonathan sits up and commends Shep on a job well done.
Foul Play
Icy tremolo strings and severe brass follow Lin up into the mountains, where he formulates his plan to kill Jonathan. Back at the cabin, a calculating passage for strings and woodwinds plays as Jonathan sends Tommy back to town so that he can register their claim. The main theme returns tentatively as Jonathan sends Shep along with the boy, before Lin arrives at the cabin claiming to have found the mother lode, to the accompaniment of sinister strings and brass.
Shep Follows Jonathan
A cheerful and skittish rendition of the main theme plays as Tommy and Shep make their way back to town; this material alternates with dire, escalating music for Jonathan accompanying Lin up into the mountains. Tommy eventually sends Shep back to Jonathan, and after the dog makes her way to the empty cabin, she proceeds into the mountains to find her master. The main theme builds hazardously as Lin prepares to kill the digger—when he finally pushes the old man off a cliff, snarling brass and frantic strings play up Jonathan’s panic as he clings to a tree branch. Nearby, Shep hears Jonathan screaming her name as he falls to his death, the main theme calling out desperately as the dog races toward the scene. Brass takes up an ominous descending motive for Lin as he attempts to make a discreet exit; when he suddenly comes face to face with Shep, the cue comes to an abrupt halt.
6. Hat
Uneasy tremolo strings underscore Shep sniffing around the area of Jonathan’s murder; she locates her master’s hat, but his body is nowhere to be found.
He Won’t Be Back
Shep climbs onto Jonathan’s empty bed, accompanied by forlorn developments of the main theme. Lin attempts to make peace with the suspicious dog before slipping out to bury Jonathan’s body.
7. Poison
When Lin discovers Shep howling over Jonathan’s grave, the dog attacks him. Agitated material plays after Lassie runs off, before the film transitions back to the cabin, where Lin is eating. Shep hungrily arrives at the front door and faces Lin, accompanied by a passage featuring weary solo violin, with an abrasive sting denoting a shot of a bottle containing poison that the murderer has mixed with Shep’s food. The cue builds to a disturbed, cathartic statement of the main theme as Lin tricks the dog into eating some poisoned meat.
Indians Find Shep
Tortured variations on the main theme underscore the poisoned dog pulling herself toward a stream for a drink. Shep barks for help and attracts the attention of two Indian children and their little dog. The finished film replaces the playful woodwinds that close this cue—and hint at a forthcoming theme for the Indians—with tormented strings for the ailing Shep.
8. Rescue
Amfitheatrof introduces an urgent pentatonic theme in the brass for a sequence in which the Indian children bring the poisoned Shep to Bald Eagle. The medicine man examines the dog, accompanied by tentative plucked fragments of the main theme; the score continues to apply pressure with the pentatonic material as he sends one of the children into town to fetch Tommy.
9. Incantation
This eerie cue for winds, string portamenti and harp glissandi does not appear in the film. Amfitheatrof wrote it to accompany a deleted scene in which Bald Eagle conducts a ceremony to bring Shep back to life.
Shep Lives
Shep recovers from her illness, marked by hesitant solo violin, with impressionistic material following as Tommy thanks Bald Eagle. The boy brings Shep to his room and vows to find out who poisoned her.
Shep Came Back
After a terrible storm strikes, Lin fears that an avalanche has covered the remaining gold. Nervous strings underscore him picking away at a newly formed pile of rocks near a stream, before the main theme returns for Shep’s arrival at Jonathan’s grave. Lin returns to the cabin to store more gold and hears Shep barking for Tommy in the distance, the score playing up the villain’s paranoia with prickly material for woodwinds and strings.
10. Tommy Finds the Grave
Distressed developments of the main theme play as Tommy finds Jonathan’s grave, which the boy recognizes when Shep leads him to Jonathan’s hat hanging from a tree branch. The cue builds to a suspenseful conclusion as Lin arrives and Tommy hides in the bushes.
Taylor Pursues Tommy
When Tommy confronts Lin and threatens to turn him in, the villain begins to manhandle the boy. The main theme receives frenzied development as Shep attacks Lin and Tommy escapes on his horse. The cue subsides as the animal throws Tommy, knocking the boy unconscious.
Tommy Is Hurt
Subdued, diminished material mingles with the main theme as Lin nurses Tommy back to health in the cabin.
The Hole
Lin succeeds in convincing Tommy that Jonathan’s death was an accident, accompanied by a brief cue for somber, descending strings and woodwinds.
Thy Heavenly Kingdom
Pilot Pete and a pair of campers arrive at the cabin and Lin relates his phony version of Jonathan’s death. During Jonathan’s funeral in the mountains, a shimmering string setting of Pilot Pete’s material underscores the preacher’s eulogy for the digger. A piercing, horrific string cluster sounds when Tommy overhears Lin telling Pete that Jonathan never found any gold.
11. Come Along, Son
Tommy tries to convince Pete and the campers of Jonathan’s crime, but they fail to believe him. Melancholy material underscores the men escorting Tommy and Shep back to town, with the main theme growing increasingly stubborn as the dog resists. Shep breaks free of her leash and charges back toward the cabin, marked by a reprise of Lin’s villainous motive from “Shep Follows Jonathan” (track 5).
The Chase—Revised
Shep arrives outside the cabin and barks for Lin, who responds by shooting at the dog. Unnerving tremolo string patterns alternate with stark brass outbursts from the main theme as the villain pursues Shep into the icy mountains.
Freezing Up
Lin continues to follow Shep, the score building chilly dread with sul ponticello string writing and sneering brass. As the murderer backs the dog toward the edge of a steep cliff, the score offers pounding doom; Lin’s motive sounds as he raises his gun to fire, but his weapon is frozen solid.
Taylor Dies
Amfitheatrof develops the main theme in threatening fashion as Shep gains the upper hand, circling around Lin and backing him toward the edge of the cliff. Lin pleads for his life before he finally falls off the mountain, the score mimicking his descent and culminating in an outburst of scornful brass once he hits the ground. A lamenting version of the main theme acknowledges the ordeal Shep has suffered as she lays down in the snow.
Happy Ending & End Title
The main theme gradually fights back toward its bittersweet, optimistic origins as Tommy and Shep reunite in the woods. The end titles feature a triumphant rendition of the theme for strings and brass. —