1954 was quite a year in Hollywood. Classics like On The Waterfront and A Star Is Born were among the most successful films of the year. Stars like Grace Kelly, Judy Garland and Marlon Brando were among the most talked about people on the planet. Cinemascope and Technicolour were making films bigger and brassier than ever. And there, among it all—somewhere on a film studio backlot in downtown Los Angeles—was Clark Gable. Saving Lassie from a fire in his trailer. No, really.
“Those are pliers, you goddamn idiot, I said pass the screwdriver.” Said Lassie. (Wikipedia)
So here’s the story. Lassie, the gentle drama series about a female rough collie and her various human companions, debuted on American television screens in September 1954. It proved such an instant success that the show’s producer, Robert Maxwell Joffe, commissioned a second series after just three episodes had aired; Lassie would eventually go on to become one of the longest-running programmes in American television history.
Keen to get the ball rolling, Joffe called a meeting in his LA office the following October with the show’s executives, the cast’s agents, and Hollywood dog trainer (and owner of the world’s best name) Rudd Weatherwax.
The dog Lassie herself (yes, the dog in the original tv series was actually called Lassie in real life) had little to do with the negotiations surrounding her new contract, of course. But Weatherwax nevertheless took it upon himself to bring her along to the meeting. Joffe, by all accounts, was unimpressed.
With collie fur now festooning the plush furnishings of his office, Joffe dispatched Lassie from his office and into the care of his secretary, who was tasked with taking television’s newest megastar on a walk around the lot. And it was there that Lassie met one of her biggest fans.
Just a few blocks from Joffe’s office, Clark Gable was completing the final scenes for his latest movie, Soldier of Fortune. According to Lassie biographer Timothy J Goldmann, Gable was sat outside his trailer waiting to be called to the set when Joffe’s secretary happened to walk by with Lassie. Gable instantly recognised her (Lassie, that is) and couldn’t resist the opportunity to introduce himself, and volunteer to take her (Lassie, that is) for her walk.
Not taking no for an answer, Gable sent Joffe’s secretary back to her office while he, promising to bring the dog back in half an hour, spent some quality time with his new best friend.
Unfortunately, the call for Gable to head to set came somewhat sooner than he had anticipated. And so, unable to take Lassie onto the set with him, he instead took her back to his trailer, poured her a bowl of water, locked the door behind him, and headed off to set. Soundcheck done, he returned five minutes later—to see plumes of black smoke billowing out of an open window.
A burning cigarette left nonchalantly on the side of an ashtray had somehow fallen from a countertop into a wastepaper basket, igniting the garbage inside and starting a fire in Gable’s trailer. Locked inside—and no doubt barking for her very life—was Lassie.
As soon as he saw the fire, Gable, along with a several fellow Soldier of Fortune crew members, sprinted across to the trailer, threw open the door and, in an ironic twist on the programme in which she starred, rescued Lassie from the burning car.
Thankfully she was unharmed, and moreover the fire had caused minimal damage to Gable’s trailer; the only lasting repercussion was that Gable was never again trusted with looking after television’s biggest canine star...