When it was published in 2011, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean, received a lot of attention everywhere, including the front page of the New York Times Book Review. I happened to read the book, for complicated reasons, and I was asked to look at it for a work assignment, even though it didn’t immediately appeal to me. After all, Rin Tin Tin was long ago and to me, at least, forgotten in the dim, distant mists of Hollywood past.
I only knew of Rin Tin Tin as a TV star. I didn’t know he had a whole life before the 1950s, with a radio show, and a whole string of movies under his leash. He was voted “most popular performer” in 1927. Once the talkies came in his popularity faded, but he made several comebacks, including a successful 1947 film called The Return of Rin Tin Tin.
As a kid, I was actually more of a Lassie fan. Not that I recall liking Lassie any more than Rin Tin Tin. It’s just that while both TV shows, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin and Lassie, premiered at the same time, in the fall of 1954, Rin Tin Tin only lasted five seasons, while Lassie stayed on the air for 20 years.
I also didn’t know that Lassie was “just” a fictional character, who was then cast in Hollywood, played by a collie named Pal, born and raised in California, and later by his son Pal, Jr. But Rin Tin Tin was a real dog, a German shepherd rescued from near-death, brought to America and trained to be a movie star.
During World War I, dogs were routinely used by the army as messengers and guard dogs. They also served in the medical corps, roaming the battlefield with saddlebags full of medical supplies. If a soldier was wounded but conscious, he could call over a dog and help himself to bandages or water. Dogs were also trained to identify who was dead or alive, and if a dog found a fallen soldier who was still alive, it would alert the medical corps by barking or tugging on the unconscious body. Dogs were also trained as suicide bombers, released into enemy territory with explosives strapped to their bodies.
One day in Sept. 1918, a U. S. soldier from California named Lee Duncan was inspecting the ruins of a German encampment when he stepped into a low-slung building. He was aghast at what he saw: a pile of 20 or more dead dogs, killed by artillery shells. Then, from the back of the darkened room, he heard a noise. When he carefully edged to the rear of the building he found a German shepherd who was alive, a female surrounded by her litter of five puppies. Duncan picked up the dogs, maneuvered them into his army vehicle, and brought them back to the U.S. base. He gave away the mother and three puppies and kept two of the puppies for himself, a female who he named Nanette and a male he named Rin Tin Tin, after a pair of dolls that were popular at the time.
On the way home after the war, Nanette developed pneumonia and died. When Duncan finally got back to Southern California, he began training Rin Tin Tin, Rinty for short, with the idea he could breed him, sell some puppies and maybe make some money at dog shows.
But this was a time when the movie business was beginning to flourish in Hollywood, and Lee Duncan caught the bug. He wrote a screenplay and began taking Rinty around to different studios, trying to get someone interested either in his screenplay or his dog. Eventually he got a “bite” and Rinty landed a silent film role as a sled dog belonging to a Canadian Mountie. One role led to another until Warner Bros. signed Rinty then agreed to produce Duncan’s own screenplay, Where the North Begins, with Rin Tin Tin as the hero.
Rin Tin Tin’s career was launched. He appeared in more than a dozen silent films, until he died in 1932. By then the “talkies” had come in, and demand for non-talking animals had waned. But Duncan kept going. He worked with Rin Tin Tin, Jr., finding him smaller movie parts, developing a radio show, and bringing him to dog shows, county fairs and stage shows. Later, Rin Tin Tin III was used during World War II to promote Dogs for Defense, a program encouraging people to donate their dogs to the army.
By 1954, when television got interested in Rin Tin Tin, Lee Duncan was training Rin Tin Tin IV. The dog was signed for the part, but by the time the show actually got on the air the directors had retired Rin Tin Tin IV and were using a repertory of other German shepherds as Rin Tin Tin. The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin became a TV hit for ABC, second only to the Walt Disney show, beating out Lassie, which premiered the same year. Rin Tin Tin also helped usher in the modern world of marketing, as fans began buying up Rin Tin Tin lunch boxes, uniforms, hats and guns.
Lassie was “born” as the hero of a 1940 book, Lassie Come Home, by British writer Eric Knight. The book became a hit movie in 1943, starring Roddy McDowell and Elizabeth Taylor, and was followed by several sequels. Lassie was a quieter, more domesticated canine than Rin Tin Tin, who was often involved in gun play, Indian attacks and knife fights. But it was Lassie that proved the more durable TV show, eventually topping Rin Tin Tin in the ratings and winning two Emmy awards before it was finally canceled in 1973.
One more thing I didn’t know is that Susan Orlean writes for The New Yorker. So she’s well connected, and whatever she writes will pretty much automatically get the royal treatment from the press and the literati of New York. I actually could only give the book two or three “barks” out of five. The first half, focusing on Rin Tin Tin the first, is really good. The rest trails off into a grab bag of early movies, early TV, and the author’s attempts to put the dog into some kind of perspective. So I’d recommend the book only to real dog lovers, or those interested in Hollywood history.
Nevertheless, it offers up an interesting footnote to American history. And, you don’t have to choose between the two dogs. In fact, in 1955, after “several weeks of negotiation,” Rin Tin Tin and Lassie, along with their trainers, appeared together on the cover of TV Guide. And both dogs were awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, on the same day in 1960.