IN HOLLYWOOD IN THE EARLY 1930s, a handsome German Shepherd from France was drawing a salary eight times larger than had ever been paid to a human actor. He was Rin Tin Tin, and by then he had become more than dog. He was an industry, a symbol, an allegory, a fable. He was gossiped and written about, welcomed for lunch in the Warner Brothers commissary, and listed in the Los Angeles phone book. He received an endless stream of fan mail and 50,000 requests for photos a year.
Now the biography of one of the most famous dogs of all time has been written by one of the great non-fiction writers of our time; it's a literate dog lover's dream date. In Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, Susan Orlean unearths the true story of the unlikely wartime rescue of a puppy, as heart-rending a tale as any silent movie melodrama. She also chronicles the many humans affected by his fame and fortune, while offering an informal examination of the ever-ascendant role of the dog in American culture from World War I to the present.
In attempting to tell these stories as thoroughly as possible, Orlean manages to pinpoint and then unite pretty much every aspect of contemporary Ameri-canine entertainment culture, threading them back to their earlier antecedents in silent films. Along the way we have an opportunity to meet long forgotten canine stars such as Strongheart — "the wonder dog, more human than human" — and rediscover canine-centric films like Rescued by Rover, which cost $37 (and gave us the name Rover).
The saga of Rin Tin Tin begins in 1918 when army gun-mechanic Lee Duncan ventures out on a battlefield to inspect the ruins of an abandoned German encampment. There, in a kennel full of 20 slaughtered dogs, he hears the sound of whimpering, and finds himself rescuing a frantic female German Shepherd and her litter of five. "From the moment he found these puppies, Lee considered himself a lucky man," writes Orlean.
He believed he was lucky despite the absence of his father, the rock ribbed loneliness of his childhood, the tough years of the orphanage, the adored pets lost to him. For the rest of his life he marveled at his good fortune in finding the puppies, turning the story over and over again like a shiny stone, watching it catch the light.
Duncan had spent part of his childhood in an orphanage. "I felt there was something about their lives that reminded me of my own life," he wrote of the puppies in an unpublished memoir. "They had crept right into a lonesome place in my life and had become a part of me." By the time Duncan has successfully found homes for the surviving mother and her puppies, keeping two for himself, every dog-loving reader will have fallen in love with him.
From that moment on, Duncan's life becomes organized around spending as much time as possible with the one surviving puppy who comes home with him after the war. Rin Tin Tin (named after a popular French good luck charm) becomes Duncan's favorite companion and pastime. The more Duncan trains him, the more he comes to believe that "the dog was destined for greatness and he was lucky to be his human guide and companion."
Duncan loves the dog so much that he writes a screenplay, a star vehicle for Rinty that he hopes to sell to a studio. Of course, as is often the case with screenplays, this results in plenty of frustration and rejection, until that one inexplicable day when Duncan somehow f...