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 “I felt there was something about their lives that reminded me of my own life,” he wrote of the puppies in an unpublished memoir.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 finds his way onto a film set and convinces Harry Warner to let Rinty step in to a movie scene that was being ruined by a wolf from the L.A. zoo who apparently couldn’t act.
This resulted in an eight-year relationship with Warner Brothers so profitable that Rinty became known as “The King of Pets,” “The Dog Wonder,” “The Wonder Dog of All Creation,” and “America’s Greatest Movie Dog.” Critics raved about his unusual ability to act — or at least to appear to convey emotion on film. Some called him the Barrymore of dogdom. (These were the days of silent film, where a lot was read into an empathetic facial expression.) But like so many of his species, Rin Tin Tin excelled as an exceptional action-adventure star, able to leap effortlessly from one roof top to another and over walls. He could outrun horses, he could even climb trees. Unsurprisingly, every kid wanted a dog like Rinty.
His heirs were raised by celebrities like Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow, who each owned one. And as Rin Tin Tin’s star inexorably rose, Duncan was transformed into a dignitary and one of the early models for humane dog training based on positive reinforcement. His stage appearances with Rinty, which were held after screenings of their films, seemed to provide living proof that “there was between that dog and his master as perfect an understanding as could possibly exist between two living beings.”
By 1927 Rinty was not only designated “the most popular performer in the U.S.” but was also named as the correspondent in the divorce between Duncan and his wife, who told the Los Angeles Times: “All he cared for was Rin Tin Tin.” When the dog died in 1932, Duncan buried him in a bronze casket in his backyard with a simple cross. (Years later the coffin was moved to France.) Some time after, Duncan memorialized his great love in a poem that ended with these lines:
Picture Postcard courtesy of Immortal Ephemera
A real selfish love like yours, old pal
Is something I shall never know again?
And I must always be a better man?
Because you loved me greatly, Rin Tin Tin.
Orlean, too, becomes obsessed by the dog. At the municipal museum in Riverside, California, she immerses herself in 14 boxes of apparently long forgotten records, notes, and Rin Tin Tin memorabilia meticulously catalogued by Duncan. She sees the stash as “a gift that had been selected for me and then sat waiting almost half a century for me to come by and open it.” By now she feels herself merging with the rest of the keepers of some larger-than-life flame, as she searches for the answer to how one dog “managed to linger in the minds of so many people for so long when so much else shines for a moment only and then finally fades away.”
The author also takes time to examine her own sense of mission. In Rinty’s story, she finds many stories:
It was a tale of lost families and of identity and of the way we live with animals. It was a story of luck both good and bad and the half turns that life takes all the time. It was a story of war as well as a story of amusement. It was an account of how we create heroes and what we want from them.
In her quest, Orlean employs the evocative, elliptical, carefully crafted style that fans will recognize from her past work. And so we happily travel back and forth with her from the personal to the universal as she takes us on richly researched detours into the changing face of American dog domestication, the history of the women who brought dog obedience trials to dog shows in the thirties, the rise of the K-9 Corps and the role of dog volunteers in wars around the world, and a pet cemetery in France where the original Rinty is said to be buried. Along the way, she also introduces us to the present-day cast of people whose lives continue to focus on the legacy of Rin Tin Tin.
Duncan and Rinty’s story, like so many other show business tales, is full of successes and failures, rises and falls. After a downturn in the late 1940s and early 50s, the dog’s (or, by then, dogs’s) fame culminated in the wildly popular early television show The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, omnipresent in my own childhood. Here Orlean uncovers yet another treasure trove of amusing details, this time ferreted out of the dusty archives of the show’s feisty combative creator Bert Leonard (who went on to create The Naked City and Route 66). Among the shot lists and scripts are stories that helped explain why, as a child, I always thought the show looked kind of weird. The studio suggested that the number of extras and background players could be reduced if the actors were thought of as interchangeable. Instead of having one actor play a cavalry officer, another play a Comanche brave, and another play a townsperson, the studio had one actor play all three. According to Screen Gems, the children wouldn’t notice: “that’s what makeup was for …We cheated with camera angles … We sometimes had the same person killing himself.” (Surprise, Screen Gems. At least one child noticed.)
Also perversely enjoyable to me is Orlean’s detailed documentation of the hostility between Bert Leonard and the network executives of his time. Orlean includes a nice sampling of testy letters he received from one executive who called his work “inadequate.” After Burt apparently answered him in kind, the executive wrote: “Bert, what can you accomplish by writing a letter like this other than make an enemy?”
As with every Hollywood story, there comes a time when Duncan finds that he and the heirs of Rin Tin Tin have become replaceable. “Eventually we had 18 Rin Tin Tins and we used them all,” Jack Warner said in an interview. “Each animal was a specialist. One was used for attack scenes, another was trained to jump 12 foot walls, a third was a gentle house dog and so on.”
As Orlean points out, eventually the original Rin Tin Tin, the flesh and blood dog, was no longer the point. It wasn’t about a particular dog or a particular guy who saved his life, transforming them both forever. Rin Tin Tin had become a myth and a legend. “He had beaten time. He had become a classic.”