June 12, 2012

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend

i think i heard about this one from an NPR interview with Susan Orlean. i've never read any of her books; i only know her as the writer Meryl Streep played in Adaptation. so, a 317 page book about a puppy dog seemed like a good place to start.

similarly, i had heard of Rin Tin Tin before but really didn't know any of his story, which is pretty incredible. his owner Lee Duncan was a soldier in WWI and was sent to examine a bombed site in France. being the dog lover that he is, he immediately recognized the destroyed dog kennel and investigated... to find a lone German Shepherd mama and her babies in the wreckage. he brought them all back to camp, where most were adopted by other soldiers. he kept the prettiest boy & girl, naming them Rin Tin Tin and Nanette, after the popular French good luck charms. Here's Lee and puppy Rinty:

Lee had his own childhood abandonment story, so he felt a special kinship with Rinty. (Nanette sadly died of pneumonia after they all arrived in the States.) he thought his dog was exceptional and would be great in the movies, so he began knocking on the doors of the new & fledgling movie industry. through a series of mostly-believable events (it was hard for Orlean to separate fact from lore), Rin Tin Tin landed a part in a silent film, and a star was born. he quickly became the most famous actor in Hollywood and basically was Warner Brothers' meal ticket for many years. in fact, for the first Academy Awards, he was voted Best Actor, but the Academy wanted people to take them seriously, so they gave the award to a human instead.

both photos from the book
he was highly intelligent and exceptionally trained, able to perform difficult & complicated tasks and maneuvers. seriously, the dog could fake a limp. but what really got people was his expression- he always held a mournful, knowing gaze that enraptured audiences. he became a true celebrity, with people clamoring to see him, meet him, and learn as much about him as possible.

the story of his & Lee's life together is a roller coaster, and it continues just so after their deaths. Lee believed there would always be a Rin Tin Tin, and after #1's death, many successors followed- some from the original Rin's bloodline, some not. the story weaves throughout the entire 20th century and involves epic highs and lows for the people involved.

what i loved about the book is how tenderly Orlean treats Lee and his relationship with Rin Tin Tin, and the broader sociological tangents she indulges in. She investigates the evolution from dog as farm companion to city pet- how the Industrial Revolution elevated their status from working animals that slept in the barn, to beloved family members. other topics she covers extensively are the use of canines in wartime, the genesis of obedience training- a path mostly trail blazed by women, and the rise and fall of particular breeds based on prevailing public opinion. all in all, a fascinating look at an "immortal" star, the individuals drawn to the dog and his legacy, and the larger story of how we as people relate to animals. highly recommend.


Ann Elwoodhttp said...

Actually, the story of Rin-Tin-Tin's birth on a battlefield in September of 1919 very likely is myth. The first story that Duncan told (in October, 1919, to the Los Angeles Times) and that three officers of his squadron told goes like this: Duncan and his mates found an adult German shepherd male on the battlefield, and Rin-Tin-Tin was one of a litter born to him and a female German shepherd. That means he was born around the time of the Armistice. Evidence shows that story to be the true one. The photograph above was taken after the 135th Aero Squadron arrived back in the United States in May, 1919. In it, Duncan sits on the ground with Rin-Tin-Tin in his arms; next to him is another man with Nanette, Rin-Tin-Tin's sister. Rin-Tin-Tin's ears are floppy; Nanette's stand straight up. German shepherd puppies' ears start to stand up when they are five or six months old. (That's also the age the puppies appear to be, not the nine months they would have been had they been born in September.) See my book, Rin-Tin-Tin: The Movie Star, available on Amazon.


corrie said...

it seems that much of the dog's story is hard to ascertain and should be taken with a grain of salt. in this case i'll stick with the romanticized version. :)