Posted by Susan Doll on October 17, 2011
Author Susan Orlean recently published Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, a biography of the canine movie star. Instead of doing the usual round of book signings at bookstores, which are seldom lucrative these days unless the author is a star or celebrity, Orlean is touring theaters. The author is using the occasion to introduce new generations to Rin Tin Tin by showing a 1925 film starring the talented canine. I thoroughly enjoyed Orlean’s program, which included a short film about Rin Tin Tin, a reading from the book, a screening of Clash of the Wolves, a Q&A with the author, and a signing for those who purchased the book. If Orlean comes to your area, I can’t recommend her program enough; it offers much to think about regarding the meaning and value of pop culture in America, the bond between humans and animals, and the need for writers to find a larger context for their memories and experiences.
Unlike Lassie, who was a character created for the movies and played by several male dogs, Rin Tin Tin was a real pet from the real world before he became a movie star. And, there is much about his life story that is as heart-wrenching as any script for a movie. In September 1918, U.S. soldier Lee Duncan found a family of German shepherds in a bombed-out kennel in Fluiry in the Meuse Valley of France. A female with five puppies seemed to be the last survivors in the kennel, and Duncan took it upon himself to rescue them. He found homes for the mother and three pups, but he adopted the remaining two puppies, which he named Rin Tin Tin and Nenette (some sources use “Nanette”) after popular French dolls of the time. When he tried to arrange for passage for the two puppies on his return trip home to America, he ran into red tape. An officer intervened on Duncan’s behalf, and the puppies made the arduous voyage. Sadly, Nenette died from canine distemper shortly after her arrival in the States, but Rin Tin Tin grew into a strong, athletic dog. A striking-looking dog, Rin Tin Tin was nearly black, with gold marbling on his legs, chin, and chest. His unusually large, tulip-shaped ears were expressive, signaling mood or emotion through their twitchy movements or erect position.
Orphaned for a time as a child, Duncan did not experience the happiest of childhoods. He became a life-long animal lover, perhaps to compensate for his disappointment in humans, and he developed an unbreakable bond with his German shepherd. He began teaching the young pup an array of tricks. Rin Tin Tin learned quickly and was truly a gifted canine athlete, who could run faster and jump higher than other dogs. The pair frequented the dog show circuit and, encouraged by a film series starring a dog named Strongheart, they began to approach Hollywood studios in search of a contract. In 1922, the two happened upon a Warner Bros. film crew shooting a movie featuring a wolf. The animal actor in the key role was not well trained, and perhaps because he was a wolf, not entirely trainable. Duncan, who had an unshakable belief that his dog was special, knew Rinty could do the scene in one take. The crew initially refused Duncan’s suggestion to try his dog, but eventually Rin Tin Tin was given his shot. Though Rin Tin Tin did not get a screen credit for The Man from Hell’s River, he was on his way to stardom. His first major role came in 1923 in Where the North Begins.
Luck is a running theme in Rin Tin Tin’s story, and the dog proved good luck and good fortune to Warner Bros. Warners was trying to establish itself as a major studio and needed cash flow, a higher profile, and new strategies to make that happen. Where the North Begins gave them a success to tout to its investors and some money to pay off debts. Subsequent films featuring Rin Tin Tin helped keep the studio in the black, partly due to the appeal of the star and partly due to the writing talents of Darryl F. Zanuck, who later became one of Hollywood’s biggest producers. Zanuck cleverly combined drama, comedy, and adventure in Rin Tin Tin’s movies to attract a mainstream audience of all ages. Rin Tin Tin starred in 27 successful movies, though only six survive at this writing. At the height of his popularity, the canine reportedly pulled down $6,000 per week and attracted 40,000 fan letters per month, though these figures vary based on the source. A vaudeville show was developed around Rinty that earned him one of his many nicknames—the Barrymore of Dogdom. He performed alongside other famous artists of the day, including Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club. All of this suggests he was an animal star of unprecedented magnitude.
Rin Tin Tin’s last project was a serial titled Lightning Warrior (1931). Later that year, the famous dog retired, but sadly, his retirement was short-lived. In 1932, Rin Tin Tin died suddenly in Duncan’s front yard. Legend has it that he collapsed and died in the adoring arms of his Beverly Hills neighbor, blonde bombshell Jean Harlow, but this is one of the many tall tales about his life and death. Duncan heard the dog make an unusual sound and ran to his aid; his beloved pet died in his arms. The pair had been inseparable since shortly after the dog’s birth, so it was fitting that Duncan was there to comfort him at his death. Though Rinty was originally buried in California, Duncan reinterred Rin Tin Tin in France, his country of birth, in the Cimetie’re Des Chiens in Paris as a gesture of honor.
The offspring of Rin Tin Tin kept the name and legend alive throughout the Golden Age. During WWII, he became the official spokesdog for the U.S. military. In 1954, producer Herbert Leonard created The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin for television, which was an immediate success. The series ran for several years on ABC and then in reruns in syndication on CBS. Leonard believed in the show so much that he spent much time and effort trying to revive it, eventually dying penniless because he did not want to sell out to Disney and other conglomerates.
Orlean’s book is more than just the story of a lineage of show-business dogs, which she makes clear in her reading and during the Q&A. Rinty’s real-life back story as a survivor of WWI resonated with audiences of the postwar 1920s, and the devotion of Duncan to his dog reflects the change in attitude toward animals during the twentieth century. As the country moved from an agrarian culture to an industrial one, animals became less like utilitarian creatures and more like beloved pets. In addition, Rin Tin Tin stirred something in people, because through his films, he came to exemplify the noblest of virtues and ideals. He represented loyalty, valor, and strength of character, which are characteristics humans admire and strive to demonstrate, but with mixed results. Rin Tin Tin still “lives” because he remains as much a metaphor or symbol as a pop culture phenomenon.
Like Orlean, I was introduced to Rin Tin Tin through the television series, which I saw in reruns during the 1960s. By this time, the starring dog was Rin Tin Tin IV. According to Orlean, she had forgotten about her favorite childhood show until she began researching Rin Tin Tin for an article in The New Yorker. Then, memories of her childhood came flooding back. She recalled that her grandfather had kept a statue of Rin Tin Tin on his desk, an object she coveted as a kid but was never allowed to play with. In researching the history of the famous canine, she realized that the original Rin Tin Tin represented something more than a dog to her grandfather in the post-WWI era just as he did for Orlean in the 1950s. As Orlean noted, Rin Tin Tin could not only jump 12 feet but also through time.
I could relate to Orlean’s anecdotes about why the subject appealed to her so much that she spent a decade working on it. Writers often select and research topics—including nonfiction subjects—that help put into perspective something about their lives and memories.
The highlight of the program was the Rin Tin Tin silent movie Clash of the Wolves, which had its own peculiar history. The film was thought lost, but during the 1970s, someone in South Africa discovered a print while clearing out a cabinet in an old building. They also found a copy of another Rin Tin Tin film, Jaws of Steel. Both prints were in relatively good condition and sent to the Library of Congress for preservation. The print of Clash of the Wolves that is touring with Orlean is the one discovered 30 years ago in South Africa. A professional silent-film organist accompanied the film, which added an immediacy and spontaneity to the viewing experience.
In Clash of the Wolves, Rin Tin Tin stars as Lobo, a wolf who is forced to move his mate, pups, and pack from the high country into the desert after a devastating forest fire. The townsfolk, who are prospectors and ranchers, form a posse to chase the wolf pack, hoping to shoot them down. To protect his pack, Lobo acts as a decoy for the posse, and they chase him instead of the other wolves. Lobo jumps into a ravine, injuring his paw when he falls into a cactus. A handsome borax prospector, played by Charles Farrell, finds the wolf and nurses him back to health. In the process, the wolf becomes the prospector’s pet, but he must hide the animal from the townspeople. A greedy chemist who works in the assayer’s office tries to jump Farrell’s borax claim, seriously wounding him in the process. Lobo brings help to rescue Farrell and then chases down the bad guy. In the end, Lobo and his pups and mate, played by Rin Tin Tin’s real-life mate, Nanette, live happily ever after with the prospector and the rancher’s daughter.
The plot may have been predictable, but the 85-year-old film’s combination of humor and adventure enchanted a cynical, Chicago audience on a fall afternoon. The tricks and stunts by Rin Tin Tin were charming and thrilling. To keep Lobo’s identity a secret from the townspeople, the prospector and his friends disguised the canine with a fake beard, providing one of the movie’s best visual jokes. Then, to protect Lobo’s feet, the prospector made two pairs of cute leather socks for all four paws, which Lobo gamely wore for most of the film. When he had to climb up a wooden plank to get onto a roof, he untied them with his mouth and raced up the board. Rin Tin Tin could jump from great heights and run as fast as a horse at full gallop. While chasing the chemist on horseback, the dog stayed right at the back hooves of the horse—a remarkable stunt for both Rin Tin Tin and the horse. When Lobo jumped a particularly wide ravine, the audience in the theater broke into applause.
Orlean is donating part of the money from the book tour to the Pedigree Foundation, which helps shelter dogs get adopted. October is Adopt-a-Pet month, and I dedicate this post to all the dogs and cats who are waiting for their Lee Duncans to come rescue them. Please consider adopting a dog or cat from a shelter and giving it a good home. Though he or she might not be as talented as Rin Tin Tin, they will return your generosity tenfold with loyalty and devotion.
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