Monday, January 02, 2012

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean

Who exactly was Rin Tin Tin? From her childhood, Susan Orlean remembered the 1950s television show and a German shepherd figurine on her grandfather's desk, but like many Americans, she had not thought much about Rin Tin Tin in decades. The mention of his name in the late 1990s, however, sparked her writer's curiosity, and she began to revisit her memories to discover a broader context. She did not intend her investigation to last ten years and result in a book. Because she became personally involved with her subject and committed to preserving the story, we now have Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.

Of course, the simple answer to Orlean's initial question is that Rin Tin Tin was a dog, but not the dog that she imagined. There were numerous Rin Tin Tin's before (and after) the one she thought she knew from The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin which debuted on ABC in 1954 and was dropped by CBS in 1965, and none of the dogs used in the television series was ever the official Rin Tin Tin of the time. The original was a puppy found by American soldier Lee Duncan in the ruins of a World War I battlefield in 1918. Duncan nearly lost this dog before shipping home, but a sympathetic officer intervened to allow the puppy on board the troop ship. A broken leg and a failed screen test nearly kept the original from becoming a silent movie actor, but Duncan persevered, and Rin Tin Tin became a movie sensation.

In the early movies, Rin Tin Tin played dogs with other names. Later, dogs with other names played Rin Tin Tin doing things that he never actually did. Reality was especially ignored in nineteenth century stories of the Wild West. German shepherds were not introduced as a breed (in Germany) until the late 1890s, and very few were brought to the United States before the end of World War I. Rin Tin Tin became in many ways a myth and trademark instead of a real dog.

The constant throughout the story with its many Rin Tin Tins is Duncan and his chosen successor as protector of the Rin Tin Tin legacy, film producer Bert Leonard. While Duncan was a loner and Leonard was a fast-spending lady's man, both were dreamers devoted to the idea of dog movies and incapable of protecting their own families from financial ruin. Leonard died amid many lawsuits, some aimed at a Texas dog breeder who thought she owned the Rin Tin Tin name by virtue of owning some of the descendant dogs.

I listened to Orlean read her wide-reaching biography/history in which readers learn about dogs in war, silent movies, German shepherds in America, the Baby Boom, early television, dog breeders, and the collectibles industry in the age of eBay. She sounds natural and at times confessional, as her book is also a  memoir. Her story is compelling throughout and deserves the many readers it is getting.

Orlean, Susan. Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. Simon and Schuster Audio, 2011. 10 compact discs. ISBN 9781442344969.

1 comment:

Ann Elwood said...

Actually, the story of Rin-Tin-Tin's birth 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. A photograph of him and his sister with the 135th Aero Squadron, taken in May, 1919, corroborates this – Rin-Tin-Tin's ears are floppy, while his sister's are standing straight up. (German shepherd puppies' ears usually become erect when they are five or six months old

I am a historian. See my book, Rin-Tin-Tin: The Movie Star, available on Amazon.