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'Rin Tin Tin': It's about time this dog gets another day

| Sunday, Oct. 2, 2011

The first Academy Award for best actor went to Emil Jannings in 1929 for his roles in "The Way of All Flesh" and "The Last Command."

He actually was the runner-up, according to Susan Orlean; Rin Tin Tin outpolled the German actor.

When confronted with her research, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences denied Orlean's claim. But, she discovered multiple sources indicating the canine star should have been awarded the Oscar.

"It sounds absurd until you take into account Rin Tin Tin's popularity and the seriousness with which he was viewed," Orlean says. "Now, it sounds like kind of a goof to vote for a dog. But it wasn't a goof at the time. He was considered a serious actor."

Orlean's "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend" illuminates the story of a dog who was among the brightest movie stars of the first half of the 20th century. Found as a puppy in France during World War I by Lee Duncan, an American G.I., Rin Tin Tin barely made it to the United States. His passage was denied until an officer intervened on Duncan's behalf. An athletic German shepherd of great personality and expression, "Rinty" became one of the first headliners for Warner Bros., which relied on the dog star's films to boost its bottom line.

Most of all, Orlean writes, "he stirred something in people." Fans of all ages were inspired by Rinty's films. But how did Rin Tin Tin transcend his age and become an iconic figure, born again and re-introduced to succeeding generations via his descendants?

When Orlean started researching the story, she had no road map, no destination in mind. She wasn't quite sure why Rin Tin Tin was so compelling to her. But as she invested time -- she started the book in 2004 -- and traveled to France, Texas, Michigan and California to flesh out the narrative, a story emerged.

"I don't think I would have stayed interested if Rin Tin Tin was just a cute dog in the movies and TV," Orlean says. "I don't know if it would have kept my interest, nor do I think it would have meant as much. Instead it became a 'Zelig' story that almost became like a through line of 100 years of American popular culture. ... I love dogs, but I never wrote the book thinking you really have to love dogs to care about this."

As she immersed herself in the history, multiple story lines emerged. There's Duncan, born in 1893, abandoned at an orphanage six years later by his mother. (She came back for him after a few years). Duncan connected more with Rinty and the dog's descendents than his wife and daughter.

There's Herbert "Bert" Leonard, who developed the TV show "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin" and endlessly tried to revive the show. Leonard was so single-minded in his vision of what Rin Tin Tin meant that he ended up penniless despite offers to sell the franchise to Disney and other conglomerates.

And there's Orlean's story, woven through the narrative. When she was growing up in Cleveland in the late 1950s, she watched the TV series (by then Rin Tin Tin IV was Duncan's main dog, although another canine starred in the show). Her grandfather, "somewhat dour and formal," kept a plastic Rin Tin Tin figurine on his desk. His grandchildren could look but not touch, making the toy all the more appealing. Only once were they permitted to take the toy home. Naturally, a tussle ensued over possession and the toy was broken.

At one point, as her research expanded, Orlean thought "my life is ticking away, just like Lee's was and Bert's was. You start to think 'my life is about this book, and at what point has this become a ridiculous obsession as it did with all these other people I'm writing about, as if they're so strange?' And, yet, it's the story of what's happening to me, too.There were moments when I thought I was never going to get it done, and other moments when I just wanted it to go away."

Orlean, also the author of "The Orchid Thief," which was made into the film "Adaptation," persevered because she could not let the story go. At one point in the narrative, referring to her grandfather's broken toy, she writes "I have come to believe that I've been looking for that dog ever since that day."

Orlean found another plastic Rin Tin Tin on e-Bay, but the tales and sidebars that surfaced transcend a mere toy. "Rin Tin Tin" illustrates how dogs (and pets in general) were transformed from utilitarian roles to companions as the 20th century advanced. It tells the story of two men whose lives were inexorably linked to Rin Tin Tin, as a companion and as an iconic figure.

And it makes the case that however dated the movies and '50s television program may seem, the story of Rin Tin Tin still has relevance.

"I think that there would still be a connection that kids would make," Orlean says. "Kids still love dogs and still love stories about dogs. ... It's still a boy and a dog against the world. I don't think I'm being retro in saying that that's still a very emotional connection kids can still make, and do make, even though kids may play Angry Birds five hours a day. Games are games, but stories are forever."

A dog history

• Rin Tin Tin and his litter mate, Nanette, were found when they were puppies by an American G.I., Lee Duncan, in a kennel in Fluiry, France, during World War I. They were probably being groomed as canine troops by German soldiers. Duncan named Rin Tin Tin and Nanette after a pair of dolls then popular in France. Considered good-luck charms, the dolls got their names from a pair of young French lovers who survived a bombing in a Parisian railway station at the beginning of the war.

• German shepherds were rare in United States until the first decade of the 20th century. The American Kennel club recognized the breed in 1908, but they were expensive: A German shepherd at the Westminster Kennel Club show in 1913 was sold for the $10,000, the equivalent of $215,000 today.

• The original Rin Tin Tin made his feature film debut in "Man from Hell's River" in 1922 in an uncredited role. His first starring role was in the silent movie, "Where the North Begins" in 1923. It earned $325,000 and was considered a success. Only six of the 23 silent movies featuring Rin Tin Tin exist today.

• A vaudeville show was developed for the original Rin Tin Tin that earned him the nickname "the Barrymore of dogdom." Among the artists Rin Tin Tin performed with: Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra in New York.

• "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin" premiered on Oct. 14,1954, on ABC-TV. It was an immediate success, with ratings indicating 9 million of the 30 million TVs in the United States tuned into the program. Among the toys and products spun off from the show were lunch boxes, pocket knives, mess kits, walkie-talkies, slippers and 3-D color viewers. When Rin Tin Tin appeared at a Los Angeles department store later that year, 3,000 people showed up, and 2,500 had to be turned away. The show ran until 1959.

Additional Information:

Capsule review

The story of Rin Tin Tin, the noble German shepherd of film and TV, is actually a stirring immigrant's tale: rescued during World War I in France, raised in hard times in California, and then discovered in Hollywood. Susan Orlean conveys this story with verve and invention, weaving various characters and narratives (including her own) into the story of a dog whose iterations reflect a swathe of American history.

• Rege Behe

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