By Susan Orlean
What makes a legend? That question is the subtext of Susan Orlean’s new book Rin Tin Tin – The Life and The Legend. Legends and myths both require good stories that get better with each telling; but what differentiates a legend is that it is based in fact. Rin Tin Tin, the orphaned German shepherd puppy rescued from a World War I battlefield who then went on to become a movie star, is a perfect example of a legendary hero. He was famous in his day and his fame lived on long after his death. The legend was beginning fade away with the Baby Boom generation and might have disappeared completely had the dog not caught Orlean’s fancy. In the abstract, this biography of the famous dog is a study of how legends come to be, but it is even more interesting than that. What happened to Orlean while she was writing the book is that she became part of the legend herself in a way that respects and even enhances the story of Rin Tin Tin, adding yet another dimension to the life of one of Hollywood’s most enduring stars.
Rin Tin Tin, the dog, was a purebred German shepherd whose intelligence and talents were obsessively documented by his owner, Lee Duncan. However, the “Rin Tin Tin” of television and movie fame was a larger-than-life hero played by not one but by many dogs and who was the subject of fanciful press releases. Rin Tin Tin is as a much a story of the dog as it is of his owner, his agent, and a handful of other true believers. Duncan, was an odd young man who had been scarred by a sad and lonely childhood in Los Angeles, California, and never quite learned the social skills necessary to form meaningful human relationships. Rinty and his littermate, Nanette, gave Duncan a sense of belonging and connection which he did not have with people. When the war ended, he could not face leaving the dogs behind, so he waged an intense lobbying campaign up and down the military chain of command which ultimately succeeded. Nanette did not survive the trans-Atlantic crossing, but Rinty did and returned with Duncan to California. The horrors of war had taken a toll on Duncan, who retreated into his own private world with Rinty and Nanette II (also a German Shepherd). Instead of finding a girl and settling down to family life, Duncan lived in his parents’ home and spent hours every day training the dogs. Duncan was convinced that Rinty was a genius among canines and set out to prove it.
During the 1920s and ‘30s silent films created legends out of actresses and actors, and Lee Duncan decided that Rinty belonged in the Hollywood pantheon of movie stars. He created screenplays with the majestic dog as the leading man and, surprisingly after knocking on hundreds of doors, Rinty got a break playing a wolf in the 1922 film, “The Man From Hell’s River”. Rin Tin Tin starred in more than 20 films across ten years of working and was such a superstar that his name appeared before his human co-stars’ on movie billings. Perhaps it was because Rinty never came across as phony or overly dramatic. He was a dog being a dog, on screen and off. Actors and actresses, on the other hand, had to use outsized gestures and extreme facial expressions in order to communicate without words. This plus the dichotomy between their real lives and their on-screen personae also made them less appealing than the always faithful, always constant canine.
In the course of researching Rin Tin Tin, Susan Orlean traveled to the French battlefield where Rinty was born, hoping for some kind of epiphany about the dog’s life. What she came to understand, instead, was that she was losing her ability to be objective about Rin Tin Tin: he had stopped being a dog and had become the object of her obsession. This is the point at which an undisciplined writer becomes irrevocably bogged down. Another trap that Orlean narrowly avoided was making the book about herself even though she wrote herself into the book by necessity. Obsessiveness characterized almost everyone in Rinty’s inner circle. This ability to inspire a passionate following seems to be another hallmark of a legend, and with Orlean, Rinty had one more true believer to keep his story alive.
The story of the legendary dog is also that of Hollywood and the ever-evolving entertainment business. Before Hollywood became associated with film making, it was largely undeveloped, with a smattering of ranches and orange groves. By the end of the 1930s, it was a bustling part of Los Angeles, a Mecca for aspiring movie stars, directors, and producers. The original Rin Tin Tin lived 13 years, but Lee Duncan kept him alive by continually promoting the dog’s pedigreed offspring with limited success. The canine hero was reincarnated in the 1950s by ABC in “Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” starring Jim Brown and Lee Acker alongside Rin Tin Tin IV (or reasonable facsimile thereof). The show ran for four years and Duncan, nearing the end of his life, was only marginally involved. He would have been shut out altogether had it not been for Bert Leonard, an executive with Columbia Pictures whose story is inextricably linked with Duncan’s. Orlean’s discovery of Leonard’s involvement with Duncan and Rinty is a fine example of investigative journalism. She had heard the name, Bert Leonard, but had been unable to learn much about him until reading his obituary. This piece of luck led her to a treasure trove of documents about Rin Tin Tin, “Rin Tin Tin”, Lee Duncan, and others, including plaintiffs and defendants in the tangle of litigation which left Leonard penniless and homeless while he slowly died from cancer.
According to legend, the original Rinty could clear an 11 foot hurdle and follow Duncan’s complicated voice commands. Sadly, most of his silent films are lost forever because no one thought to preserve them. What we know of these films is what can be pieced together from existing historical records. As talented as the original Rin Tin Tin was, his progeny were not the stuff of legends, however, and so a number of stand-ins played the part of “Rin Tin Tin” while Lee Duncan, took Rin Tin Tin’s offspring on publicity tours and visits to schools and orphanages. It was Leonard’s job to work the studio deals and find the sponsors. He was a man of vision and enthusiasm who was never able to hang onto success due to numerous character weaknesses. Leonard could easily have taken advantage of Duncan, but protected him and his interest in the Hollywood phenomenon instead, probably to his own detriment.
After Lee Duncan’s death, ownership of the rights to “Rin Tin Tin” as well as the pedigreed progeny and fan club became the objects of lengthy and expensive lawsuits. Lee Duncan famously said, “There will always be a Rin Tin Tin.” Susan Orlean, in writing this book has rekindled interest in “the greatest dog ever”. If Rin Tin Tin the book is made into a movie, there is an excellent chance that the many-headed litigation monster will reawaken, and the legend will become a myth.
Copyright 2012, Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved