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Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend
by Susan Orlean
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In World War I, a young soldier named Lee Duncan found a litter of puppies in a ruined kennel on a battlefield in France. Lee managed to bring two of the puppies home, and one of them grew up to become the famed movie-star dog Rin Tin Tin. I had heard the name before, but knew nothing else about him. This book depicts pretty clearly what was so remarkable about the dog and how he became so famous. Coming from a rather lonely childhood, Lee bonded closely with Rin Tin Tin and trained him to follow detailed commands. The author does a great job at noting how different society and the role of dogs in America was back then- most dogs were working animals, didn’t live in the house, and were not trained- not even to the basic “sit”, “come” or “heel”. Rin Tin Tin was not only well-trained but had a very expressive face, this combined with his intelligence and aptitude for physical feats- leaping long distances, clearing obstacles, pulling items, etc- made him a star in silent films where his roles were central, just as much as the human actors. Apparently he embodied the values of bravery and loyalty to the public, caused german shepherd dogs to become wildly popular, and even led to the obedience training of household dogs to become common. Lee was enraptured with his dog and worked to breed Rin Tin Tin, selling the puppies then selecting and training a suitable inheritor for the dog’s role. Because of course the dog got old and eventually died, but one of his offspring took his place.
A lot of the book is about the show business, how the dog’s popularity waxed and waned, how it went from being one particular famed dog to a famous character portrayed by many dogs, about the people who took care of him, trained him, wrote scripts for him, and fought over rights to his image. How the character portrayal and management of dogs acting for Rin Tin Tin diverged from the actual canine descendants that were bred. The clash between Rin Tin Tin and Lassie for popularity, and how Rin Tin Tin the movie dog differed from the TV show. About people who collected Rin Tin Tin memorabilia, or longed for one of the german shepherds descended from him, and on and on. At times I thought I would get tired of this book because it was so much about the people and circumstances surrounding the dog, more than Rin Tin Tin himself. But in all it was pretty darn interesting, especially the cultural aspects, I learned things about American history I didn’t know before, especially in regards to the filmmaking industry, dog breed clubs and shows.
more at the Dogear Diary
While serving during World War I serviceman Lee Duncan came across a little of new born German Shepherd puppies. He took two for himself and gave the others to other soldiers. The two he kept he named Nannette and Rintintin. Unfortunately the little female Nannette died, but Rintintin grew up to be a star.
Orlean’s traces Rin Tin Tin’s development from his first roles as a stand-in for a wolf in motion pictures to his staring role in blockbuster films, and then his decline in popularity as the years go by.
Of course the film star of Rin Tin Tin was not just one dog. Or at least, not for long. At first Rinty was the star and did his own stunts and everything. Later he had stand-ins, and different dogs would play different versions of Rin Tin Tin, from playful to ferocious. And after the death of Rin Tin Tin a variety of his descendants took on his mantel, and even other dogs pretending to be Rinty while the “real” Rin Tin Tin descendant stayed at home playing the role of ranch dog.
But it is more than simply a look at a dog family. It is, rather, an examination of the role these German shepherds played in the lives of the men and women they touched. Duncan seems to have focused all his attentions and passions on the dog and promoting Rinty as a premier example of dogness.
She looks at how society changed over the years of Rin Tin Tin’s popularity and what he seemed to have represented to Americans, and other people whereever his films and later his television show played. But it isn’t a sociological examination either. Instead it is an examination of an obsession. Duncan’s obsession with his dog. America’s obsession with this canine hero. And all the others since then who have devoted their lives to keeping the memory of Rin Tin Tin alive.
I’m not so sure his memory is alive any longer, not over here anyway, I’d say very few children today would recognise the name, although I might be wrong.
All in all I found this a fairly entertaining book. I don’t think I’d be rushing out to buy it, or recommending that many people read it though. Solid would be an apt description, and that isn’t really a ringing endorsement, is it?
Orlean traces the history of the many Rin Tin Tins and his masters from WWI to the present. Interesting review for anyone who has lived through a bit of the Rin Tin Tin legend.
This book is not just about an individual dog (because there were many), but about the icon that Rin Tin Tin and about the people who built and fostered its legacy.
While reading this book, I admired the research that went into writing it--and my writer crush on Susan Orlean deepens.
But by the end of this expertly told tale, [Orlean] may persuade even the most hardened skeptic that Rin Tin Tin belongs on Mount Rushmore with George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt, or at least somewhere nearby with John Wayne and Seabiscuit.
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Wikipedia in English (3)
Allegedly found in the ruins of a bombed-out dog kennel in France during World War I, then brought to Los Angeles by Lee Duncan, the soldier who found and trained him, by 1927 Rin Tin Tin had become Hollywood's number one box-office star. Susan Orlean's book--about the dog and the legend--is a poignant exploration of the enduring bond between humans and animals. It is also a richly textured history of twentieth-century entertainment and entrepreneurship. It spans ninety years and explores everything from the shift in status of dogs from working farmhands to beloved family members, from the birth of obedience training to the evolution of dog breeding, from the rise of Hollywood to the past and present of dogs in war.--From publisher description.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)636.737Technology and Application of Knowledge Agriculture & related technologies Animal husbandry Dogs Working Dogs Herding
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An edition of this book was published by Recorded Books.
I found Orlean's dedication to her research and her ability to bring back to life the history of Rin Tin Tin and those around him remarkable. I sped through most of the book in one sitting, and probably would have finished it then if the plane hadn't landed.
After reading the book I found that a) I wanted to watch some of the original Rin Tin Tin silent movies, and b) get a German Shepard. Despite not having grown up with Rinty, Orlean made me fall in love with the dog and want to be a part of his legacy.
A great book for any dog lover, or any movie history buff.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Goodreads First Reads program. ( )