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Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend

by Susan Orlean

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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5743330,826 (3.52)19
Rin-Tin-Tin was discovered on a WWI battlefield in 1918. The adorable German shepherd went on to star in several movies throughout the 1920s and 30s. Eventually, his legacy was cemented in a popular 1950s television program.
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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 ( )
  jeane | Apr 4, 2021 |
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? ( )
  Fence | Jan 5, 2021 |
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. ( )
  addunn3 | Jul 24, 2020 |
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. ( )
  alyssajp | Jul 29, 2019 |
In the beginning, there was an orphaned German Shepherd puppy in the war-torn fields of World War One France, and a young American soldier who had spent a lot of his life lonely and isolated, and part of it in an orphanage. The young soldier was Lee Duncan; the orphan puppy became Rin Tin Tin, a leading canine actor of the silent movie period.

It’s easy to misunderstand that last bit, today, when animals in movies almost always play a comic role and are foils for the human actors. During the silent era, animal actors were on a much more equal footing with human actors, because neither had the advantage of speech. Rin Tin Tin, along with other dog actors, played a range of dramatic roles comparable to a human actor, and Rinty, as Duncan called him, was a major movie star. He was smart, highly trainable, and learned to express a wide range of emotions. Duncan took him home from France (an adventure in itself), trained him, and eventually started making the rounds of the movie studios, campaigning for a “break” for his beloved dog.

Orlean gives us the very human story of Duncan’s mostly isolated childhood, his pre-war happy employment in the gun department of a sporting goods store, and, after his return home from the war with the puppy Rin Tin Tin, his discovery that the experience of war had made him permanently uncomfortable around guns. He needed to find another way to support himself, and time spent with his dog was the surest way to ground himself and remain functional. (Many soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have had remarkably similar experiences, including the steadying benefits of a companion dog, whether brought home from the war zone or not.) Rinty gets his chance, becomes a big star, and he and Duncan are living the good life.

Then Rinty gets older, less able to do his really athletic stunts, and the Depression hits. Lee Duncan was, as a businessman, honest and naive, and got hurt badly by the financial crash. But he never gave up, and he believed in the idea of Rin Tin Tin as much as in the specific dog he brought home from France. This is also the story of the descendants and maybe-descendants of the original Rin Tin Tin, and Duncan’s dedicated efforts to keep the idea and the ideal of Rin Tin Tin alive. This includes the incarnation of Rin Tin Tin that both Orlean and I knew as children: the tv show set in the American west, decades before the original Rin Tin Tin was born. That tv show was created by producer Bert Leonard, who became as dedicated a supporter of Rin Tin Tin as Duncan himself.
Both Duncan and Leonard experienced success because of Rin Tin Tin, but also paid a real price for a dedication that went beyond the pragmatic and, in business terms, beyond the sensible. This is a fascinating look at not only the dogs who were Rin Tin Tin, but the people around them, and the impact this dog had on their professional, personal, and family lives.

Recommended.

I bought this book. ( )
  LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 33 (next | show all)
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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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Susan Orleanprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dantes, MarlynCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Singer, NancyDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For John and Austin, my people
and
For Molly, Cooper, and Ivy, my dogs
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He believed the dog was immortal.
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But 'Clash of the Wolves' made me understand why so many millions of people fell in love with Rin Tin Tin and were moved by the way he wordlessly embodied many of the questions and conflicts and challenges that come with being alive.
Rinty was named as a corespondent in the divorce, a role usually reserved for mistresses.
The Academy Awards were presented for the first time, and Rinty received the most votes for Best Actor.  But members of the Academy, anxious to establish the new awards as serious and important, decided that giving an Oscar to a dog did not serve that end, so the votes were recalculated, and the award was diverted to Emil Jannings, for his performances in both 'The Way of All Flesh' and 'The Last Command'.
In his way, Rin Tin Tin had come to represent something essentially American.  He wasn't born in the United States, and neither were his parents, but those facts only made him more quintessentially American: he was an immigrant in a country of immigrants.
He got his own salary, separate from Lee's salary as his trainer, and he earned more than most of his costars; in 'Lighthouse by the Sea', for instance, he was paid $1,000 per week, while the lead human actor, William Collier Jr., was paid only $150.
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Rin-Tin-Tin was discovered on a WWI battlefield in 1918. The adorable German shepherd went on to star in several movies throughout the 1920s and 30s. Eventually, his legacy was cemented in a popular 1950s television program.

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