The 1950s TV show The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin featured an unrelated Rinty. (ABC Television / Getty Images,…)
Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend
Simon & Schuster: 288 pp., $26.99
They called him the Dog Wonder, the Mastermind Dog, America's Greatest Movie Dog. He was listed in the Los Angeles phone book, made more money than his human costars and actually came unnervingly close to winning the first Academy Award for actor. He was Rin Tin Tin and, as Susan Orlean puts it, "He was something you could dream about. He could leap twelve feet, and he could leap through time."
"Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend" is New Yorker writer Orlean's first original work since the celebrated "The Orchid Thief," and like that book, it's a story of magnificent obsession. Nearly a decade in the making, combining worldwide research with personal connection, it offers the kind of satisfactions you only get when an impeccable writer gets hold of one heck of a story.
Rin Tin Tin (Rinty to his intimates) was not the first dog on film; that honor went to 1905's "Rescued by Rover." He wasn't even the first Hollywood dog star. That would be Strongheart, who was promoted as "More Human Than Human." But Rin Tin Tin was bigger than them all, and he had a story so unlikely it would have made a movie in itself.
The tale begins with Lee Duncan, a boy who spent his formative years in an orphanage in Oakland. "He was always deeply alone, always had the aloneness to retreat to, as if it were a room in his house," Orlean explains in a typically deft image. "The only companion to his loneliness he would ever find would be his dog, and for the rest of his life, his attachment to animals was deeper than his attachment to any person."
That dog, Rin Tin Tin, was born on a World War I battlefield in eastern France in September 1918. It always seemed to American soldier Duncan an amazing stroke of good fortune that he found this animal, a dog that so obsessed him from the get-go that he cut short leave in Paris because being without the puppy was more than he could handle. "He believed the dog was destined for greatness," Orlean writes, "and he was lucky to be his human guide and companion."
That greatness didn't begin to manifest itself until 1921, when a friend of Duncan's who'd developed a slow-motion camera shot footage of Rinty jumping over an obstacle almost 12 feet high. The footage made its way into newsreels and eventually landed the dog a contract at Warner Bros., where he made nearly two dozen silent features that earned him fans ranging from Sergei Eisenstein to Carl Sandburg.
As Orlean insightfully explains, "A dog was at no disadvantage to a human in silent film; both species had the same set of tools for telling a story — action, expression, gesture. In fact, an animal acting without words looked natural and didn't fall into pantomime and exaggeration the way human actors in silent film often did."
Rinty's career took a hit when sound films came in and Warner Bros. dropped his contract, but things got even worse for Lee Duncan when the great dog died in 1932. Though the rumor that he expired in the arms of Jean Harlow was likely not true, his death created a particular problem for his owner. As Orlean writes in the book's first sentence, "He believed the dog was immortal." How was that going to happen?
The major breakthrough in that department didn't come until more than 20 years later, when a young would-be producer named Herbert B. Leonard, who cared nothing about dogs, came to visit Lee, a man who didn't care for television, and convinced him that a Rin Tin Tin TV show was the way to go.
Was it ever. Debuting in October 1954, "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin" was a huge success, playing in more than 70 countries and so popular in the United States that almost a third of the television sets in the country tuned in when it was on. No one seemed to notice, or mind, that, as Orlean discovered, the dog in the TV series was not the advertised direct descendant of the original Rin Tin Tin but another dog altogether.
Orlean has not only ferreted out all kinds of fascinating Rinty arcana, she is especially good at contextualizing what it all means. She hypothesizes, for instance, that one reason Rin Tin Tin has had such an extraordinary level of success is because of how he fit in with the relatively new transformation of dogs from work animals to pets. "Keeping an animal in the house as a companion is so common now," she writes, "that it's easy to forget how fundamentally odd it is, and what a leap it must have been to share living quarters with a nonhuman life form just to have their company."
It turns out that Orlean's deep interest in Rin Tin Tin dates back to her childhood, to a fascination with a plastic figurine of the dog that had a sacred place on her immigrant grandfather's desk, a passion of his on which she intriguingly speculates. "My hunger for that toy," she concludes, "had led me to spend these years of my life learning the story of Rin Tin Tin." It's a shared obsession we are all the richer for.