Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend

The incredible life of Rin Tin Tin and an intense desire by his guardian to preserve the dog’s character is the subject of Susan Orlean’s latest entertaining project, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.

Rin Tin Tin was found on September 15, 1918, by Lee Duncan, an American soldier, at a deserted German encampment in the Meuse Valley in France.  The German shepherd, with his mother and four siblings, was alive in the back of a bombed kennel scattered with destroyed German army dogs.  Duncan rescued the family, keeping two of the puppies for himself.  What followed is what Orlean spent several years researching, taking advantage of the various paper trails left behind: Lee Duncan’s somewhat incomplete memoir, Warner Brothers archives, and the business papers of Herbert Leonard, a Hollywood writer and producer of the 1950s Rin Tin Tin TV series.

After World War I, German shepherds were popular in the United States, and Duncan was crazy about his adopted dog, Rin Tin Tin.  They were inseparable.  Duncan became one of the founders of the Shepherd Dog Club of California, and began to believe his dog was unique and might have a chance in Hollywood, which he did–in a big way.  Orlean says it was athleticism that got Rin Tin Tin into the movies, but his acting made him a star.

Rin Tin Tin was a dominant, heroic figure in silent movies during the 1920s, eventually earning millions for Warner Brothers and making Duncan wealthy.  He starred in 22 silent films and 7 talkies in 8 years.  He received the most votes for Best Actor during the first Academy Awards, but the Academy chose not to give their prestigious award to a dog.  Condolences poured in from around the world after his death in 1932.  When Orlean traveled to Rin Tin Tin’s gravesite in Le Cimetiere des Chiens in Paris, she was struck by the modesty of his gravestone, remarking it was nothing of the idea of what he had been.

Following Rin Tin Tin’s death, Duncan landed jobs with Rin Tin Tin’s offspring and still managed Rinty’s legacy.  The next big break for him came in 1954, when Rin Tin Tin IV became a TV star in the Western series, The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin, appearing only occasionally, however, with other dog actors performing in most of the scenes.  The theme of “triumph over diversity, aided by the dog” was a change from the silent movies Rin Tin Tin starred in, which were all action, danger and adventure.  The series aired until 1959, and was an international success.  Along with the series came the related franchise marketing products, then the reruns that lasted until 1964.

For Orlean, the real Rin Tin Tin was a curiosity during her childhood, a bit of a mystery instigated by the presence of an untouchable plastic figurine of the dog on her grandfather’s desk.  So, it’s not surprising that she wanted to experience firsthand the remains of the Corriganville Ranch where the TV series was filmed, making a special effort to see the crest of the hill where Rin Tin Tin posed at the end of every show.  Her descriptions of her visits to places like the movie ranch, the Paris cemetery, Rin Tin Tin’s birthplace in France, interviews of people still living who had knowledge of the Rin Tin Tin story, and her detailed observations of Rin Tin Tin’s performances in his silent movies are some of the book’s highlights.

Orlean’s research clearly explains the complexities surrounding Rin Tin Tin’s legacy.  She shares bits of her discoveries about the origins of the German shepherd breed, the first dog trainers, entertainment, and the complicated lives of movie producers.  We are reminded of Duncan’s mantra “there will always be a Rin Tin Tin” and what that concept meant to Duncan considering Hollywood’s demands and a culturally and technologically changing society.  Despite these challenges, preserving Rin Tin Tin’s character was paramount.  Ultimately, the Rin Tin Tin story is an American epic originating with Duncan and retold generations later by Orlean who searched for truths and provides an answer to the question she was often asked during her research:  was there just one Rin Tin Tin?

The New Yorker slideshow of Rin Tin Tin photos
Riverside Metropolitan Museum Rin Tin Tin archival collection

Kimberly Sain

As a Public Services Specialist, I actively promote the Travel and Pets neighborhoods, coordinate nature-themed programs for adults and families, and serve on the Big Read planning committee. Outdoor photography, birdwatching, discovering new hiking trails, and reading nature writing and travelogues about Alaska are some of my hobbies. Peter Matthiessen's Shadow Country is my all-time favorite novel.

  • http://www.rttetc.com Ann Elwood

    Actually, the story of Rin-Tin-Tin’s birth very likely is myth. The first story that Duncan told (in October, 1919, to the Los Angeles Times) and that three officers of his squadron told goes like this: Duncan and his mates found an adult German shepherd male on the battlefield, and Rin-Tin-Tin was one of a litter born to him and a female German shepherd. That means he was born around the time of the Armistice. A photograph of him and his sister with the 135th Aero Squadron, taken in May, 1919, corroborates this – Rin-Tin-Tin’s ears are floppy, while his sister’s are standing straight up. (German shepherd puppies ears usually become erect when they are five or six months old.)

    I am a historian. See my book, Rin-Tin-Tin: The Movie Star, available on Amazon.

    http://www.amazon.com/dp/1453866655

  • kayla chapman

    i have a qusetion im only 13 and my grandma showed me this movie rin tin tin and it is really good then i relizied the kid who played as rusty is he still alive? it is 2012 if so tell me i dont know im trying to figure this out but i cant find it if u know email me back im really samrt