Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend

“He believed the dog was immortal,” Susan Orlean writes at the beginning of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. Although the pronoun refers to Lee Duncan, the American soldier who found the German shepherd puppy on a battlefield in France in 1918, the author spends the rest of the book building a case for what became her own powerful belief that the iconic cinema canine, “idea and ideal,” will never die.

Certainly, he lives forever in one ghostly way—as does anyone whose temporal shape has been chemically fixed on celluloid.  Even though relatively few of the early films starring the original dog (as opposed to the doppelgängers of later vehicles and television serials) survive, Netflix ought to be ready.  They’ll soon be flying out of there in great volume because of the inevitable popularity of this beguiling work by an eminent New Yorker writer who has a knack for crafting bestsellers.  Rin Tin Tin’s immortality in this regard was guaranteed less by what he was than by what he wasn’t: specific.  As a creature whose agency necessarily remained mysterious, he could represent what was most desired in any age.  At the outset of his career,  the silent movie era of the twenties, what was wanted was the classically proportioned hero: steadfast, emerging from brutal or cruel circumstances with stoic character, ageless already because the screenplays were drawn from ancient legend.  There were a lot of pictures set in the frozen North; it provided the elemental backdrop required by the primal morality plays craved by audiences in rapidly changing, industrializing America.

Too, there was something about Rin Tin Tin that endowed him with a special aptitude for carrying the freight of those mythic roles: even prominent critics such as Carl Sandburg praised his ability to convey profound emotion.  In 1927, Orlean recounts,  the dog received more votes than any other actor for an Academy Award.  (Instead of giving it to a canine, they created a new category for animal stars.)

In 1932, the “real” Rin Tin Tin died.  There was a great outpouring of sadness; obituaries and memorials and an hour-long radio tribute.  No one was more affected than Lee Duncan, the man who had loved Rinty so much he had devoted most of his adult life to making sure the public knew how important a dog—this dog—could be.  He succeeded so completely that even well after his own death he convinced a famous writer to spend ten years researching every aspect of his beloved companion’s life and times.

Orlean rarely takes on a single subject.  Rather, her subjects take her on, and then they expand.  She becomes a part of her story: her motivating desire to investigate a person or a cultural phenomenon illuminates, for her, the topic’s ability to encompass nearly everything.  Because she wrote herself into The Orchid Thief, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman wrote himself writing about her (writing about herself as well as her subject) for the surreal film Adaptation.  Likewise, the subject of Rin Tin Tin concatenates: one line radiating from it is a psychological portrait of Duncan, his desperate childhood yielding a sad explanation of his lifelong drive to give his dog eternal life.

 Another line is the history of cinema in America, arcing from a start in which heroic, mute characters nonetheless spoke most loudly to audiences, all the way to the rise of television, which gradually turned into a theater where more sentimental portrayals of dogs like Lassie were preferred.  Finally, she shows, it became a screen that, like a mirror, reflected a society for whom dogs were no longer Other, or generally seen as heroes—they were pets.  (The author notes that “between 1947 and 1953, the number of dogs in the United States grew from 17 million to 22 million, and the dog population was growing four times as fast as the human one.”)
Before this well-painted scenery—America between two world wars; the changing role of dogs in both society and fictional representation; the nutty way Hollywood operates; the history of the German shepherd—she arrays the indelible characters whose lives intersected with the one dog who eventually became many.   Perhaps the saddest, and most unsettling, aspect of the Lee Duncan story is that,  just as he had suffered everlasting pain from being for a time an orphan, he visited a version of the same fate on his own daughter, Carolyn.  She was backgrounded to a dog and his career; she never got over being essentially forgotten by her father.

Along the way through this and the many other tales enfolded within this book, Orlean makes free with her trademark flashes of incisive aperçu: “Popular culture is a period of time captured in a look or gesture.”  Neither heavy nor scholarly but trustworthy and true, she makes us want to follow wherever she leads.  And in the end, that takes us into the midst of a lunatic mess of competing personalities, a spectacle that becomes both laughable and terribly sad.  Suits and countersuits among has-beens, impostors, upstarts, and people with what sound suspiciously like personality disorders.  These are the people who now try to keep the legacy of a noble canine alive—oh, and make a buck in the process.  It is hardly what we expected at the beginning, where an innocent pup survived shot and shell to become the improbable symbol for another type of survival: that which lives forever.  Susan Orlean can be forgiven for repeating her central thesis a few times too many, for she herself has now assured it: “[T]here will always be a Rin Tin Tin because there will always be stories.”  Well, at least if the stories are as good as this.