I have just finished reading Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean. Having previously blogged about the Dogs on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, I was intrigued when this book made the New York Times bestseller list.
If you like biography, you will like this book. It has been expertly researched by Orlean who spent weeks reviewing the archived personal files of Lee Duncan, the owner and trainer of the original Rin Tin Tin. Duncan fought in France during WWI and found the young ‘Rinty’ in an abandoned kennels. He was able to secret Rin Tin Tin away on a ship returning servicemen to the United States along with his sister, who unfortunately died shortly after arriving in the USA.
Duncan bonded with the dog like no other individual (human or otherwise) in his life and found the dog exceptionally bright (although cranky with other humans). In the 1920s, he was certain that Rinty was movie material. Orlean does a superb job describing old Hollywood – before sound was even introduced to films and Duncan’s efforts to make his dog a film star.
Rin Tin Tin’s popularity is the main reason why German Shepherd dogs became a popular breed in the United States.
During this period in American history, dog training was not even recognised as a discipline. In large part thanks to Rin Tin Tin’s popularity, the benefits of dog training were introduced to the American public. Orlean again does a superb job in explaining how trained dogs were exhibited to Americans as entertainment, eventually spawning an entire industry.
It is very entertaining to read about Rin Tin Tin’s early success and the challenges posed by the introduction of sound to the movies. Duncan, perhaps in denial, didn’t make provisions for a successor to Rin Tin Tin and – as was inevitable – the original Rinty died. Rinty’s son was not up to scratch for acting duties and there was a time before a suitable successor was trained.
From there, the story becomes one of how Rin Tin Tin became a legend and an industry. Other dogs, including subsequent descendents, take on the role of Rin Tin Tin and he is even transformed to a television star in the Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. At this point, there are spin-off benefits of merchandising.
So many people invested emotional energy (as well as lots of money) in keeping Rin Tin Tin in front of the American public, well into the 1970s. By the 1980s, however, American tastes had changed.
This book is well written and with a good pace throughout. I recommend it particularly if you have a German Shepherd in your life, or someone who is a German Shepherd fan, this book would make an excellent Christmas gift.