Often times when you wait for something for a long time it doesn't live up to your expectations. That is not the case with Susan Orlean's wonderful Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, which I have been looking forward to reading for the past two years, ever since I read an interview with Orlean in Bark magazine two years ago in which she mentioned the project.
I bought the book immediately when it come out but didn't get around to reading it until recently. The book is not just about Rin Tin Tin and his owner/trainer/companion, Lee Duncan, but about how the role of dogs in American culture changed during the twentieth century. From that of a working animal to that of a family member.
The story begins when soldier Lee Duncan a fervent animal lover finds a litter of puppies in a bombed out kennel in France during WW1. He took two puppies and named them Rin Tin Tin and Nanette, after popular french children's toys. From the moment he found the puppies Duncan felt lucky and he was determined to stay with them. When the war ended he went to considerable effort to bring Rin Tin Tin and Nanette home with him. Sadly, Nanette passed away and Duncan became even more committed to Rin Tin Tin, or Rinty.
America after WW1 was fascinated with silent movies and Duncan became interested in Rin Tin Tin becoming a performer. He trained him to jump blockades and climb walls and then brought him around film studios. Rin Tin Tin made his debut in 1922 in the Man From Hells River, playing a wolf. He continued to make many other films and became one of the most popular film starts of the 1920s. Warner Bros. referred to Rinty as the "mortgage lifter" since his films never failed to make a large profit.
Interestingly, Duncan preferred to put Rin Tin Tin in the spotlight rather then himself. He repeatedly expressed that Rin Tin Tin was an exceptional dog, rather then presenting himself as an exceptional trainer. When Rin Tin Tin passed away in 1932 radio programs where interrupted with the announcement "Rin Tin Tin, greatest of animal motion picture actors, pursued a ghostly villian in a canine happy hunting ground today." Imagine TV shows today being interrupted to announce the death of human or canine actor and you get an idea of how famous Rin Tin Tin was. Here he is in Clash of the Wolves, from 1925 (unfortunately the titles are in Dutch).
The next part of the book, and my favorite, discussed the role of dogs in WWII from Hitler's disturbing commitment to animal rights, to the amazing Canine Corps project, Dogs for Defense, in the United States. Dogs for defense was established in 1942 and encourage ordinary Americans to send their pet dogs, most with only basic training, to the army for training as military dogs.
Thousands of Americans sent their dogs to the corps and the dogs who were accepted where trained and prepared for serving in the war. Lee Duncan donated several dogs to the effort and worked to train the canine corps and to promote the program. One particularly touching part of the book details the thousands of cards and letters people sent their dogs who where serving in the military. I was particularly touched by the following letter for obvious reasons having to do with the dogs name. (Note: please don't take offense at the term Japs, its taken from the letter written from a marine to the family of a canine casualty:)
"Now I have to tell you the worst Tubby was shot and killed on the night of August 31. He has to his credit eight Japs....he behaved like a true Marine at all times and didn't even whimper when he died. He was shot through the heart and died instantly. We have buried him in the Marine cemetery along with the other real heroes of this campaign and if it is at all possible I'll send you a picture of his grave. He has a cross with his name and rank. He was a corporal."
The later middle and end portion of the book deals with the popular 1950's Rin Tin Tin TV show, which didn't actually star one of Lee's dogs, but was rather inspired by them. The show was so popular that Rin Tin Tin became a very successful sales person for all sorts of dog products:
It also discusses the efforts of Rin Tin Tin's supporters to preserve the legacy. Here is the current Rin Tin Tin:
A gorgeous dog, just like his predecessors. Their is currently a campaign at Change.org to petition The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to award the current Rin Tin Tin the Oscar that the orginal Rin Tin was meant to receive, but never did, in 1929. I signed it and I hope you will too. All in all we give Rin Tin Tin: The Life and The Legend four paws up, our highest rating!