It’s 1953 and there you are, a washed-up celebrity dog living in a trailer in a parched valley east of Los Angeles. You’re surviving on free Ken-L-Ration from a former sponsor because you and your handler, Lee Duncan, are broke. You’ve got a Memory Room in a nearby shed that’s filled with faded clippings and yellowing photographs from your glory days, when you were one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood, and you spend a lot of time there yearning for the big time to return.
You are Rin Tin Tin, after all, the wonder dog, the former international star of stage, screen and country fairs. Your movies in the 1920s and 30s were adored by millions because your specialty as an actor was solemn dog stories that celebrated courage, loyalty and justice. You were even a poster dog for the Second World War effort, and at the height of your celebrity your phone number was listed in the Los Angeles telephone directory. But times have changed; your star has crashed and, with it, your fame and your earning power.
What happens before and after this 1953 vignette is a story straight out of Hollywood, and it’s wonderfully told by Susan Orlean, staff writer for The New Yorker, in her latest book, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.
In essence, she tells us, the story of Rin Tin Tin is twofold. It’s the eternal story of a boy and his dog and the bond forged between them; of Lee Duncan, born in 1893, who spent his early years in an orphanage and who “never felt far away from his experience of needing a pet to fill his heart.” And it’s the story of a dog that has “beaten time” to become, as Duncan believed, immortal.
Orleans covers this ground so thoroughly that not only do we get an extraordinary narrative about the careers of the many Rin Tin Tins, one through eight, but deeper, larger issues are brought to bear as well: about our need for creating permanence in our lives; about the promise of friendship and how we find completion; and about our abiding wish to be remembered.
Even the author’s own quest to find these things is mentioned. During the course of her years-long research, she too, like many others in the Rin Tin Tin story, became inspired by the dog and the values he came to represent.
Fascinating dog-related detours are also included in Orlean’s book. We learn, for example, about the development of the German shepherd breed; are treated to an account of the birth of the dog obedience movement led by two gutsy American women; and are given a close-up look at the early days of the Hollywood studios that led to the development of the 20th-century entertainment industry.
Lee Duncan’s pet didn’t arrive in time to fill his childhood heart, but came later and stayed “forever.” At the end of the First World War, he rescued two German shepherd puppies, a brother and sister, from certain death in France, naming them after a pair of good-luck dolls that were popular at the time, Nanette and Rin Tin Tin. He managed to bring them home to the United States on an army transport ship. The female died soon after, but the male thrived and proved to be highly intelligent.
Duncan, who until then had little inclination of what he wanted to with his life, found his calling as a trainer. Before long, he was making the rounds of the Hollywood studios and the rest, as they say, is history.
But it’s the dog’s later incarnation that we’re perhaps most familiar with. Soon after the down-and-out times in the early fifties, Duncan was approached by a young, upstart producer named Bert Leonard, who proposed using the dog – by now Rin Tin Tin 4 – in the new medium of television. Duncan readily agreed. Written by Leonard, the show about a cavalry officer, his dog and an orphaned boy who lives with them at the fort was called The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin and became, over the course of 164 episodes, one of the most popular TV shows in the world, with merchandising spinoffs that included lunch kits, Thermoses, pocket knives, wallets, jigsaw puzzles and toy guns and holsters.
Lee Duncan’s wish had always been, as Orleans recounts, to have a film made of his and Rin Tin Tin’s life, one that would sum up everything his life with the dog had come to be: “unusual, funny, full of serendipity and myth, acclaim and reversal.”
That film is yet to be made, but it might also include the assortment of obsessed people who battled for the right to represent the Rin Tin Tin franchise after Duncan died. Actually, their hapless tales, as recounted in the latter part of the book, provide enough comic fodder for a movie in itself, one in which the noble “Dog With a Brain” might, once again, bound into the spotlight and, with awe-inspiring valour and his legendary sense of fair play, sort everyone out.
M.A.C. Farrant, whose just-released book is The Strange Truth About Us, was a Rin Tin Tin devotee who named her first dog Rip, after the cavalry officer on the TV show.