Book Review
Sunday, October 30, 2011
Silent Film Star, TV Celebrity, American Icon: It's a Dog's Life

By Reviewed by Nancy Klingener

"Rin Tin Tin"

By Susan Orlean

Simon & Schuster, $26.99

Iavoid books about dogs. As a youngster I was traumatized by reading "Old Yeller" and "Sounder" (do they still assign those to children in school? I hope not). Even gentler dog books, of the "Marley & Me" ilk, lead inevitably to the problem of the dog's way-too-short lifespan.

I understood, therefore, why Susan Orlean begins her excellent new book about Rin Tin Tin with a meditation about the dog's immortality. Not the individual dog, the original Rin Tin Tin who died in 1932, nor its many successors, in breedlines and on screen. But the concept of Rin Tin Tin, a handsome German shepherd that is loyal, brave and, yes, immortal. That Rin Tin Tin, according to Orlean, has been around for almost a century. This book should help keep him going for a while longer.

As with so many myths, the origin story is the best part. The original Rin Tin Tin was a German shepherd puppy that a lonely young American soldier supposedly found in a bombed-out kennel in France in 1918. The soldier, Lee Duncan, was an animal lover and he immediately adopted the puppy, named it after a popular good-luck doll (along with his littermate, Nanette) and managed to bring the dogs home with him to the U.S.

Duncan was a Californian and the California he returned to after the war was in its initial boom as the center of the movie industry. They were silent films and some of them featured dogs. It turns out that when no one can talk and humans have to convey their emotions via elaborate pantomimes, animals can be surprisingly compelling actors. There was even a German shepherd named Strongheart already making hit movies, so the path was paved. The start-up studio Warner Brothers took a chance with the new dog -- and a new director named Darryl Zanuck. Both owed their initial success, possibly their professional survival, to Rin Tin Tin.

There are a lot of fun facts here. In the first Academy Awards ballot, in 1927, Rin Tin Tin received the most votes for Best Actor (the Academy thought that looked bad, so they recalculated in order that a human won the prize). Rin Tin Tin was praised by poet Carl Sandberg, then working as a movie critic. When Lee Duncan's first wife divorced him, she named Rin Tin Tin as a co-respondent.

But the book is far more than a collection of canine movie trivia. Orlean uses her compelling individual tale -- about a man and his dogs -- to illustrate the social and historical context in which they lived.

The original Rin Tin Tin, the silent movie star, "was an immigrant in a country of immigrants," Orleans writes. "He was everything Americans wanted to think they were -- brave, enterprising, bold and, most of all, individual."

She also goes into a lot of dog lore, from the history of the German shepherd breed (surprisingly recent, only back to 1899) to the rapid evolution of dogs from farm workers to pets as the American population increasingly moved from farms to cities and suburbs.

All the while, she's telling the story of Rin Tin Tin and his successors. His actual progeny were disappointments in the acting department, so probably the movie serials of the 1930s and definitely the TV show of the '50s starred German shepherds that had no biological relationship to the first Rin Tin Tin.

To Orlean, that doesn't really matter.

"The unbroken strand is not one of genetics but one of belief," she writes. "Once upon a time, a hapless puppy was found, became a star, inspired people, stood for something, and endured."

My biggest complaint about the book is the paucity of images. There are a tantalizing few but in such a well-documented visual history there must have been thousands from which to choose.

Lee Duncan's biggest disappointment in Rin Tin Tin's career was the movie that never got made -- the story of how he found the dog and how they formed a special bond, then went on to Hollywood stardom.

I don't know if that movie will ever get made but with Orlean's book as a guide, someone could surely make a hell of a documentary. I hope someone's already working on it.

Nancy Klingener works at the Key West Library and blogs about books at www.boneislandbooks.wordpress.com