Rin Tin Tin

The Life and the Legend

By Susan Orlean

Simon & Schuster, 325 pp. $26.99

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Reviewed by Steven Rea


It seems too good to be true, like a story dreamed up by an old-time Hollywood publicist: A soldier returns from World War I with two German shepherd pups rescued from the battlefields of France. He teaches the male to do tricks, to jump great heights, to play dead. At a dog show in Los Angeles, someone films the dark-coated, slim-muzzled shepherd. The footage of the animal's amazing stunt work is added to a newsreel that plays in theaters across the land. A studio exec sees it. The dog is offered a part in a picture.

A few short years later, Rin Tin Tin, owned and trained by that World War I veteran, a prematurely white-haired Californian by the name of Lee Duncan, is one of the biggest stars of the Silent Era. Single-handedly - or single-pawedly - the canine saves Warner Bros. studios from financial ruin.

"The dog," Jack Warner declared, "is literally a bonanza."

And amazingly enough, while much of what follows in Susan Orlean's absolutely fascinating Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend is buffeted by hyperbole and myth, the transatlantic saga of a young U.S. Air Corps corporal and his French foundling appears to be the real deal. Right there on Page 10: the photo of a uniformed Duncan, flanked by his squad mates, with "Rinty" the pup on his lap, and Nanette, the sister, alongside.

Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief and a staff writer at the New Yorker, brings a beautiful mix of reportorial sleuthing and personal meaning to her investigation of the up-and-down life of Duncan and his dog - and of the numerous Rin Tin Tins, some sired by the original Hollywood star, some not, that followed through the decades.

As a little girl in the 1950s Midwest, Orlean would gaze at the plastic Rin Tin Tin figurine kept teasingly out of reach in her grandfather's study; she watched the TV show The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, as did millions of other kids. There was something about German shepherds, about that German shepherd.

"In the buzzing white noise of my babyhood," Orlean writes, remembering how the beast burrowed into her consciousness, "a boy on television was always shouting, 'Yo, Rinty,' a bugle was always blowing, and a big dog was always bounding across the screen to save the day."

Orlean travels to the Meuse Valley in eastern France, poking through the figurative rubble of the Great War, looking for the village where Rin Tin Tin was born, the fields Duncan once traversed. She follows the Dickensian arc of Duncan's childhood - given up by his mother, deposited in an orphanage, then retrieved years later, when she has married a rancher with money. He was a boy, and a man, who was more at ease in the company of animals - dogs, and horses - than people. And he lived a restless, unsettled life until he fell into the movie biz - at which point he led a restless but spectacularly comfortable existence. By the mid-1920s, thanks to the success of such titles as The Night Cry, Tracked in Snow Country, and Clash of the Wolves - Duncan was a very rich man, with a house in Beverly Hills, and Jean Harlow for his neighbor.

And then the silents gave way to the talkies, and for all of Rin Tin Tin's talents, delivering dialogue - apart from a few emotive yelps - was not his forte. Duncan and his dog fell on harder times. He had earned millions, but he had spent millions, too.

Other characters, and other themes, figure in Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. There is Eva Linden, the city girl, 18 years younger than Duncan, whom he married in 1936 (the wedding ceremony was canine-themed), and there is their daughter, Carolyn, who felt second in importance to her father, after his dogs. And when things looked particularly bleak for Duncan, along comes Bert Leonard, the producer and dreamer who became his partner on the television series that resurrected Rinty once again. (Even though the dog that starred in the show was not, as billed, Rin Tin Tin IV - nor was he, in fact, even Duncan's dog.)

This is a book, too, that examines the extraordinary relationships between humans and dogs; the early-20th-century boom in breeding and domestication; the sobering history of dogs sent to war, and the mistreatment of animals in the early decades of the motion picture industry.

With access to a huge archive of letters and documents, personal effects, photographs, and film housed in the Riverside (Calif.) Metropolitan Museum, Orlean rummages through the life and times of Duncan - never quite figuring him out. This isn't a failure on the author's part, or a shortcoming of the book. The man who discovered Rin Tin Tin and teamed with the animal on their dreamland trip through Hollywood remains, like the boy in the orphan school, a sad, solitary figure. His most intimate friend, his soul mate, was a dog.

And the dog, for all its intelligence and skills, was not one to write things down. Although, on Page 42 of Orlean's wonderful book, there is a studio publicity still of Rin Tin Tin at the typewriter.

Steven Rea is an Inquirer movie critic and the owner of a Jack Russell terrier. Contact: 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.