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Having always loved German Shepherds, I was eager to read this book. The author, like me, grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, watching Rin Tin Tin on TV and longing for a German Shepherd of her own. But the TV show was not the only project featuring this handsome dog, and Orlean’s book traces his story back to the beginning, which surprisingly, was in WW1.
In 1917, Lee Duncan, an American soldier serving in France, found a kennel collapsed from nearby bombing. He and his unit rescued a mother German Shepherd and her puppies, finding new homes for most of them before returning to the US. Duncan brought one of the pups back with him, which he named Rin Tin Tin and moved to Hollywood, where he was determined to get the dog into movies. His persistence paid off, and Rinty starred in nearly two dozen silent films, often being paid ten times what his human co-stars were. The movie plots often centered on the assumed conflict between a wild/wolfish side and the tame/defender side of a dog’s nature. No matter the similarities of the movies, they were a huge hit and the foundation for the canine icon.
Rinty’s career began at a time when society’s attitude was changing towards dogs, from outdoor workers on farms to indoor family pets.
When sound was added to films, animal stars faded in the novelty of hearing voices onscreen. Not until the 1940’s, when “Lassie Come Home” was turned into a film, did canine stars regain popularity, but in a different way. “People began to know dogs more and idealize them less; they became interested in stories about loving dogs rather than stories about marveling at them as superheroes.” By that time, the original Rin Tin Tin had passed away and none of his descendants measured up in talent or box office success. But the name lived on as a sort of franchise representing what the original dog stood for.
In the early 1950’s Duncan met Bert Leonard, a TV producer who was extremely successful with a number of projects, including the classic show “Route 66”. He persuaded one of the networks to take a chance on a new idea for a show, “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin”, about a German Shepherd who lives with an orphaned boy in an Army fort in the western U.S. This is the show which Baby Boomers fondly remember. The dog used in the show did not look much like the original Rin Tin Tin, who had a dark face and slimmer build from the robust, lighter TV star and may not even have been related. The show was a ratings winner from the start in 1954 and lasted five years. Later the episodes were sepia toned and re-edited so they could be repeated throughout the 60’s, but eventually the show was deemed too old-fashioned and discontinued. However, that didn’t stop producer Bert Leonard from trying to rework the premise in hopes of an updated version, something which never took off.
The book is about the people involved with the various incarnations of Rin Tin Tin, as much as the dog himself. The very end of the book traces some of the breeders who continued the line from Duncan’s original puppy and the damage done to the breed because of it’s popularity. The author also discusses trends in film, dogs in war, animal rights under the Nazis and sociological reasons for the reverence of Westerns in the 1950’s. She visited pet cemeteries, European memorials to WW1 and the orphanage where Lee Duncan spent part of his childhood.
It’s a well-rounded book and highly recommended for anyone who loves dogs or Baby Boomers who want to revisit a favorite show, there’s much more to it than that, but that’s a great starting point.
Simon and Schuster 2011 324 pp. ISBN 978-1-4391-9013-5