Good book, good book, good. Snap on your flea collars, curl up in your cozy bed, wrap that bushy tail around yourself and park that muzzle on your paws. Susan Orlean has a remarkable tale to tell about an amazing pooch.
For many of you the name Rin Tin Tin rings no bells, but for folks of a certain age (geezers) like me, it summons memories from the way-back. Rin Tin Tin (no relation to the pointy-haired comic book and recent film character) was a hero. Rinny was a very good dog who (yes, who, not which), once a week, along with his boy, Rusty, could be relied on to protect the weak, snarl at the unkind and generally help out, while residing in a US Military fort in the wild west. Well, that was my introduction to him, anyway, in that magic box on our living room floor in the…gasp…1950s.. Turns out there had been a whole lot of living for Rinny before us boomer kids caught a glimpse. Unlike Lassie, which was a character created by a writer of fiction and then brought to the silver screen, before finding a comfy place on our TVs, Rin Tin Tin was a real, fur and blood canine, literally a war orphan. And for those of you who might not be so, um, experienced,
“I want to grab you by the collar,” she [Susan Orlean] told a group of students at Columbia recently, “and say, ‘I know you’re not interested, but it’s interesting!’”
She’s right. It very definitely is. Susan Orlean unleashed.
If you are going to know anything about Rin Tin Tin, you have to know something about Leland (Lee) Duncan, a real Rin Tin Tin man. Lee was a US gunnery corporal in France during World War I. A town his squadron was approaching had been bombed out pretty thoroughly by the Allies. As they were heading in, Duncan spotted a building he recognized as a kennel. It had been abandoned by the fleeing German army. And there they were, a new mom and five puppies, only days old, still bald, blind and nursing. Duncan had always gotten on much better with animals, dogs in particular, than he ever had with people. Lee had come from a poor household. Dad had taken off when he was a tyke. He and his sister, during a depression in the late 19th century, were even put up in an orphanage. That experience added to the bond he felt with these abandoned pups. He rescued the mother and her litter, later keeping two of the babies for himself. He named them after popular French dolls of the time, Nanette and Rin Tin Tin.
Back home in California, Lee began teaching Rinny tricks. He happened to know a guy in that new-fangled movie business, at the time considered a particularly crass enterprise, (unlike now, when everyone in the business is highly regarded) and got Rinny a spot in a newsreel piece, jumping over a twelve-foot wall. The popularity of this short led to actual movie roles. Turns out this pup was an outstanding actor. He goes on to become one of the top Hollywood stars of his time, certainly the top dog in his particular segment of the industry. Do you know who won the balloting for the very first Oscar for best actor? Let’s just say it is not someone who eats with a knife and a fork. To check out the actor’s licks, watch the video that is embedded in this piece from, ironically, the Daily Beast
. This is MUST SEE material. Of course, the folks sponsoring the first Oscar awards reacted to this result as they might had they found something scoopable on the red carpet (or if they had been Supreme Court vote counters in 2000, finding an equally unwanted result). The fix was in. Thankfully it was only the vote count that was fixed
. Instead the award was given to Emil Jannings, a German actor who not only didn’t stick around for the award, (it was given to him before the ceremony) but later appeared in Nazi propaganda films. Which reminds us again about the inadvisability of altering voting results.
In his prime Rin Tin Tin was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. He and Lee were hounded by their fans and dogged by the press. But fame is fleeting, particularly if the life expectancy of your breed is under ten years. There were many Rin Tin Tins. Before the original headed off to that lovely upstate farm in the sky in 1932, he sired a few pups to carry on the line, defining Rin Tin Tin as a brand more than a particular animal. There was only one Lee, though, and he was tireless. Whether it was Rin Tin Tin Jr, Number 3, 4 or later, he was always pushing to get the Rinny of the moment onto whatever screen would show him, even if the Rinny du jour was not quite up to the talent of his illustrious ancestor. Lee even took him on lecture and vaudeville circuits
I suppose Orlean could have narrowed her gaze and written solely about this dog, but there are other closely related tales to tell. The largest of these, obviously, is the story of Lee Duncan. It is not too much to say that Lee and Rinny loved each other. Lee did marry a time or two but his wives always knew who came first. Lee always felt that Rinny was star material and clearly he was right. He trained him and managed his career, and often seemed to prefer the dog’s company to that of humans. There were, of course, ups and downs. Orlean shows us Lee’s struggles, both professional and personal. It is a tale of obsession, not unlike the one she told in The Orchid Thief
. Lee’s entire life was dedicated to this dog and to Rinny’s career. Lee lived for the day when he could tell their true story in film and strove his entire life toward that end.
Orlean, in addition to following Lee Duncan’s life, tracks the career of Bert Leonard, the producer who brought Rin Tin Tin (and later Naked City
and Route 66
) to television. He is a colorful character and his story is interesting, as are the lesser portraits, sometimes mere glances, of other people involved in changing our attitudes about dogs, or more directly, in continuing the Rin Tin Tin line But Lee’s life with Rinny, it’s impact on his personal life and Rinny’s impact on the world of entertainment, is where the heart of this story lies.
There are many aspects of our lives with animals that we take for granted. Orlean points out how some of those began. For instance the notion of dogs living in homes with people was a rather new thing. Part of that is how our view of dogs changed from the pastoral dog-as-worker image of the 18th century to the dog-as-companion view prevalent today. We are talking about regular folks, not the Henry the 8th sort tossing leftover chunks of mutton to wandering royal hounds. Along with that, the notion of training pets was a novelty. Orlean follows some of the people responsible for changing the nation’s take on that. Rin Tin Tin
also offers a look at a hefty stretch of American history, from the late 19th into the early 21st century, tracing not only historical changes but movement in peoples tastes and values. Lee Duncan was a product of a late 19th century depression. We get a look at bits of World War I and the birth of Hollywood. Orlean offers a moving picture of the time. Hollywood was new. The silent film era was booming, and so what if a dog could not talk. Neither could the actors. Everything changed with the introduction of talkies. She looks at the role of animals in World War II, then casts an eye on the post war Boomer era, and the popularization of television. She shows how the post-war period offered an ideal incubator for shows about pets and lonely kids, how the McCarthy era informed taste in children’s programming, and how changing mores dictated both the beginning and end of Rinny’s TV show. She looks into the birth of TV shows as marketing vehicles. There is a trove of fascinating information as well as trivia buried in the author’s back yard. Go ahead and dig.
A large part of Orlean's fascination with Rin Tin Tin had to do with the notion of what persists through time:
Could it be that we fill out our lives, experience all that we experience, and then simply leave this world and are forgotten? I can’t bear thinking that existence is so insubstantial, a stone thrown in a pond that leaves no ripple. Maybe all that we do in life is just a race against the idea of disappearing. Having children, making money, doing good, being in love, building something, discovering something, inventing something, learning something, collecting something, knowing something: these are the pursuits that make us feel that our lives aren’t flimsy, that they build up into stories that are about something achieved, grown, found, built, loved, or even lost.
She begins the book with
He believed the dog was immortal. “There will always be a Rin Tin Tin.”
While Rinny lasted a good long time, and while this book is likely to revive the sleeping dog, I suspect that Rinny has jumped his last wall, snarled at his last bad guy and saved his last person in distress. What Orlean offers is a warm look back at a remarkable animal, his loyal friend, and their singular careers. Even without an immortal Rin Tin Tin, or even a fully vibrant Rinny brand, there is still plenty of meat on this bone.
Who’s a good writer? Who’s a good writer?WB14
A nice promotional interview
with the author