The remarkable life of movie star, World War I refugee, and dog, Rin Tin Tin is presented in a biography “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend” by author Susan Orlean. The New York Times reviews the amazing story.
Do dogs deserve biographies? In “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend,” Susan Orlean answers that question resoundingly in the affirmative, while also asking a harder one: Can a dog deserve an Oscar? At the first Academy Awards, presented in 1929, the charismatic German shepherd who fought off gangs of villains in movies like “Clash of the Wolves” and “Jaws of Steel” won the vote count for best actor, but the Academy blinked, recalculated and gave the honor instead to Emil Jannings. Not that the public would have necessarily protested an Oscar for Rin Tin Tin. “He is a human dog,” one fan wrote to his trainer, “human in the real big sense of the word.” As for Jannings and his colleagues, there may have been some doubt. A few years earlier, Movie magazine ran a feature asking “Are Actors People?”
“Big” is certainly the word for the sweeping story of the soulful German shepherd who was born on the battlefields of World War I, immigrated to America, conquered Hollywood, struggled in the transition to the talkies, helped mobilize thousands of dog volunteers against Hitler and himself emerged victorious as the perfect family-friendly icon of cold war gunslinging, thanks to the new medium of television. Whether he was rescuing a damsel in distress with a crane or herding bad guys on the frontier, Rin Tin Tin “played out the founding principles of the nation,” Orlean writes, sounding more like Ken Burns than like the author of “The Orchid Thief” (1998), her best-selling exploration of the more obsessive corners of the American character. But by the end of this expertly told tale, she may persuade even the most hardened skeptic that Rin Tin Tin belongs on Mount Rushmore with George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt, or at least somewhere nearby with John Wayne and Seabiscuit.
Like the British royal family, Rin Tin Tin was actually German, scion of a breed developed in 1899 as part of an effort to create a standardized Teutonic dog army. At Verdun, the trenches were teeming with dogs of all breeds, from anonymous “mercy” dogs carrying medical supplies to “demolition wolves” jury-rigged with bombs, as well as a few named heroes like Satan, a French mongrel who roamed the battlefield in a backpack and gas mask.
On Sept. 15, 1918, an American soldier named Lee Duncan discovered a litter of shepherd puppies in the ruins of a German encampment. He kept the two prettiest and named them Rin Tin Tin and Nanette, after a popular good-luck charm. A melodrama-minded screenwriter could not have dreamed up a more perfect rescuer than Duncan, who carried in his pocket until the day he died his admission papers from the orphanage where he spent much of his childhood. “I felt there was something about their lives that reminded me of my own life,” Duncan later wrote of the puppies. “They had crept right into a lonesome place in my life and had become a part of me.”
After the war, Duncan brought Rin Tin Tin back to California, where he broke into Hollywood after one of his spectacular jumps was caught on film at a dog show. His first bit part, in a 1922 sled-dog picture (or “snow,” in the lingo of the time), was credited to “Rin Tan.” But a year later, “Where the North Begins,” based on a script by Duncan, pushed him to the front ranks of the more than 50 German shepherds then working in Hollywood, including Wolfheart, Fangs, Thunder, Lightnin’, Klondike, Chinook, Kazan the Dog Marvel, and Grief.