Thursday, October 27, 2011

Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean

Finished reading the other day Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean and found it to be an interesting book.

Orlean is also the author of The Orchid Thief (which I reviewed here) and each book features as part of the storyline specific individuals and their obsessions. In the case of The Orchid Thief, it was a guy and his devotion to a type of flower and in the latest Orlean effort, it’s actually several different people (with one primary) and devotion to a dog. Beyond that, though, the story of Rin Tin Tin is about devotion to what Rin Tin Tin meant.

The story began on the battlefields of WWI with US solider Lee Duncan rescuing some German shepherd puppies and then bringing them back home. From there, Duncan developed a deep attachment with one of the pups and he eventually got the idea of and was successful at getting a silent film made starring the dog.

This spawned many other feature films with Rin Tin Tin performing amazing feats and saving the day countless times. As a result of this, the dog became inextricably tied with the hero persona for countless movie goers who could be completely entertained in a silent film by this concept. Eventually, talking pictures came to Hollywood and that signaled a decline in Rin Tin Tin’s career with Warner Brothers cancelled with him in 1929 and then Rin Tin Tin dying in 1932 at 14 (when Lee was in his late 30s).


Lee was unquestionably devoted to Rin Tin Tin and even though there were Rin ancestors, none resonated with him as much as did his original dog. Rin Tin Tin Jr. performed in smaller budget movies earning less and then Rin Tin Tin III was born in 1941 and eventually become known through promoting the US Dogs for Defense effort during WWII.

After the war, came The Return of Rin Tin Tin in 1947 and though the movie was a success, things were relatively quiet for both Lee and his dog until Bert Leonard met the trainer in 1953. This was during the time that television was exploding in popularity and Bert convinced Lee that the traits of goodness and heroism personified by the character of Rin Tin Tin would translate perfectly to the new medium. The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin television program was a Western set in 1870 and once again made Rin Tin Tin a household name.

One interesting distinction between the show and the original silent films was the actual character of Rin Tin Tin was being played by a dog completely unrelated to the original dog brought back from WWI. Bert and the backers of the television show didn’t view the current Rin Tin Tin dog to be smart or physically capable enough to star in the show so brought in another dog to play the role of Rin Tin Tin. Lee didn’t seem to mind (or at least left no record of his objection) so maybe the point is that he realized the original dog was his favorite and all of the descendants were about representing rather than actually having the traits of the original.

The show started in 1954 and was an immediate hit and then Lee got wealthy once again and passed away in 1960. A key point that gets made in the book by Orlean is how Lee seemed a good person, but one who seemed to have less of a connection with his family than he did first the original Rin Tin Tin dog and then with the idea of the dog's qualities and legacy. It's interesting reading about someone completely devoted to a thing or idea, but an effect of the devotion often seems to be that other areas of their life suffer.


At this point, the Rin Tin Tin legacy on television was being carried on by Bert Leonard with episodes being rerun in syndication at various points and Bert unsuccessful seeking to have another Rin Tin Tin movie made, but this one being the story of Lee and his life with the dogs.

The story of Bert then becomes a sad one at the end as in addition to his lack of success in continuing with Rin Tin Tin entertainment, he become entangled in a web of lawsuits with people around the name of Rin Tin Tin and what could be done with it. Primarily legal combatant was Daphne Hereford, the granddaughter of someone who got Rin Tin Tin puppies in the 50s and then bred them.

It’s a good book by Orlean and really it’s about the ideal of Rin Tin Tin and how it became such a strong narrative through many decades in people’s lives. As part of this, she wrote about her grandfather who cared so much for a Rin Tin Tin figurine (and his attachment would have come from the original silent films), but also how writing the book made her feel like Lee Duncan in the way she became consumed by the story.

Solid read on the human condition and devotion to a concept.