Sunday, December 13, 2015

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend

"What lasts? What lingers? What is snagged by the brambles of time, and what slips through and disappears?..Maybe all we do in life is just a race against this idea of disappearing."

Susan Orlean's  book about her childhood hero is a surprisingly a deep consideration of the need to hold onto something bigger than ourselves and the desire to immortalize our heroes. Her story is about the real Rin Tin Tin, the man whose life Rinty 'gave meaning to', and the people who worked to share Rinty's story as an example of courage and valor and goodness.

It was Rinty's permanence that intrigued Orleans. Movies and films made Rin Tin Tin a shared legend that crossed generations over the world. Rinty had the ability to convey emotion and was nearly nominated for an Oscar. He was one of the earliest and most successfully merchandised media icons. With The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin came Apache fort play sets, lunch boxes, even the Beyer figurine that Orlean vividly remembers sitting on her grandfather's desk.

In France during World War I America soldier Lee Duncan was in a bombed out town when he discovered a German Shepard bitch and puppies left behind by the Germans. As a child Duncan's mother had to leave him in an orphanage which gave him stability and care, for which he was eternally grateful. Lee empathized with the dogs and saved them, keeping a male and a female pup for himself. He named them Nanette and  Rin Tin Tin after locally made dolls that were worn by soldiers as good luck charms.

With the end of the war Lee was determined to bring his pups back to the States. "I felt there was something about their lives that reminded me of my own life," Lee wrote. "They had crept right into a lonesome place in my life and became a part of me."

Back in America, Lee nursed Rinty through distemper. He could no longer face his old job selling guns; they brought back memories of the buddies who didn't come home. He couldn't stand being indoors and took Rinty into the Sierras. He taught Rinty commands and tricks.

In the 1920s the German Shepard Strongheart was appearing in movies. Lee wondered if he could 'make his hobby pay' and developed a story idea for a film starring Rinty. He walked the streets of 'Poverty Row' in Hollywood trying to sell his movie idea.  A small studio, Warner Brothers, liked his idea and they made the first Rin Tin Tin movie which made Lee's and the Warner's fortunes.

When Rinty's movie career faltered Lee sold the idea of a television program to Bert Leonard and The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin was born. Bert later sold his rights to Naked City and Route 66, but held on to Rin Tin Tin still hoping he'd find another venue for the immortal dog.

Lee was megalomanial about his dog. His wife and daughter were second to Rinty. Bert turned down lucrative offers for productions he didn't think were worthy of the Rin Tin Tin image; he died impoverished. Lee's family packed up all the Rinty mementos and left them behind with friends. Daphne Herford who had bought several dogs from the Rin Tin Tin line tried to keep the legend alive. She and Bert waged a legal battle over the rights to Rin Tin Tin.

The book is a joy to read, at once a trip down memory land and an exploration of the human desire to create something lasting.
The Rin Tin Tin legacy was carried on by several dogs
Rin Tin Tin The Life and the Legend
Susan Orlean
Simon & Schuster
"I adored this book. It weaves history, war, show business, humanity, wit, and grace into an incredible story about America, the human-animal bond, and the countless ways we would be lost without dogs by our sides, on our screens, and in our books."  Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks