Very few can boast 26 Hollywood films, surviving a World War I battlefield, saving Warner Brothers from bankruptcy, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the ability to jump 12 feet in the air. Suffice it to say that Rin Tin Tin, the legendary German shepherd, has one of the more impressive resumes in Hollywood, considering he couldn't even read (let alone write) it.
The four-legged icon is the subject of best-selling author Susan Orlean's new book "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend". In a New York Times review of Orlean's book, Jennifer Schuessler writes, "...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."
The original Rin Tin Tin who inspired the popular television series in the 1950s wasn't an imaginary figure born into fame, (here's looking at you, Lassie) but as Orlean argues , he was "a dog who had a life and ended up becoming an actor".
In the midst of World War I, the iconic German Shepard was rescued from a French battlefield as a shell-shocked pup by American soldier Lee Duncan in 1918, an orphan himself who empathized with the abandoned canine. Duncan bestowed upon the young dog the name of a French good luck charm, "Rin Tin Tin". The kindered spirits returned to Duncan's home in sunny Los Angeles, where the filming of one of Rinty's (as he was nicknamed) spectcular leaps at a dog show paved his way onto the silver screen, radio, television and into the nation's hearts.
Among the other hardworking German shepherds in Hollywood at the time listed by Schuessler, (shoutout to Wolfheart, Fangs, Thunder, Lightnin', Klondike, Chinook, Kazan the Dog Marvel, and Grief), Rin Tin Tin stood out, quite possibly due to the devotion shown by Rinty's owner, Duncan, and the relationship minted both off-screen and before-screen. Nathan Pensky at Forbes points out, "We see many parallels between Rin Tin Tin's remarkable career and the advent of the concept of 'dog as companion,' which did not exist prior to the period between the two World Wars."
Schuessler reports that Orlean's access to Duncan's unfinished memoir allowed her to highlight the deeper relationship between "master" and "pet", one that more aptly speaks to C.S. Lewis's idea that "Man with dog closes a gap in the universe." Perhaps it is this same connection that describes the general public's fondness with the canine figure. While the television series "The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin" had more than 20 different dogs (with suspicious ancestry) playing Rinty, Orlean writes, "The issue of bloodline seems like a will-o'-the-wisp, a distraction, a technical issue...The unbroken strand is not one of genetics but one of belief."
Despite some of Orlean's own technical issues around Hollwood's past, critics echo Pensky's belief that Orlean's novel is one of nostalgia that will leave you longing for the past "whether it be the comforts of a beloved pet or the joy of reading a great book like this one."
Tune in to The Hallmark Channel on November 11th for the premiere of the American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards, which will feature the Hero Legacy Award Tribute to Rin Tin Tin and enjoy this funny out take of Mickey Rooney doing Rin Tin Tin's presentation voice over.