Monday, January 30, 2012

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, by Susan Orlean

Simon & Schuster, ISBN 9781439190135, September 2011

In the beginning, there was an orphaned German Shepherd puppy in the war-torn fields of World War One France, and a  young American soldier who had spent a lot of his life lonely and isolated, and part of it in an orphanage. The young soldier was Lee Duncan; the orphan puppy became Rin Tin Tin, a leading canine actor of the silent movie period.

It's easy to misunderstand that last bit, today, when animals in movies almost always play a comic role and are foils for the human actors. During the silent era, animal actors were on a much more equal footing with human actors, because neither had the advantage of speech. Rin Tin Tin, along with other dog actors, played a range of dramatic roles comparable to a human actor, and Rinty, as Duncan called him, was a major movie star. He was smart, highly trainable, and learned to express a wide range of emotions. Duncan took him home from France (an adventure in itself), trained him, and eventually started making the rounds of the movie studios, campaigning for a "break" for his beloved dog.

Orlean gives us the very human story of Duncan's mostly isolated childhood, his pre-war happy employment in the gun department of a sporting goods store, and, after his return home from the war with the puppy Rin Tin Tin, his discovery that the experience of war had made him permanently uncomfortable around guns. He needed to find another way to support himself, and time spent with his dog was the surest way to ground himself and remain functional. (Many soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have had remarkably similar experiences, including the steadying benefits of a companion dog, whether brought home from the war zone or not.) Rinty gets his chance, becomes a big star, and he and Duncan are living the good life.

Then Rinty gets older, less able to do his really athletic stunts, and the Depression hits. Lee Duncan was, as a businessman, honest and naive, and got hurt badly by the financial crash. But he never gave up, and he believed in the idea of Rin Tin Tin as much as in the specific dog he brought home from France. This is also the story of the descendants and maybe-descendants of the original Rin Tin Tin, and Duncan's dedicated efforts to keep the idea and the ideal of Rin Tin Tin alive. This includes the incarnation of Rin Tin Tin that both Orlean and I knew as children: the tv show set in the American west, decades before the original Rin Tin Tin was born. That tv show was created by producer Bert Leonard, who became as dedicated a supporter of Rin Tin Tin as Duncan himself.

Both Duncan and Leonard experienced success because of Rin Tin Tin, but also paid a real price for a dedication that went beyond the pragmatic and, in business terms, beyond the sensible. This is a fascinating look at not only the dogs who were Rin Tin Tin, but the people around them, and the impact this dog had on their professional, personal, and family lives.


I bought this book.

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