Susan Orlean, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend
A tender, sweeping tale of love and loss
Can a dog live forever? In the case of Rin Tin Tin, the early screen star and television hero, yes. Not only is the German shepherd’s kin still with us, but Rin Tin Tin the icon — strong, loving, brave, “the companion of the companionless” — never went away. Author Susan Orlean first discovered the Hollywood dog as a child, in the shape of a figurine on her grandfather’s desk. Years later, memories of the dog led to a 10-year study of Rin Tin Tin’s life and legacy — a history which spans 100 years. Weaving together her own personal journey with that of an Army lieutenant and his dog, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, narrated by Orlean, is a tender, sweeping tale of love and loss.
While stationed in France during WWI, Army lieutenant Lee Duncan discovered a litter of German shepherd puppies in an abandoned French Kennel. The native Californian grew up orphaned and lonely, a natural dog lover who left more than one dog behind as a child. He would keep two, naming them Rin Tin Tin and Nanette, after handmade dolls popular with French children. Almost from the beginning, Rin Tin Tin, with masculine features, a screen star’s emotional range, and ability to jump 12 feet, was something special. When Duncan returned to the States, he tried in earnest to get Rin Tin Tin into movies, even writing a screenplay for him. Rin Tin Tin would appear in 23 silent films and, along with his reluctant master, lived the life of a movie star. His death in 1932 was a national event, unparalleled for an animal actor. But his bloodline continued. Rin Tin Tin Junior found fame on television.
Orlean travels to France to find the site of Rin Tin Tin’s birth and discovers that the small village was practically wiped off the map after WWI. A visit to the town’s cemetery leads to an eloquent reflection on life’s intangibility: “Could it be that we fill out our lives, experience all that we experience, and then simply leave this world and are forgotten? … Maybe all that we do in life is just race against the idea of disappearing.” A later trip to the 19th-century pet cemetery where Rin Tin Tin is memorialized (and possibly buried), offers rumination on companionship and grief: “Dogs, it was believed, remained loyal even after we were gone. In the nineteenth-century imagination, dogs were the most indefatigable mourners. They were said to visit their masters’ graves on their own, lying on the freshly turned dirt for days, inconsolable.”
Between meditations, Orlean finds curious detours into the history of dog obedience as we know it, popular animal actors in the silent film era, and the origin of the German shepherd. Pedigrees are important to dog people, she notes, “but in the continuing story of Rin Tin Tin, pedigree doesn’t seem as important as the idea of a character continuing, and lasting, across time.”