Faulty But Fascinating: Rin Tin Tin, The Life And The Legend—a book review

book review

Despite her sometimes-appalling ignorance of movie history, Susan Orlean has written a thoughtful and compulsively readable book called Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. (Simon & Schuster). It is more than a biography of the famous canine star; it’s a meditation on fame, success, loneliness and obsession. It’s also a highly personal book that traces Orlean’s longtime fascination with Rinty, fueled by the popular TV show that bore his name. It follows her journey as she pieces together the story of the man who discovered him and the odd assortment of people who have been part of his orbit ever since. She also follows the birth and development of the German shepherd breed in America, which was influenced—

—in no small way by the fame of Rin Tin Tin.

Another gifted writer, Glen David Gold, told a fictionalized version of how Lee Duncan—who had failed in his other pursuits—came upon the abandoned German shepherd toward the end of World War One in his wonderful novel Sunnyside two years ago. Orlean paints an equally colorful portrait, aided in part by access to Duncan’s personal archive and unfinished memoir. In fact, the longtime New Yorker writer (whose book The Orchid Thief inspired the movie Adaptation) has spent ten years researching this biography.

Duncan was a loner who related better to Rinty than he did to people, including his own family. As it turns out, the people who later became associated with the dog—producer Herbert B. Leonard, who created the TV series and spent the rest of his life trying to revive it, and a dedicated dog breeder and trainer in Texas who used one of Rin Tin Tin’s puppies to claim ownership of the famous star—were also eccentrics and iconoclasts…not to mention the oddball impostor who spent some years claiming to be Rinty’s TV costar Lee Aaker. Ultimately, Orlean ponders why she has spent so much of her life in the thrall of this animal who became more of a symbol than a reality. (Rin Tin Tin Jr. wasn’t very talented, and at some point Duncan apparently raised an unrelated shepherd to take the place of his natural successor. The animal who later starred on the TV show was no relation to the silent-movie dog.)

All of this makes for great reading, but film buffs will have many occasions to wince along the way. Orlean reports that in the wake of Rinty’s first big success When the North Begins, Duncan gave Rin Tin Tin puppies to such stars as Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow—neither of whom was in Hollywood in 1923. This muddling of the time frame runs throughout Orleans’ text. Discussing Rinty’s canine competitor Strongheart and his owner, Jane Murfin, she describes the famous screenwriter’s impressive estate on a hill overlooking Hollywood and says her nearest neighbor was Roy Rogers—but that was decades after the period she’s describing.

She says Darryl Zanuck worked as a gag man for Charlie Chaplin (wrong) and that Lee Duncan man aged to get in the door at Warner Bros. one day when Harry Warner was directing a scene involving a wolf. I don’t believe Harry Warner ever directed a frame of film in his life. (Never mind that she calls Warners’ revolutionary sound system Vitagraph instead of Vitaphone…)

Again, while discussing Rin Tin Tin’s great success in the 1920s, she says he posed for pictures with celebrities like Ed Sullivan and Jackie Cooper, neither of whom were famous at that time.

Referring dismissively to the 1939 movie Hollywood Cavalcade she claims it had “walk-on parts by nearly everyone under contract to 20th Century Fox at the time, including the Keystone Kops, bathing beauties, and the sly, snappy Don Ameche.”

Even when chronicling the demise of the long-popular Rin Tin Tin TV series, which after its initial run was a staple on Saturday mornings for CBS, she lays some of the blame on the fact that all new TV shows were in color by 1964. This is scarcely true—especially on Saturday mornings.

How such seemingly obvious mistakes got by Orlean’s editors, and eluded the author herself during a decade of research, is beyond me. They don’t negate her achievement, a stimulating and original book that not only uncovers a great story but explores its larger meaning. That’s why I still recommend Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, warts and all.


  1. Paul says:

    " The animal who later starred on the TV show was no relation to the silent-movie dog."

    The lady that owns the Rinty breeding rights disputes this.

  2. Rushikesh says:

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  3. Alan K. Rode says:

    A worthwhile book despite the numerous errors. Miss Orlean was also quite wrong about the number of horses injured and put-down during THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE filming.

  4. Carol Anne says:

    My take: Susan Orlean started off wanting to write a book about Rin Tin Tin and his role in our culture. She got distracted by Lee Duncan’s memoir and then by Bert Leonard’s saga. I wish there were more photos, especially of Rinty I and a filmography. Not a bad book, but a muddled manuscript.

  5. John L. Matthew says:

    The first important man who had the first dog in American films – Jean the Vitagraph collie- was Laurence Trimble. He actually helped Lee Duncan get into films. though Duncan never acknowledged thus in his writings! Jane Murfin was NEVER married to Trimble, his first wife never divorced him till much later on, when he finally married Marian Constance Blackton, daughter of the main founder df Vitagraph Studios.! I corresponded with her for over ten years. Jane Murfin did pay for & so owned “Strongheart” ( Etzel von Oeringen) The first films directed by Trimbkle for Trimble-Murfin Productions were enbormous money making successes.
    She was persuaded by J Allen Boone to dump Trimble, whom he considered immoral fior living with her & not marrying her! The break was vicious in the extreme. Trimble was stripped of all the money the films had made & forbidden ever to see ior be with
    Strongheart again! The next film not directed by Trimble was a failure & withdrawn. The dog was of course useless without Trimble, who alone could work wonders with him! A final poor film was only a potboiler, with some unknown German trainer. It is the only one now on DVD. Murfin married a wealthy & important actor. Donald Crisp But after he divorced her, he later characterised her as a “Bitch”! Her destroying the Trimblens-Murfin Productiions left the fiekd wide open for Lee Duncan & Rin Tin Tin, by then with Warner Bros. Duncan, like Trimvble before him dsid blind work. But was resposible for the army using shepherds as war dogs. Unfortunately all were killed until finally in the later ’60’s their part in wartime was finally recognised & the killing stopped1 I kew the late Charles P Eisenman all during the ’70’s with at least 5-6 of his “Littles Hobos”!. He once met Duncan. Knew of Strongheart too, but doubted much of |Boone’s writings! Trimble doubted the legend of the finding of Rinty as well! Eisenmann took Trimble’s great gis to similar & greater limits in tv, but used several lookalikes. His Hobios could understand thousands of spoken words in three anguages! this has been very well documented by the pressmen who followed his travels.

  6. Jey says:

    Zanuck and Chaplin.

    George F Custen’s :Twentieth Century’s Fox biography about Zanuck says this: page 53: ‘By early 1922, [Zanuck] had published some tabloid short stories, and had been a gag writer for Mack Sennett and, briefly, for both Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin.’ The index then points this to Gussow’s biography about Zanuck (Don’t Say yes until I finish talking) Of course it is possible that the mistake is already in these books….

  7. Ann Elwood says:

    Your readers might be interested to learn of an alternative version of Rin-Tin-Tin’s birth, which I came upon while writing my own book, Rin-Tin-Tin: The Movie Star. In October, 1919, only four months after returning to California and a couple of years before Rin-Tin-Tin started his movie career, Lee Duncan, Rin-Tin-Tin’s owner and trainer, told a Los Angeles Times interviewer this story: Rin-Tin-Tin was the son of an adult German shepherd found on the St. Mihiel battlefield in mid-September, 1918; the men of the 135th Aero Squadron named the dog Fritz and mated him with a German shepherd named Betty; Rin-Tin-Tin and his sister, Nanette, were born in the resulting litter. This story is the same one that was told by three of the squadron’s officers: Percival Gray Hart, in the History of the 135th Aero Squadron: The ‘Statue of Liberty’ Observation Squadron in World War I; Lawrence L. Smart, in The Hawks that Guided the Guns; and the 135th’s commanding officer Otto Sandman, in a letter of condolence to Duncan’s widow. If Rin-Tin-Tin was the son of that Fritz and Betty, rather than a puppy found after the battle, then he was born at least very shortly before the war ended and perhaps even after the Armistice. The later story of the puppy rescued from the battlefield is both more appealing and of greater cultural significance — golden hype for Duncan, a terrific story teller., and Warner Brothers, who capitalized on Rin-Tin-Tin’s so-called war experience in promoting his enormously popular movies.
    Sometimes I ask myself, “What if Duncan and the studio had stuck to the original story? Would the dog have become just as popular?” But that kind of question, the kind that historians abhor, is really neither here nor there. Orlean’s choice to tell the popular story rather than the original one makes sense. It fits with what she is trying to do in her book, which I have read (in an advance copy) and admire greatly.

  8. hpoulter says:

    I’m sure you’re right about all the anachronisms, and I haven’t seen the pictures, but Ed Sullivan was at least semi-famous long before the 50s. Rabid Jack Benny fans like myself know that Jack made his first radio appearance on a program hosted by Sullivan in 1932. First line: “This is Jack Benny talking. There will now be a slight pause while everyone says, ‘Who cares?’”

  9. Norm says:

    What a fascinating canine caper. Where does the trail end, sniff..sniff..? Come on Rinnie…Let’s get the bad guys(proof readers, historians} and anyone who didn’t watch Saturday Morning Cartoons and Westerns…Arf…Arf..

  10. gsdgspgirlz says:

    I believe their are more errors in this book than most of the average readers will catch . One such huge fact missed by her ‘fact checkers’ is this: in her book she writes that when Lee Duncan finds the female mother shepherd with her pups in the bombed out German kennel during WWI , they are blind and bald . As a German Shepherd Dog owner for more than over 40 years , i do not recall any GSD’s born BALD . Yes, their eyes may have been closed as all newly born puppies eyes are for the first 10 days, that does not however mean the pups are BLIND . Susan Orleans has never owned a German Shepherd Dog, so if her passion for this breed is such , my question is WHY hasn’t she ever owned one.? She seems to have an over fascination and over obsession with a plastic figurine owned by her grandfather , I find it hard to believe this part of the story is real because she still has never owned a GSD. In my opinion , she should have kept herself out of the story she had no business being in the first place!! I found the book very disjointed , could have been more positive , too much fiction and not enough facts. Her book will ruin the magic memories of those who remember RIN TIN TIN & all his great work and yet not give enough magic for the next generation .She’s like a black eye in the German Shepherd Dog community and won’t be well received .

  11. Rin Tin Tin Incorporated says:

    Thank you for pointing out some of the errors in the book. However, there are a few errors in your report as well. The dogs (RTT II, RTT IV and Hey You) who starred in the 1950s series were in fact from the same line as the first Rin Tin Tin. The dog breeder in Texas continued the lineage with not only Lee Duncan’s knowledge, but his endorsement and Orlean did not spend a decade researching the book, only a mere 7 years, some of which she did no apparent work at all on the book.

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