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.

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June 2024