December 12, 2011 12:00:00 PM
You may never have heard of Lee Duncan. You have certainly heard of the cultural phenomenon he created, Rin Tin Tin. Duncan, besides making a dog star for the generations, had the chief goal of having Hollywood turn his life into a movie. That still could happen, I suppose; after all, one of Susan Orlean's books, The Orchid Thief, was made into a quirky and unforgettable film, Adaptation. But if Duncan were still around, I bet he'd settle for the fine book Orlean has produced about him and his dog, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend (Simon and Schuster). Stories about beloved dogs are a dime a dozen, but Rinty was beloved by the nation and the world, and for decades. He was not just a dog star. Orlean writes, "Rin Tin Tin has always been more than a dog. He was an idea and an ideal - a hero who was also a friend, a fighter who was also a caretaker, a mute genius, a companionable loner. He was one dog and many dogs, a real animal and an invented character, a pet as well as an international celebrity." Rin Tin Tin was a fully successful dog, with a wonderful relationship with his keeper; Duncan was successful with him, but not nearly so successful in his encounters with humans. Orlean has told their stories with sympathy, but also (as in The Orchid Thief), has injected herself into the story and has reported her own feelings as part of it. She is never center stage, though, and her subjectivity only makes the story a little more universal. Rin Tin Tin affected everyone he encountered.
Lee Duncan was born in 1893 and grew up in California. He didn't have a father, and almost didn't have a mother, as he spent years in an orphanage while she tried to make a go of her life. Eventually he was living on his grandfather's ranch and found the comfortable companionship he had always wanted, a little terrier that he loved. The family moved away, though, and couldn't take the dog. In Rin Tin Tin stories, the dog always got back with his boy, but not so this time. Duncan's attachment to this dog, and to his successive ones, were to be his deepest relationships, more than those to people. "He was always deeply alone," writes Orlean, "always had the aloneness to retreat to, as if it were a room in his house." Dogs were his way out. He signed into the Army for World War I and was sent to France. Orlean reminds us that he could have found plenty of animals in combat, for war was different then. There were camels as well as horses for the cavalries, and mules, and homing pigeons. And dogs. The Germans had 30,000 dogs on duty, and the British and French had almost as many; Americans got into the war and into the canine corps late, so they borrowed dogs from their allies when needed.
Orlean gives a brief history of the German shepherd breed, which was a new one. It had been developed in Germany at the turn of the century, and it was a good war dog, athletic and intelligent. In the midst of the chaos of combat, Duncan came across a wrecked kennel in the village of Fliury. Some dogs had been killed by bombardments, but there was a mother with a litter of five. Duncan "requisitioned" two of them. He would name them Nanette and Rin Tin Tin, for a pair of good luck dolls that were popular in France at the time. He somehow got them back to the U.S. Nanette died of pneumonia shortly after her arrival, but Duncan began training Rin Tin Tin when he got home to Los Angeles. The training included jumping over obstacles, and the dog could jump a barrier almost twelve feet high. A friend of Duncan's filmed Rinty doing this stunt in slow motion, and the footage found its way into newsreels. The exposure led to Warner Brothers Studio; Duncan, who had had such jobs as a salesman in a gun store, would be Rin Tin Tin's trainer and companion for the rest of his life.
It isn't exaggerating to say that Rin Tin Tin enabled the fledgling Warner's to became a powerful Hollywood movie factory. He wasn't the first dog in Hollywood films; in 1905 there was Rescued by Rover, which started a fashion for that name for dogs. He wasn't even the first dog star of sequential movies, as there had been Strongheart before him. Rin Tin Tin had not only the loyal devotion from Duncan, but also real ability to portray emotion, an ability Duncan fostered. He became the most well-known film star in the United States, and came close to winning an Oscar, thwarted only because the Academy changed the rules after the votes were in, ensuring that a human won. People were eager to see his successive films, like A Dog of the Regiment, Jaws of Steel, Tracked by the Police, and Hills of Kentucky. Carl Sandburg wrote admiringly of his performances, and Sergei Eisenstein was a fan, too.
Rin Tin Tin died in 1932, but as Orlean reminds us, he has never died: "I believe that there will always be a Rin Tin Tin because there will always be stories." There were obituaries and memorial tributes and even a one-hour radio show. Duncan floundered, and it was only a couple of decades later that Rin Tin Tin again became a star. A pushy producer, Herbert B. Leonard, didn't care about dogs, and Duncan didn't care about television. Duncan was mostly interested in getting his dog (a successor but not necessarily a descendant) back into the movies, especially a movie of Duncan's own life. Leonard convinced Duncan to consider a television series, and he was right; "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin" debuted in October 1954, and brought the dog spectacular world-wide success once again. The series lasted five years, and Leonard was to spend a fortune trying to revive it again. The most bizarre of the many strange subplots to this long story is connected to the child actor Lee Aaker who played Rinty's companion Rusty. For years there was a middle-aged man who visited conventions and autographed pictures of young Aaker and his famous dog, but he wasn't Aaker. He was instead a fellow named Paul Klein, and he can't have made much money out of the impersonation, so why he performed it, no one knows.
Duncan would go on to take Rin Tin Tin for a successful road tour. He is no longer with us, and German shepherds went into a dip because of inbreeding and because of the bad press when they were used as weapons against civil rights marchers. The flame is being kept alive, though; at the El Rancho Rin Tin Tin in Texas, Daphne Hereford owns the current Rin Tin Tin, and there are still people who are interested in having a dog from the famous bloodline. The story of Rinty and Duncan is full of fortunes lost and gained, families united and separated, and lawsuits won and lost, but it is mostly about all the good traits we bestow upon dogs in the stories we make about them, the devotion and heroism we'd like to find in ourselves, too. Orlean's book is lots more than a man-and-his-dog story, and benefits from her personal involvement, digressions, and essay-style. And maybe, just maybe, it will result in Duncan's dream, a movie biography of him and his beloved companion.