At the summit of his fame, no other dog — and few humans — achieved the celebrity and worldwide devotion of Rin Tin Tin.
When the German Shepherd Dog, one of the greatest movie stars of his day, died in 1932 the United Press bulletin broke into radio programs across the nation. The next day an hour-long tribute was broadcast across the U.S. Theaters in every town posted death notices in their windows.
It seems inconceivable that any movie star today, much less a dog, could engender such a national, and indeed international, outpouring of grief and emotion.
Rin Tin Tin was special.
No dog has captured the heart of a nation as Rin Tin Tin did.
In her new book, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend (Simon & Schuster, $26.99), author Susan Orlean tells a masterful tale of the real dog, Rin Tin Tin, and the legend, which lives on today in a chain of offspring. In fact today’s Rin Tin Tin, a 12th generation descendant, is the national spokesdog for one of the nation’s largest canine charities, the American Humane Association.
Orlean spent years researching the tale, and in vivid prose traces the story of how the real dog was rescued on Sept. 15, 1918, from a World War I battlefield in France by a U.S. soldier, Lee Duncan, who dedicated his life first to training and turning the real dog into a top Hollywood star, and then to keeping the legend alive.
In reading the desperate steps Duncan was forced to take to bring his battlefield pal home I couldn’t help but think of the similar, herculean effort that it takes today to do the same for our troops who rescue and then bond with stray dogs in Afghanistan and Iraq.
So many of our young soldiers end up suffering from postraumatic stress disorder, and I wonder how much it would help to be able to keep a dog in troop quarters for in the field therapy, much as Rin Tin Tin gave our soldiers a century ago.
The story of Rinty is a gripping narrative, filled with jaw-dropping facts about dogs and animals in general. In page after page, especially early in the tale, I found myself saying “Wow!’’ out loud so many times that my annoyed wife finally interjected, “What ARE you reading?’’
Did you know that U.S. pilots in World War I went into battle with lion cubs and other live animal mascots in their cockpits? That terriers were trained to distribute cigarettes on the battlefield? That during early U.S. economic slumps trainloads of dogs were shipped West to help on farms? Me neither.
The real-life Rin Tin Tin was a remarkable dog. He toured the country showing off his skills, including the ability to scale a 12-foot-high wall! And the original Rinty not only out-earned, but many say he also out-acted, his silent film costars. He was even nominated for an Academy Award.
More than just a story of a dog, Orlean tells the story of how our relationship with dogs has changed over more than a century, and how dogs evolved in the media, becoming celebrities in Hollywood and then on television.
It’s an amazing piece of research and storytelling about an incredible dog, and the trainer who made him an undying legend.