RIN TIN TIN – America’s favorite German Shepherd

Not long ago, I reviewed Susan Orlean’s latest, The Library Book. Because I liked it so much, I thought I might explore other books she has written. My first choice was Rin Tin Tin, Orlean’s encyclopedic look at an iconic German shepherd that has remained in the public eye for nearly a century. No, not the same dog, but a cottage industry that has kept the original’s image alive for a very long time.

The format of Rin Tin Tin reads much like The Library Book. Both are exploratory memoirs, investigations that begin with childhood memories and then dig into archival history, pop culture, personal interviews, and the very soul of the subject at hand. Orlean recalls regularly watching Rin Tin Tin with her siblings on 1950s Saturday morning television. She also remembers a Rin Tin Tin figurine that her grandfather sequestered where children couldn’t touch it. She always wanted to hold that dog, and in a way, this book is her adult hug to the unreachable statuette.

Orlean begins at the beginning when Leland Duncan goes to France as a young soldier. On September 15, 1918, he was wandering through a field near Fluiry looking for post-battle mementos when he saw an apparently abandoned kennel. Fond of dogs, Lee looked inside and discovered an “agitated” German shepherd nursing five small puppies. Lee gathered up the dogs and took them back to the base. He gave the mother and three of the pups away while keeping the two “prettiest” for himself. During the war, a pair of French dolls had been popularized—Nanette and Rin Tin Tin. Thus, Lee’s adopted good-luck-charm puppies were named.

Orlean recounts how a lonely Lee bonded with his dogs. He spent hours and hours training the two, then managed to shepherd them aboard a troop ship sailing back to the states. Nanette contracted pneumonia along the way, but “Rinty” (Lee’s pet name for his favorite) thrived. Accompanied by a newly-acquired Nanette II, Lee and Rinty headed for California. And the rest is history.

Rin Tin Tin head shotRin Tin Tin’s rise to stardom was astronomical. For a while, he earned more than his human co-stars, although when talkies took over the movie industry, his career waned. Lee and his dogs crisscrossed the country on popular tours for nearly a decade. Rin Tin Tin never was a talkie star, but Lee kept touting his dog’s legacy. And Rin Tin Tin kept fathering a long line of look-alikes, some actually performing in his place when he stiffened with old age. Orlean follows the two until Rinty’s death, then shows how Lee worked with Bert Leonard, a young television entrepreneur, to bring a small screen Rin Tin Tin to a whole new generation of fans. That renewed popularity was followed by seasons of the television reruns that Orlean so adored. Then, technology interfered again. Just as talkies replaced Rin Tin Tin’s film stardom, so color television rendered his serialized glory days obsolete. After that, ongoing quarrels about who owned the Rin Tin Tin rights and pedigree fill the remaining pages of Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin.

I’ve never had a dog, and I’m not much of a movie-goer, so I was surprised by how I got caught up in the Rin Tin Tin mystique. Orlean’s Hollywood dog stories, like her library stories, are fascinating reconstructions of the past. The reader not only is enchanted but also learns a lot, far more than I can express in this brief review. I can say, however, that as enthusiastically as I recommended The Library Book, I can advocate for Rin Tin Tin, too.   – Ann Ronald

Also available by Susan Orlean: The Orchid Thief; Rin Tin Tin; The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup; My Kind of Place; Saturday Night; Lazy Little Loafers; Red Sox and Bluefish: And Other Things that Make New England New England; The Floral Ghost; Throw Me a Bone.

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