Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend
Simon & Schuster, 2011 $26.99
Many can leash the name Rin Tin Tin to a blurry image from the past: a black and tan German shepherd saving the day. But the real story is a crisp, riveting tale. New Yorker staff writer and Columbia County resident Susan Orlean spent ten years on Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, and much to the reader’s delight, became as obsessed with the story as the obsessives who populate it.
This isn’t really a dog book, or one dog’s biography, or the story of a famous bloodline. As Orlean writes, many different dogs came to play Rin Tin Tin, and those involved, including the studio promoters, spun the truth of their origins out of reach. Moreover, to an admitted dog person, certain descriptions put affect before accuracy: German shepherd puppies are not bald; German shepherds are not blond. But why quibble with such a brilliant, meaty read?
This is a book about an author digging up truths, ever deepening her sense of the people involved. These people believed in a dog’s universal, transformative power; in the ideal of a canine hero, and that belief took over their lives. They held fast to it the way a German shepherd works on a bone: never letting it out of sight; attacking it with endless relish, guarding it fiercely. (I was reminded of this daily, as I threw bones to my own shepherds so they’d stop wanting me to do something, and just let me read.)
“He believed the dog was immortal,” Orlean writes of Lee Duncan, the young corporal who discovered (and named) the original Rin Tin Tin in a bombed-out kennel in France during WWI and managed to bring the pup home. A dogless dog lover who had a mother but spent years in an orphanage, Duncan began dreaming up remarkable tales, starring the dog, that echoed his own childhood yearnings. He saw their shared future in show business and, in true Hollywood fashion, by dint of will, timing, luck, and associations, his vision came true.
As in her 1998 bestseller The Orchid Thief, Orlean conjures up a vivid, particular world—here, the entertainment industry, which by turns devoured, chewed up, spit out, and renewed its grip on all things Rin Tin Tin over the course of 80-some years. Orlean is a great collector of details and their companion ironies, noting that producers of the 1950s TV show, set in the 1870s Western frontier, quarreled bitterly over whether its child star should ride a white mule or a fancy “Indian Pinto,” while ignoring the fact that German shepherds would not exist for another 30 years (the breed was established in 1909). She efficiently chronicles the changing roles of dogs in war and in society, how the changing entertainment industry changed its versions of Rin Tin Tin, how those involved never gave up.
Always, she returns to a central theme that fills the book like delicious marrow. What does it mean—warts and all—to strive for glory, for immortality? “At what point does devotion become a form of willful blindness?” Orlean asks, addressing herself as well. Her writing here is marvelous, reassuring. “Those lasting things have been floated through time on someone’s ferocious devotion, on the will to remember only what was shiny and promising, even when that person is sometimes sunk in the process,” she concludes.
Despite the myriad twists and turns, what endures at the end is Rin Tin Tin himself. I won’t give away Orlean’s final, gorgeous scene. But she, the self-designated keeper of the flame, rightly gives the dog wings, and the last word. He was by all accounts pretty terrific, and deserves it.