Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend

by Susan Orlean


A Little Rin Tin Tin History

rin tin tin

On Sept. 15, 1918, an American soldier named Lee Duncan discovered a litter of German Shepherd puppies in the wreckage of a recently shelled German WW I encampment. He kept two of the young puppies, naming them Rin Tin Tin and Nanette, and managed to get them onboard when he shipped back to the United States from France at the end of the War.

I felt there was something about their lives that reminded me of my own life,” Duncan later wrote of the puppies. “They had crept right into a lonesome place in my life and had become a part of me.

Lee Duncan

The lonesomeness in Lee Duncan developed because he’d spent part of his young life in an orphanage in Oakland when his father abandoned his mother and his young mother simply could not feed or support Lee and his sister.

Lee loved his dogs and seemed to have quite a knack for training them. The thought entered his mind that perhaps, his dogs could become canine movie stars. He always thought Nanette was the smarter of the two, but there was something about Rin Tin Tin.

After the war, Duncan pursued his dream, taking Rin Tin Tin to California, where the dog got a big Hollywood break when one of his spectacular 12 foot jumps was caught on film at a dog show. Rin Tin Tin’s first part was a small one in a 1922 sled-dog picture. Then in 1923, “Where the North Begins,” based on a story written by Lee Duncan, gained the dog national attention.

rin tin tin

And as they say, the rest is history! I can still remember those Rin Tin Tin TV shows! Much better than Lassie …

Now, about the book …

I must admit, however, I was a little disappointed in Orlean’s book, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. Her book actually has very little about the dog, Rin Tin TIn, or the training techniques that produced the original Rin Tin Tin’s amazing skills and feats.

On a side note, as a German Shepherd owner myself, I was not that surprised to learn that the heroic German shepherd who could leap 12 feet, crashing through plate-glass windows was buried with his squeaky doll! That fits the German Shepherd perfectly!

rin tin tin

But Rin Tin Tin is strangely absent from most of his story. Orlean tracks down loyal fans who now own descendants of the original Rin Tin Tin. She talks to many of Lee Duncan’s family members like ex-wives and or his daughter. She writes about business associates and Rin Tin Tin’s co-stars.

Susan Orlean’s story seems to be more about how family members profited by selling off everything related to Lee Duncan’s dream and his dog. She writes about people looking for some way to capture past glory, or perhaps the means to create new value from an old piece of intellectual property.

Susan Orlean also writes about the many tangled legal disputes such as the one between Daphne Hereford and Bert Leonard, the producer of “The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin,” and the confusing story of Lee Aaker, a child actor who played the dog’s TV sidekick, and who might or might not have become a special-needs ski instructor in the Eastern Sierras, but who was once definitely sued for impersonating himself.

You also learn that, since the death of the original Rin Tin Tin, this American canine hero has been played by no less than 20 other dogs.

What became clear to me from reading this book, is that the leap from heroic canine fame to mundane triviality is much shorter than 12 feet.

My thoughts …

rin tin tin

On the whole it is not a bad book, that is … if you want to read about everything surrounding Lee Duncan and his efforts to make a good living with the German Shepherd he trained to do really amazing feats, and how tough that actually was.

Maybe it was naive of me, but I wanted to read about the dog, Rin Tin Tin!

I wanted to read about his movies and his TV shows, and how he was trained, and to have the author paint a picture in my mind of this heroic German Shepherd leaping 12 feat and crashing through a plate-glass window to save the day.

On that, score, I was badly disappointed. And for that reason, I gave this book two stars …

I did love the cover …

6 thoughts on “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend”

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