A DOG’S LIFE
A biography of canine film star Rin Tin Tin offers sharp insights into the evolution of entertainment culture, writes Delia Falconer
ON September 15, 1918, a young Californian serviceman in France found a german shepherd bitch and her two young pups in a bombed-out kennel. Naming the puppies Rin Tin Tin and Nanette, after wooden dolls French children gave to the American soldiers as good luck charms, Lee Duncan managed to keep them with him throughout the rest of the war, even while briefly hospitalised, then wrangled the papers to get them on to his ship back home.
Although Nanette died soon after their arrival, Duncan continued to devote every spare minute to training Rin Tin Tin. The young dog could not only do tricks, such as climbing trees, but his dark and noble face seemed able to convey human emotions. After reading a motivational book called Why Not Make Your Hobby Pay?, Duncan quit his job, wrote a screenplay for his beloved Rinty and hawked it around nascent Hollywood’s ‘‘ Poverty Row’’.
This script would become the 1922 Warner Bros silent film Where the North Begins, starring Rin Tin Tin as half-dog, halfwolf, fighting against the wild side of his nature. Like a canine Horatio Alger hero, Rin Tin Tin was soon earning eight times more than the studio’s human actors and had adoring fans across the world who wrote him 2000 letters a week.
‘‘ I have seen a number of dog pictures on the screen,’’ one fan wrote. ‘‘ They have been true dogs and good ones, but in none, with the exception of Rin Tin Tin in Where the North Begins, have I been able to feel that the only difference between man and beast is perhaps in the way we walk.’’
But this rags-to-riches arc was only the beginning of Rin Tin Tin’s story. It would revert to rags more than once, declining with the advent of talkies, only to achieve a 1950s television resurrection. Along the way it would gather human obsessives devoted to german shepherds, limelight and the ideal of what an animal could be.
It is easy to see why this twisting story appealed to American journalist Susan Orlean as the follow-up to The Orchid Thief (1998), a huge bestseller that garnered more cachet when indie movie mogul Spike ( Being John Malkovich) Jonze swooped on it as the inspiration for his freely associative second film, Adaptation (2002).
In that engaging book — the portrait of a Floridian orchid nut that widened into a study of the amazing history of orchid nuts — Orlean described her method as looking for stories similar to those Japanese paper balls placed in water. Once you immersed them, she wrote, they expanded into flowers so intricate that you wondered how all you once saw in front of you was a ball and glass.
Duncan is as curious a character as a biographer could hope for and his pairing with Rin Tin Tin is the real subject of Orlean’s book. Although Orlean makes too much of Duncan’s time in Oakland’s Fred Finch Children’s Home as the primal scene of this affection — his young mother placed six-
Rin Tin Tin the movie star with, from left, screenwriter and producer Darryl F. Zanuck, studio boss Jack Warner and Rinty’s owner Lee Duncan