A bi­og­ra­phy of ca­nine film star Rin Tin Tin of­fers sharp in­sights into the evo­lu­tion of en­ter­tain­ment cul­ture, writes Delia Fal­coner

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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