In 1918, a young American soldier emerged from the ruins of a military
kennel with a frantic, famished German Shepherd and her five newborn pups. Their survival on the battlefield in France was almost miraculous; Lee Duncan, their saviour, kept two of the puppies and named them after dolls worn as lucky talismans – Nanette and Rin Tin Tin.
The serendipitous encounter of Lee Duncan and Rin Tin Tin was the first remarkable event in their adventures together, recounted in Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, written by Susan Orlean and available at Whitehorse Public Library. Eventually, Rin Tin Tin’s magical life converged with the new film industry.
Only a few of Rin Tin Tin’s 26 silent movies survive, but in his time, Rin Tin Tin kept an enormous audience in his thrall. The films showcased Rinty’s athleticism – he could clear a 12-foot wall – and also put him at the centre of the plot, playing a character on a personal journey.
Could Rin Tin Tin act? Silent films put animal and human on level ground and reviewers (notably the New York Times) took canine performances seriously; the consensus was that Rinty was often better than the rest of the cast – in fact, he was voted Best Actor for the very first Oscar, until humans interfered. Rin Tin Tin possessed an unusually grave demeanour, that Orlean says held the “resigned and solemn air of the existentialist” and it was used to powerful effect to draw an audience’s empathy, raising Rin Tin Tin “from the world of novelty to something classical.”
A few clips from Rin Tin Tin’s films can be seen through the magic of YouTube, offering a glimpse of his legendary charisma. Where the North Begins, written by Lee Duncan, features Rin Tin Tin befriending a trapper. The tale of Rin Tin Tin being wrongfully accused of a crime, banished, but returning to save his friend, transfixed viewers.
In Clash of the Wolves, Rin Tin Tin plays Lobe, a wolf who wrestles between his loyalty to his wolf clan and his own wild nature, and the bond he’s formed with a prospector. In a thrilling chase scene Lobe runs for his life from a posse of outraged cattlemen on horseback, with Rinty’s physical strength and grace on full display. But when mighty Lobe is brought down by a cactus, Rin Tin Tin shows a very different side of his dramatic range.
Rin Tin Tin died in 1932. “There will always be a Rin Tin Tin,” Lee Duncan said and accordingly, Orlean’s account doesn’t end with the end of Duncan’s protégé. But the devotion between Rinty and Lee Duncan, who spent much of his childhood in an orphanage, was matchless. “I felt there was something about their lives that reminded me of my own life… They had become a part of me,” Duncan wrote about finding Nanette and Rin Tin Tin.
The magnificent Rin Tin Tin rests in a pet cemetery in France, together with his beloved squeaky toy.