What could be a greater challenge for a veteran journalist than a full-length biography on a subject who left no diary, never spoke in interviews, and has been dead for 79 years? In Rin Tin Tin: The Life And The Legend, Susan Orlean trains her expert pen on the German shepherd film and television actor with the same wide-angle absorption she brings to her human profiles.
The international movie star whose death merited inclusion in Great Depression newsreels was born in France during World War I and rescued soon after by a lonely American serviceman who named the dog for a lucky doll popular during the war. That cadet, Lee Duncan, was a young survivor himself, growing up with a single mother who gave away his pet dog and even deposited him in an orphanage for a few years; he was a gentle man who preferred the company of animals to people, a source of strain in his marriages. In spite of his lack of connections and polish, Duncan pushed his charge into the spotlight in the last years of the silent-film era, where “Rinty” specialized in noble, redemptive exploits and fantastic stunts. After the dog’s death, his owner’s fortunes sank even as he tried to launch the careers of Rin Tin Tin II and III, until his reluctant foray into television introduced Rin Tin Tin to a new generation, including a young Orlean, as the sidekick to a frontier orphan.
Orlean is expansive with her material, taking the conceptual leap to examining all World War I veterans from Duncan’s experience, and extrapolating a panorama of Hollywood’s workings from Rin Tin Tin’s one corner. While occasionally critical of Duncan’s single-mindedness in his pursuit of wealth and fame through his dog, Orlean backs up those suspicions with a wealth of research and interviews, leaving little to supposition. Her respect for her subjects, no matter how esoteric their pursuits—like the man who shows up in an 1870s army uniform to show her the Adventures Of Rin Tin Tin locations in southern California—leads her to collect some extraordinary tidbits without losing sight of her subject.
The most durable revelation proceeding from Rin Tin Tin: The Life And The Legend is how modern the invention of “man’s best friend” is, and the role Rin Tin Tin and other screen dogs played in bridging the gap between backyard animal and treasured family companion. While he wasn’t the first dog to be captured on film, Rin Tin Tin became beloved as an idea more than a dog, lauded for acting skills he couldn’t possibly possess; Orlean navigates around the less-savory aspects of the business that sprung up around the pup without puncturing the myth.