HOLLYWOOD'S TOP DOG -- RIN TIN TIN
If Hollywood served up this story, it would bomb. Too contrived. Too well. . . Hollywood. But roll the credits. Then sit back for the true adventures of America’s most celebrated dog.
In the fall of 1918, as American “doughboys” fought on the Western Front, a soldier scouted a bombed out French village. Corporal Lee Duncan was picking through the rubble when he spotted a long, low building. A kennel. Inside, Duncan’s soul sank as he walked past cages of dead dogs. Then from beyond the carnage, a whimper. . .
Five German shepherd puppies huddled around their mother. It took Duncan an hour to coax the dogs into his car. Back with his brigade, Duncan gave away mother and three pups but kept two. He named them for the good luck dolls that French children handed to Allied soldiers — Nanette and Rin tin tin.
America has many canine legends. Lassie. Lad. Balto. But none match the celebrity of “Rinty.” Rin tin tin has his own star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Texas has a Rin tin tin museum. When the first Oscars were given in 1929, the Academy had to take a second vote to be taken seriously. Seems the first winner for Best Actor was... may I have the envelope please? In 27 movies — but that’s getting ahead of the story.
Lee Duncan was a loner. When his father left the family, Duncan and his sister were dropped off at an orphanage in Oakland, California. By the time his mother returned, three years later, the boy had a lifelong distrust of people and a lifesaving love of animals. So when he found puppies on the Western Front, Duncan “felt there was something about their lives that reminded me of my own life.”
Duncan smuggled both dogs onto the ship taking him home. By the time they reached California, Nanette had died of pneumonia but Rin tin tin had grown into a mighty member of a breed rarely seen in America. German shepherds had only been bred for two decades and Americans were soon smitten.
At dog shows, Rin tin tin turned heads. He could scale a 12 foot wall. He was quick, responsive, almost human in his understanding. At one show, a young screenwriter named Darrell F. Zanuck filmed the dog. Zanuck sold the clip to a director and paid Duncan $350. Sensing fame and fortune, Duncan began taking Rinty to studios. At Warner Brothers, he promised his dog could do a difficult scene in one take. Lights! Camera! Fade to whirling headlines. . .
In 1923, “Where the North Begins” told a Jack London story of an abandoned dog raised by wolves. The film made a fortune. A star was born. For the rest of the 1920s, Rin tin tin was bankable box office. In movie after movie, the dog fought crime, rescued damsels, won hearts. Rinty’s onscreen names were homespun — Buddy, King, or Scotty -- but in such films as “Tracked in the Snow Country” and “The Clash of the Wolves,” the name Rin tin tin was above the title.
Before silent films surrendered to sound, Rin tin tin was earning $6,000 a week. The dog received bags of fan mail, keeping publicists busy sending out photos, each stamped with a pawprint. Millions felt about Rin tin tin as we all do about our own pooches. “He is a human dog,” one fan wrote, “human in the real big sense of the word.”
But even when measured in dog years, celebrity is fleeting. One summer day in 1932, Lee Duncan was on his El Rancho Rin tin tin when he heard a yelp. Rushing to Rinty, he found the dog dying. Bulletins flashed. Press agents said the dog died in the arms of star Jean Harlow, who had one of Rinty’s puppies. The obituary made the New York Times. It could have been curtains for a career, except for those puppies.
Rin tin tin Jr. made 14 forgettable movies, but Rin tin tin III shunned the spotlight, content to help Duncan train army dogs during World War II. Might Rin tin tin IV restore the family name? Tapping the 1950s mania for TV Westerns, “The Adventures of Rin tin tin” put Rinty in a cavalry troop chasing the Apache. The show, and its merchandising — Rintintin bugles, guns, mess kits, etc. — lasted five years. Duncan died in 1960, shortly after Rin tin tin’s star was stamped into that Hollywood sidewalk.
America’s most beloved dog still wags his tail. There have been cartoons, a children’s film, and the American Humane Society’s first Dog Hero award. The pedigree, and a trademark, now belong to a Texas woman whose grandmother convinced Duncan to send her a pup to create “a living legacy of Rin tin tin dogs in Houston.”
In 2011, Rin tin tin earned that crown of celebrity, a biography. New Yorker writer Susan Orlean recapped the amazing story, from battlefield to Hollywood to legend. Rin tin tin, Orlean wrote, “has always been more than a dog. He was an idea and an ideal — a hero who was also a friend, a fighter who was also a caretaker, a mute genius, a companionable loner.” But the final word should go to Lee Duncan: “There will always be a Rin tin tin.”