AS SOON AS I saw what this was, or what it could be, I knew I faced trouble. Susan Orlean seizes the bone at the end of her first paragraph: “Rin Tin Tin has always been more than a dog. He was also 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. He was one dog and many dogs, a real animal and an invented character, a pet as well as an international celebrity. He was born in 1918 and he never died.”
“By the hound of the Baskervilles!” I cried. “What an idea for a book!”
Across the room, my boxer, Basil, sniffed ironically—he has as many sniffs as the Inuit have words for snow—as if to say, “Well, it’s a pity you couldn’t have had the idea … boss.” The “boss” seemed a bit of an afterthought.
I know, you share my feelings. You have let your dog down, no matter if his or her loyal, moist eyes never waver. You have proposed living by a level of fussy intelligence (with debt ceilings, sub-texts, and Facebook) that he or she ignores. Yet you have failed to live up to his or her oneness with the world, not to mention sleeping and farting. A dog is nature, and we are feeble wrecks from sci-fi breaking up in our pixels. We do not trust smell; we are embarrassed by it. Here is a chance for redemption. You cannot read the book to your dogs, for dogs do not do plot or trust uplift. But you can read it with your dog at your feet, or all around you, like an aroma. You and Susan Orlean will know it is a great idea. But your dog is mercifully free from ideas.
The story began during World War I, when sixteen million animals were in military service. Lee Duncan was a soldier. Born in 1893 in California, he had spent time in a children’s home, placed there by parents who had a hard time managing. So he went to France with Pershing, and in the village of Fliury he came upon a kennel building shattered by artillery fire. There were dead dogs, but there was a mother with five puppies. One of them he would name Rin Tin Tin. Somehow he smuggled the dog back to America. So the future star was French, yet a German shepherd and a naturalized American. Two of his children would be cared for by Jean Harlow and Greta Garbo. He was the most famous dog in the world, a king of silent pictures.
He was only a dog, but Garbo was only a woman. Yet that pales in the rapturous illumination of Orlean’s vision:
Rinty was three years old. He had lost his puppy fluffiness; his coat was lustrous and dark, nearly black, with gold marbling on his legs and chin and chest. His tail was as bushy as a squirrel’s. He wasn’t overly tall or overly broad, his chest wasn’t especially deep, his legs weren’t unusually muscular or long, but he was powerful and nimble, as light on his feet as a mountain goat. His ears were comically large, tulip-shaped, and set far apart on a wide skull. His face was more arresting than beautiful, his expression worried and pitying and generous: instead of a look of doggy excitement it was something more tender, a little sorrowful, as if he were viewing with charity and resignation the whole enterprise of living and striving and hoping.
Sit, girl! Let’s stick to the facts. Lee loved his Rinty—he had wives who never really matched his German shepherd. One day, at a fair, Rinty leaped over a wall, and someone took a photograph of it. Next thing, Lee got a check for $350 for use of the picture. He was eager and wild about the movies. And he saw the future. Thus it was that Rin Tin Tin became an action star with his own salary from Warner Brothers ($1,000 a picture) on top of Lee’s. By 1927, he was “the most popular performer in the United States” on the strength of films such as A Dog of the Regiment, Jaws of Steel, Tracked by the Police, and Hills of Kentucky. In the contest for the first Oscars that year, according to Orlean, Rinty got the most votes for best actor! But the Academy, always in search of dignity, reappraised the ballots and gave the prize to Emil Jannings for The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command. So a German beat a German shepherd.
This dog’s eye history of Hollywood in the 1920s is exuberant and told with as much energy as love. Was it always Rin Tin Tin? Well, be generous. It seems that the real dog could be a little snappy sometimes—he was a star—and so there were paw-ins for Rinty and he was encouraged to breed. (The opposite policy applied to many human stars.) Then sound pictures killed dog movies (until Lassie), and then in 1932 Rinty himself passed on. Legend set in; it was said that he had died in the arms of Jean Harlow.
There were junior Rintys, of course, but Lee went through tough times until television brought the hero back in 1954 and kept him a hit for five years. And that’s where Susan Orlean came in, a kid whose father had an eight-inch plastic figurine of the great dog. She has done a fine job with this book, and it is to be numbered among the best Hollywood biographies. But at the end, in a chapter called “The Leap,” she goes a little far, I think. She feels compelled to see her story as an example of love, heroes, bonding, and all good things. Yet the good things have been made apparent in the history. “I believe there will always be a Rin Tin Tin,” she says, “because there will always be stories.” True, if obvious; but I suspect this book will do better than revivals of RTT on TCM.
But here’s the kicker. The story of Lee and his dog begs to be filmed. How about George Clooney as the dog-trainer and … for the dog? I thought of Brad Pitt, but Basil has called an agent.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.