For most people who watched American television in the 1950s, Rin Tin Tin was an exciting character on a popular show. But few know that this famous television dog was little more than a fictional namesake and pale shadow of a real dog whose story and abilities captured America’s heart nearly two generations earlier.
Susan Orlean’s book, “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend,” is a powerful, entertaining and sweeping biography of a larger-than-life dog whose lore still survives thanks to the man who rescued him from a World War I battlefield as a puppy and turned him into one of the biggest stars of the silent film era.
Lee Duncan found the original Rin Tin Tin along with its starving mother and siblings in a bombed-out kennel along the Meuse River during the last desperate months of World War I. Surrounded by the corpses of dozens of other dogs, the young pup was still nursing and its eyes were not yet open. Certain that his adopted dog, who he named Rin Tin Tin, was destined for the big screen, Duncan worked to get him in the movies. Eventually, the dog caught the eye of executives at Warner Brothers.
Over the next 10 years, Rinty, as Duncan called him, starred in 26 blockbuster silent films that saved the studio from bankruptcy and made him the most famous dog in the world. At the height of his popularity, Rin Tin Tin was Hollywood’s No. 1 box office star, spawning a media franchise based on his image that spanned generations and earned him a place in the American psyche that still resonates today.
In telling Rin Tin Tin and Duncan’s story, Orlean delves into a wide variety of topics — the use of dogs in war, the place of film in American society, relationships between people and animals, celebrity and its myths, among others — to bring rich context to her vivid storytelling and exceptional research. The book spans nearly 90 years and represents 10 years of work for Orlean, a journalist and a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine who has contributed articles to Vogue, Rolling Stone, Esquire and Outside.
She also is the author of several books, including “The Orchid Thief,” which formed the basis for the script of the Spike Jonze film “Adaptation,” and a 1998 magazine article titled “Life’s Swell” that formed the basis for the 2002 surfer film “Blue Crush.”
In a league with other animal biographies such as Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit,” “Rin Tin Tin” is not a book just for dog lovers, but an engaging read about an American hero whose myth and image resonate throughout our culture.