Discussing her new book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend on NPR, Susan Orlean said something that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about: “During the silent film era, dogs were on par with human actors. Nobody had the power of speech. A dog was just as credible as a character conveying through gesture and action and the look on his face. A dog was just as good as a human at doing that and, frankly, more natural.”
It’s well known that a substantial amount of dogs’ communication is visual, but I had never considered that this made them as good as or better than human silent film actors. This helped me to better understand the reasons that Rin Tin Tin was considered a national treasure.
Besides the insight into Rin Tin Tin’s acting skills and reputation, Susan Orlean tells great stories about this dog’s life and that of Lee Duncan. Duncan rescued Rin Tin Tin from a kennel that had been destroyed, probably by artillery fire, during World War I. An animal lover who had spent part of his childhood in an orphanage and part on an isolated ranch in the absence of other children, his dog was his main companion, he was unable to leave the mother and her new litter of puppies (including Rinty, as Duncan called Rin Tin Tin) behind in the destruction of the battlefield.
In another part of the interview, Orlean remarks on the close emotional connection between Duncan and Rin Tin Tin. Though the dog was his livelihood and had made him a very rich man, Duncan always seemed to value the dog as a close personal friend, rather than as a source of wealth, saying, “. . . what mattered to him was his relationship with the dog.” I often think about how times have changed with dogs becoming ever more important in our lives, particularly the emotional part, but Rin Tin Tin’s story reminds me that great love for dogs has existed in every era.