With Susan Orlean’s much-awaited Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, readers face a sad story, but not for the reason you might think — that a wonderful, heroic dog will die in the end. In fact, this dog lived many lives, first in silent movies in the 1920s and again in the 1950s in one of the most popular television series in American history. And to some degree, Rinty still lives, though when I mentioned this book to my 45-year-old, dog-loving sister, she struggled to recall him. “He was a famous dog, right? On TV?”
The story begins with Lee Duncan, a man whose entire life was defined by two things: his boyhood years in an orphanage and his unshakable belief in the puppy he rescued from a World War I battlefield in France and named Rin Tin Tin.
Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief, follows the story with the passion of an investigative reporter who’s also a lover of dogs, and her research is stunningly deep and comprehensive. Like the best of nonfiction, her book casts a wide net, and off the spine of Rinty’s biography she hangs a great many narrative excursions: the history of dogs in war; Hitler’s unsettling devotion to animal welfare; the story of Hollywood, from silent movies to color TV; the evolution of marketing in popular culture. But at the heart of Rin Tin Tin is “Lee’s private story about the possibility that love can be constant,” and that “a dog could make you whole.” This is what the dream, and the entire franchise, was built on.
The parts I liked best describe Rinty’s amazing acting talent: his ability to display an extraordinary range of emotion and his uncommon agility and physical grace. Unfortunately there’s little here to explain how Duncan actually trained the dog, and it’s not until halfway through the book that we learn about his first efforts at obedience training, which began in the 1930s after Rinty became a star.
Ultimately, Lee Duncan’s story is a lonely one of unfulfilled dreams, fortunes made and lost, and human connections that were at best tenuous. Despite the many hours she spent with his memoirs and archive, Orlean felt that he was “at once ingenuous and impenetrable … he remained a mystery.” The same can be said of Rin Tin Tin, the dog who has, for almost a century, stood as the embodiment of “bravery, loyalty and courage against evil of all kinds.”
This book leaves us hanging because, in the end, no dog is truly knowable. In this age of relentless human exhibitionism, it is perhaps this mystery that explains why we admire and revere dogs so much.
Author Susan Orlean describes Clash of The Wolves, a 1925 silent film starring Rin Tin Tin:
“The wolves, led by Lobo, attack a steer and the ranchers set out after them. The chase is fast and frightening, and when Rin Tin Tin weaves through the horses’ churning legs, it looks like he’s about to be trampled. He runs faster and for longer than seems possible. He outruns the horses, his body flattened and stretched as he bullets along the desert floor, and if you didn’t see the little puffs of dust when his feet touch the ground, you’d swear he was floating. He scrambles up a tree — a stunt so startling that I had to replay it a few times to believe it. Can dogs climb trees? Evidently. At least certain dogs can. And they can climb down, too, and then tear along a rock ridge, and then come to a halt at the narrow crest of the ridge. The other side of the gorge is miles away. Rin Tin Tin stops, pivots; you feel him calculating his options; then he crouches and leaps, and the half-second before he lands safely feels very long and fraught. His feet touch ground and he scrambles on, but a moment later he somersaults off the ledge of another cliff, slamming through the branches of a cactus, collapsing in a heap, with a cactus needle skewered through the pad of his foot.”