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Dog Star


Lee Duncan watches his star pupil clear a corral fence, 1947;

His financial success inspired imitators from other studios. “There were dozens and dozens of German Shepherds making movies in the ’20s and ’30s,” Orlean says. This copycat trend reflected “the way people consumed culture from many fewer outlets back then.” Rin Tin Tin: His True Story will cover all of the dogs—every German Shepherd actor surrounding his legacy. “He was a “huge profit machine,” she notes.

The profits didn’t end with his death in 1932 at the age of 14. Nor did the colorful stories. Of the many colliding versions of his life’s events, Orlean finds the one about his death most striking. (One of the most-cited tales has the celebrity dog cradled in the arms of actress Jean Harlow.) “There are what seems like a million stories of how and where the original Rin Tin Tin died. They get quite dramatic and extreme, and the truth is probably much more ordinary.”

As one of the first canine actors, Rin Tin Tin was considered remarkable. By today’s standards, his skills might seem less so due to developments in training techniques that have led to more believable performances. However, in her book, Silent Stars, Jeanine Basinger devotes a chapter to Rin Tin Tin that suggests otherwise: “The astonishing thing about watching Rin Tin Tin is that you begin to agree that this dog could act,” she writes.

But animal acting was hardly what it is today, with agencies in place and even a “Dog Actors Guild” with a database, searchable by breed, where those with aspiring canine actors post resumes. Another development is the American Humane Association’s involvement in monitoring the welfare of animals during the production of films and television programs. The AHA assumed this role in 1940 with the creation of its Film and Television Unit; acceptable movies and television programs now receive the “No animals were harmed” credit at the end.

The original Rin Tin Tin, though “hardly a model of breeding,” Orlean observes, was saved from genetic oblivion after the death of Lee Duncan in 1960. Earlier, endorsement, breeder Jannettia Brodsgaard had purchased several direct descendants from Duncan in an effort to maintain the line. After her death in 1988, her granddaughter continued the lineage at “El Rancho Rin Tin Tin” in Latexo, Texas.

Rin Tin Tin’s descendants are also trained as service dogs to assist special needs children. Ironically, the breed is being dropped by one major guide dog training school in favor of Retrievers, and has also been targeted in some places for breed bans for being “overly aggressive.” The Shepherd has “more connotations than many other breeds,” notes Orlean. These are, of course, undeserved stereotypes. But Orlean considers it all part of what makes Rin Tin Tin fascinating. “Collies are straightforward. They don’t have as many complexities as the German Shepherd.” And, she adds, “Labs don’t have that kind of history.”

As a child, she was obsessed with German Shepherds—“there was hardly a kid alive who didn’t want one.” But today, she says, “My taste in dogs has changed.” While we are talking by cell phone, her breed of choice bounds out of the bushes and frightens her. “It could’ve been a bear!” But in fact, it’s just a dog—Cooper, her handsome red-and-white Welsh Springer Spaniel.

Has Orlean managed to find the “true” story of Rin Tin Tin?

“I think the true story is that there is no true story, ever,” she says. “There is a story that I think is closest to what really happened, but I think much of what I’ve learned from working on this book, and much of what it’s about, is the frail and faulty nature of memory, and that truth isn’t an absolute.”

What endures is the ideal—and the longing.

“Rin Tin Tin was the ultimate in terms of embodying steadfastness, wisdom and devotion. That’s a pure emotion that people wouldn’t be able to embody, so he represents something even better than human.”




Sheila Pell is a journalist and contributor to The Bark.