Rin Tin Tin: Cinema’s Second Great Dog Star

October 5, 2008

The life of Rin Tin Tin would be completely unbelievable if you saw it in a film, and is worth telling here again. It’s also the perfect example of Mark Twain’s famous line from Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar: “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.” No other dog in history ever went from a more frightful beginning to such a prosperous end. 

Not only is Rinty’s story fact, but this incredible German Shepard was rescued from a battlefield, discovered by Darrell Zanuck, became a star after his first film, saved a fledgling film studio on Hollywood’s ‘poverty row’ from bankruptcy and died in the arms of Jean Harlow. His name is a registered trademark. At his peak, the studio reported he received 10,000 letters a week from fans. Even given a publicist’s natural tendency for hyperbole and exaggeration, it is certainly true that Rin Tin Tin was one of Hollywood’s top stars and top earners (at $1,000 a week) during his career. 

It begins on September 15, 1918 when American Corporal Lee Duncan investigated a bombed-out war dog kennel in Lorraine, France. A German Shepard mother and her five puppies were the only survivors of the assault. While the rest of the battalion took the mother and three of the 10-day old pups, Duncan chose one male and one female. He gave them names based on the tiny puppets given by French children as symbols of good luck to American soldiers, Nannette and Rin Tin Tin. Soon after the mother, Betty, and the other pups perished. One can imagine the difficulty of maintaining a new litter amidst the carnage of the battlefronts of World War One.

After the war, Duncan went back to work at a California hardware store. Nannette had died of distemper in New York after her journey by sea from France so only Rin Tin Tin was left from the original litter. Impressed by the breeds’ ability to learn Duncan worked with Rin Tin Tin in his spare time, training him and taking him to local dog shows.

It was at one particular show in 1922 that a film entrepreneur named Darrell Zanuck, who would go onto found 20th Century Fox, saw Rinty make an amazing 13 1/2 foot jump. He gave Duncan $350 to film his German Shepard in action for the sake of testing a new camera. At this point in the story Zanuck exits the scene but the concept that Rinty could become a canine action star was now firmly planted in Duncan’s mind. He wrote a script called Where the North Begins and began making the rounds of Hollywood’s studios. Everyone who saw the dog or looked at the script turned him down.

It was when Duncan came across a film crew working for a struggling low budget outfit called Warner Brothers, trying unsuccessfully to shoot a sequence with a wolf that he, and Rinty finally got their break. He walked up and told the frustrated moviemakers that he had a dog that could do the scene in a single take. Of course, he was told, less than politely, to mind his own business. Still, Duncan would not give up and, since they were having no luck with the recalcitrant wolf, one crewmember thought it would be easier to try a take than to keep arguing with Duncan. 

And, just as a hackneyed screenwriter might type it between eye openers of Kentucky’s finest distilled spirits and a blue cloud of Lucky Strike’s tobacco, a Star was Born. Rinty performed the scene flawlessly; Duncan and his wonder dog were kept on for the filming of the otherwise forgettable Western by director Irving Cummings Man from Hell’s River. To everyone’s amazement the modest film was a hit with the public and those who saw him on the screen fell in love with the noble, heroic dog that had been scooped out of war torn France four years earlier. Third-billed Wallace Beery played the heavy as Gaspard, the Wolf, while Rin Tin Tin played ‘himself.’ 

He would go on playing himself in a total of 26 pictures for Warner Brothers. Rinty went on radio in 1930 as ‘The Wonder Dog’ providing his own dialogue. Though there were a dozen stand-ins and stunt doubles available, Rinty, like Jackie Chan in his prime, did almost all his own stunts. He was capable of remaining motionless for up to 30 minutes at a time in order to complete his scenes during camera and lighting changes. His last picture was completed when Rinty was 13, the equivalent of 94 in human years. Rinty died on August 10, 1932 his head cradled in the arms of the screen’s original ‘blonde bombshell’ Jean Harlow (who, sadly, would only outlive him by five years). She had been visiting Lee Duncan and Rinty in the yard of his Beverly Hills home.

Rinty’s descendents and Lee Duncan would go on to help train over 5,000 dogs and handlers during WWII and provide one of the most sought after blood lines in the breed and star again, in films like 1947’s The Return of Rin Tin Tin with Robert Blake (as Paul, the Refugee Lad), The Challenge of Rin Tin Tin (1957), and ABC-TV’s in The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin 1954-1959. Lee Duncan died on September 20, 1960 while the lineage, both blood line and cultural, that this 10 ten-day old rescued war dog began lives on.

We look forward to one of our favorite writers, Susan Orlean’s upcoming book on Rin Tin Tin, to be released in 2009 by Little, Brown. 



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