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Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend

by Susan Orlean

Simon and Schuster | 2011 | 324 pages | $26.99

Reviewed by Amanda Martin

Arguably the biggest breakout star of the 2011 film season was Uggie, the canine co-star of The Artist.  Playing “The Dog,” the leading man’s best friend and constant companion, Uggie acted the part of collaborative buddy doing tricks on-stage and on-screen in support of his leading man, adorable empathetic co-conspirator in domestic scenes, and, when the script called for it, heroic dog running to the rescue of his suicidal owner.

Uggie is only the latest in a long line of canine actors. Dogs, as Susan Orlean tells us in her wonderful new book Rin Tin Tin, The Life and the Legend, have been appearing in movies since the beginnings of film.

Orlean’s book tells many stories. There is, of course, the story of the character known as Rin Tin Tin, and, as with many figures of popular culture, there is an origin story. There are also the stories of his creators (i.e. writers), of the many reboots of the character, and of the fans, the true believers, and the merchandisers.  Orlean tells of America’s population moving from country to city to suburbs, which changes its relationship to animals. Dogs are transformed from utilitarian beasts who sleep in the barn to beloved companions who share our beds. Most of all it is the tale of three people who become dedicated to telling the stories of Rin Tin Tin: Lee Morgan who found and trained him; Herbert (Bert) Leonard who introduced Rinty to new generations of children; and Susan Orlean, who found herself so obsessed with the dog and his significance that she dedicated 10 years of her life to write this book.

Orlean says that one of the main questions she was continually asked was: Was Rin Tin Tin one dog or many? The answer is both.

In the beginning there was one Rin Tin Tin, and the true story of his discovery on the killing fields of France is the stuff of legend.  In 1918 a young American soldier, Morgan, came across a bombed-out concrete kennel and inside, surrounded by the dead bodies of German shepherds, he found, alive, a mother dog and her days-old litter. A country boy from California who loved animals, Morgan saved the pups and through luck, the kindness of others, and his own persistence, brought two of them back with him to the United States. He named the puppies Rin Tin Tin and Nanette after the inch-long doll charms the French carried for good luck. Although the female became ill, a kind Long Island dog breeder who specialized in German shepherds took in the sick puppy and exchanged her for a healthy one. Nanette II and Rin Tin Tin returned with Morgan to Southern California. The dogs were to remain together for the rest of their lives, the founders of a line of Rin-Tin-Tin dogs that remains popular to this day.

That combination of luck, persistence, and the kindness of others was the hallmark of Morgan’s early years. He was a boy who knew and loved dogs; and Orlean makes the case that the abandonment by his father and the years spent in an orphanage until his mother could take care of him again, explained his closeness and bonding with dogs with whom he felt a trust. Lee began to train the young Rin Tin Tin, who turned out to be a remarkably intelligent as well as beautiful animal, and soon Rin Tin Tin became a star in silent movies. There were other dogs who were leads in films, but none seemed to be quite as good as Rinty. Between 1925 and 1927 Rin Tin Tin was a top box office draw. He even had his own radio show, (though the aptly named actor Bob Barker did most of the barking for it).

The dog by all accounts was smart and skilled. He was considered a fine actor, capable of expression and conveying emotion to an audience, as well as athletically performing his own exciting stunts.  Between films the dog and Lee would go on the road and make personal appearances.  He was so popular and admired that when the votes were counted for the first Academy Awards, Rin Tin Tin won for best actor. The Academy, wanting to establish themselves as a serious body, re-tabulated the votes so that Emil Jannings won for best actor for his work in two movies.

In 1927 Rin-Tin-Tin made four well-received films — and The Jazz Singer, the first “talkie,” opened to wide acclaim and audience excitment. What happened to many silent film stars happened to Rinty — the talkies ruined his career. It wasn’t his voice, of course, it was the fact that in a silent film he was on an equal emotive level with the human actors. The addition of sound and dialog turned film into a different experience, one in which animals became supporting players, reactive and often comic relief.

By 1929 Lee and his dog had had their contract cancelled. The stock market crashed, banks failed, and Lee lost much of his money. But in 1930 Lee got an offer for Rin Tin Tin to star in a 12-part cowboy movie serial, The Lone Defender. Audiences loved it and Rinty was quickly signed for sequels. Lee and Rin Tin Tin also hit the vaudeville circuit where he was billed as “The Barrymore of Dogs”.

They were a success again, but one thing Morgan was not prepared for was Rin Tin Tin’s mortality. On a warm summer day in 1932, Rin Tin Tin died in the backyard of Morgan’s home. His obituary appeared in all the newspapers, there was an hour-long radio show broadcast across the country, and the dog’s passing was the subject of theatrical newsreels. Condolences came from around the world.

However the story was not over. The first Rinty might be dead — and Morgan may never have loved as much or felt as close to another dog again — but there was a succession of Rin Tin Tins to take his place.

Lee married his long-time girlfriend, Eva, (his first wife had divorced him saying that Lee preferred the dog to her), moved to a ranch in Riverside, California, and had a daughter. He continued to breed German shepherd puppies. He was fifty at the outbreak of World War II, unable to go on active duty, but happy to lend his expertise to evaluate the animals who had been donated by their owners to the “Dogs for Defense” drive. Rin Tin Tin (the third) became the celebrity spokesmodel for what eventually became known as the K-9 Corps.

After the war ended and the troops came home, not only was there a baby boom, but a pet population explosion as well. There was a new canine star in the country; a male collie named Pal played the female title role in Lassie Come Home and was a hit. A new Rin Tin Tin movie seemed to be a natural; Lee had an idea for a screenplay and a movie company was interested.  The Return of Rin Tin Tin was a huge success. As Orlean puts it, “Parents were passing him along to their children. He had beaten time. He had become a classic.”

From silents, to radio, to talkies, to vaudeville, to movies again. Television was to be next.

In 1953 a young writer-producer named Herbert (Bert) Leonard entered the story.  Leonard had an idea for a TV series, one that would take place in the 1870s in Arizona. It would be the tale of a young orphan boy and his dog who are adopted by a US cavalry troop. Leonard went out to Riverside to see Morgan and they made a handshake deal. In the fall of 1954 The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin debuted on ABC.

Because Lee Morgan decided that the trek from Riverside to the San Fernando Valley was too far and he did not want to be the show’s dog trainer, that job was given to the well respected animal trainer Frank Barnes. Rather than a descendant of the original Rinty, the dog who got the part of Rin Tin Tin was a German shepherd owned by Barnes named Flame.   Rin Tin Tin was now a character to be marketed, turned into merchandise, a franchise to be managed. Lee would continue to breed his Rin Tin Tin pups and sell them to the lucky few, but millions could now buy — and did buy — the image of the heroic dog on games, lunch boxes, clothing, plastic models . . . The show lasted for four years and then went into syndication, playing on Saturday mornings, well into the 1960’s, introducing yet another generation to the heroic dog.

But Lee Morgan wasn’t there to see it. He died at age 67 in 1960.

The story does not end here either. The legacy that was now Rin Tin Tin continued with a dog breeder who had bought descendants of Rin Tin Tin from Lee and trademarked the name to sell “Rin Tin Tin” puppies, as well as branded dog merchandise. It continued with collectors who amassed huge collections of Rin Tin Tin memorabilia. And it continued in lawsuits over trademarks and copyrights between individuals and studios and companies as to who really owned the image of Rin Tin Tin, and who had the rights to the name.

Most of all it continued with Bert Leonard, who at heart was a storyteller, and wanted to go on telling the story of the iconic dog. After his success with The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin he went on to produce many other popular television series, including Circus Boy, Naked City and Route 66. His was a success story, until the day it wasn’t when he suddenly found it difficult to get projects made. But he could always repackage Rin Tin Tin. Bert re-edited the old black and white series and tinted it, shooting new color wrap arounds to entice the new generation with color TV sets. Later on he completely colorized the old black & white episodes. There was even Rin-Tin-Tin K-9 Cop, shot in Canada, produced in 1988 for Pat Robertson’s CBN cable channel. And to the very end Bert continued to try and sell yet another incarnation of the Rin Tin Tin story, but luck eluded him and he died broke in 2006.

Luck, persistence and talent, as well as the kindness of others, factor into Orlean’s story as well. She is a character in this tale, talking about her childhood fascination with a plastic figure of Rin Tin Tin, which leads her on a journey to write this book. She writes of the first Rinty that “Rin Tin Tin’s life turned out to be extraordinary, not just because things went his way but because so often they came close to going the other way.” And what luck Orlean had. Not only did Morgan keep a memory room at his Riverside ranch — a virtual museum of Rin Tin Tin’s history — but its contents had been saved by a woman from being dumped from a shed where they had been abandoned by Lee Morgan’s widow — so it was all available for research. She was persistent in tracking down Bert Leonard who had seemingly vanished from Hollywood history, and although he was dead, he had preserved his history in a storage unit, and his daughter had kept the key and was kind enough to give it to her.

As Orlean comes to the end of her book, the tone becomes melancholic. She is concluding her research, Morgan’s and Leonard’s stories have come to their normal mortal ends, and she is examining again why she has spent 10 years writing a book about a dog. Early in the book she says “...what drew me to Rin Tin Tin most of all was his permanence — how he had managed to linger in the minds of so many people for so long, when so much else shines for a moment only and then finally fades away. He was something you could dream about. He could leap 12 feet and he could leap through time.” And in the end she concludes, “I believe there will always be a Rin Tin Tin because there will always be stories.” Orlean has chosen to become part of that narrative.

Orlean the storyteller chooses to end her book with a story by Bert Leonard. It’s the final scene of his treatment for a movie that did not get made, Rin Tin Tin and Me. It’s a scene with Lee, his wife, Eva, and Rin Tin Tin — on a film set, being convinced by a producer very much like Bert, to commit to the new adventure of a television show starring Rin Tin Tin. It is a happy ending.

Legends do not die, their stories just get retold. Orlean with skill, grace and heart has told us anew the story of both the life and the legend of Rin Tin Tin.

Amanda Martin works for the public television station KCET in Los Angles

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