Many people love dogs, and in the last several years, they’ve realized that they could share that love through books. It’s hard to count the number of books about dogs that have made the bestsellers’ list since Marley and Me was published.
Like a lot of other folks, I’m crazy about dogs (my own dogs in particular), and so I read about them as well take them for walks. But Rin Tin Tin is the first dog book I’ve read that includes a fascinating look at our culture over nearly a hundred years while discussing the life of a dog and his progeny.
A man named Lee Duncan found the original Rin Tin Tin, who was a newborn pup, on a battlefield in France during World War I. The German dog kennel that housed the war dogs had been bombed out, but a female and her litter had–against all odds–survived. Duncan took the dogs back to his American comrades and gave them away, except a male and female pup—Rin Tin Tin and Nanette—whom he named after good-luck dolls.
Somehow, Duncan managed to bring the dogs home to Southern California. Nanette didn’t live long. However, Rinty, as he was affectionate known, was very athletic. He won an agility contest by being able to jump twelve feet in the air. His special talents made Duncan think that Rinty could be in the movies—which were silent at that time, so a dog might act as well as a man, given the right script. Hollywood in the early days was more accessible to ordinary folks with dreams of fame, and Duncan was able to place his dog with Warner Brothers.
What happened then sounds like something from a fantasy script. Rinty was so popular that his movies literally saved Warner Bros. from bankruptcy. For the first Academy Awards ever, Rin Tin Tin was voted as best actor—but wasn’t allowed the award as this might have taken from the seriousness of the honor. All of America loved this hero dog.
Rin Tin Tin had generations of offspring who later starred in other movies as well as the popular TV show The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. Learning about the journey of the dog and his brand teaches us fascinating facts about the early years of moviemaking, the early years of television programming, and much more.
I enjoyed so many of the facts in this book. I didn’t know that dogs were used in WW I to increase the survival rate of wounded soldiers. They were trained to ‘sniff out’ the living wounded who, after a battle, would lie among many thousands of dead. The dogs could quickly identify the living and this aided soldiers in providing faster medical care.
In WW II, the United States was caught short without a military dog core (as it had been in WW I), so average citizens donated their pets to be trained and shipped to Europe. Lee Duncan and Rin Tin Tin III traveled promoting Dogs for Defense. The military was actually able to return some of these dogs to families after the war was over.
When television first became affordable and folks started having TVs in their homes, dog shows were popular family fare. This book discusses the differences between The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin and Lassie (a famous collie with a show of her own), as well as how these differences reflect a changing culture in the U.S., one that moved from hero worship to being centered on children and their activities. It also shows how smart producers were able to cash in on products connected to programming—books and toys—plastic models of the dogs and much more. These marketing schemes have continued to be successful with all forms of media even today. (Did you have a Dora the Explorer lunch box? A shirt with Twilight characters printed on it?)
Finally, Rin Tin Tin highlights the people today who are keeping the dog’s legacy alive. They are passionate about who owns the rights to the Rin Tin Tin brand and have engaged in many lawsuits to claim that right.
Lee Duncan had been an orphan as a child. He never seemed to make deep connections with people, even his wife and daughter. And yet, a dog, this Rin Tin Tin, gave him a purpose in life as well as–though at times, tenuous–financial reward. What the man and the dog made, how they changed the lives of so many Americans, and even of people in other parts of the world, is a stirring story. Even readers who are not wild about dogs will be fascinated by the look at American culture. But for those readers who love dogs—well, you’re going to love this book, too.