Review: TV History: Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean
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Ian O'Doherty on the canine TV star who captured hearts around the world
For people of my generation, when you think of a famous dog on television, then Lassie is the canine that immediately springs to mind.
But it wasn't always so. In fact, long before Lassie, a dog managed to so capture the imagination of the public that politicians, princes and celebrities clamoured to have their picture taken with him.
So who was this famous dog who enchanted generations of kids, both in America and closer to home here in Ireland with his weekly televised show? Who was this dog who technically won an Academy Award at the first Oscar ceremony in 1929 only to have it cruelly removed by the organisers, who were embarrassed at the prospect of a dog beating a human?
Well, his own life story, told in this new book by New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean, is as fantastical and dramatic as the movies and TV shows he starred in.
When 18-year-old Lee Duncan, who had been in an orphanage as a child, was fighting in France in 1918, the slaughter and carnage was Dantesque. Traumatised by what he was experiencing, he wandered into an abandoned, bombed-out German building, whereupon he heard whimpering from some stranded, terrified puppies.
Interestingly, dogs were ubiquitous in the charnel house of Verdun, used for many things, included working as 'mercy dogs' who would venture out to the wounded in no man's land laden with medicine and treats to keep the wounded troops' spirits up until rescue arrived.
Also, there were other dogs used for a form of triage, where they were able to discern quicker than humans whether fallen soldiers were dead or unconscious. This is the kind of fascinating incidental detail that makes Orlean's book such an absolute treat.
It has been compared to the literary equivalent of a Ken Burns documentary and it works as well as a rich social history of a rapidly changing America as it does as a story about a celebrity dog.
When Duncan returned to America he spent most of his time with his dog as he struggled to reintegrate into post-war America.
A decidedly odd fish, by all accounts, he preferred the company of dogs to humans to such an extent that his first wife doesn't even merit a mention in his memoirs.
Once Rin Tin Tin or 'Rinty' as Duncan referred to him, made the break into Hollywood, he captured the hearts of a nation.
He seems to have been an extraordinarily intelligent animal who actually 'acted' in the sense that he could change his facial expressions according to the needs of a given scene.
Orlean notes how he could smile on demand, look sad when required and, given the overly melodramatic nature of these programmes, he was also able to lie flat on his stomach with his tale between his legs when he was frightened.
Having made his Hollywood breakthrough after being discovered performing amazing feats at a dog show, he quickly became the most famous dog in America -- no mean feat given that canine 'actors' were all the rage at the time.
Duncan quickly realised that his pooch was a licence to print money and Rin Tin Tin became one of the first examples of how merchandise, no matter how tacky, could be a bigger earner than the programme itself.
When Rin Tin Tin died in 1932, Duncan replaced him with the dog's son, called, with admirable invention, Rin Tin Tin Junior. In fact, Rin Tin Tin was a family business -- he also appeared in some shows with his 'wife' Nanette and some of their puppies.
In all, an estimated 20 German Shepherds would go on to play the dog on screen. But like all good Hollywood yarns, when things began to go wrong, they went spectacularly wrong.
Such vast amounts of money -- tens of millions in modern terms -- was always going to cause problems down the line and by the 1950s it seemed everyone was suing everyone else as rows over merchandising and royalty demands turned especially ugly.
Events also turned farcical -- one of the child actors who had played alongside him was actually sued for "impersonating himself".
In the end, Rin Tin Tin quickly faded from the limelight -- America was changing fast and the old-school attitudes and moral lessons learned by the characters in every episode seemed out of step with a country that would soon embark on a cultural revolution. The show was finally cancelled in 1959, although it did go on to enjoy posthumous success as a cheaply bought schedule filler.
It would be nice to see Rin Tin Tin reincarnated back into the popular consciousness. Sadly, though, the values espoused by the show seem old-fashioned -- and with CGI now so efficient at rendering animal avatars rather than people taking the time and money to actually train an animal, it seems a forlorn hope.
Still, if the only artefact we have to remind ourselves of an incredible dog with an even more incredible life story is Orlean's book, then we could do a lot worse.