Book Review by Heidi Simmons

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean (Simon & Schuster)

If you are a dog lover this book will fascinate you. Or, if you love Hollywood show business, this book will interest you. Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean details the life and career of the famous German Shepard movie and television star Rin Tin Tin.

Orlean is a staff writer for the New Yorker and her bestseller The Orchid Thief was made into a film with the same title starring Nicholas Cage. Orlean writes with a relentless curiosity. She is drawn to the off-beat, the out of the ordinary character and the story behind the story. Her exploration of Rin Tin Tin took seven years to put into this intensive narrative.


Abandoned by the German military, Rin Tin Tin was found in a battlefield kennel in France during World War I. The pups were just days old when they were rescued by Lee Duncan, a California boy, born and raised in Riverside County. Duncan saved the mother and litter, keeping the prettiest male and female puppies for himself. He named the dogs after a pair of young lovers, Rin Tin Tin and Nanette, who had survived a bombing in a Parisian railway station at the start of the war. French children made small dolls in their honor as symbols of good luck selling them to servicemen to raise funds for orphanages. It was apropos since Duncan himself had been abandoned as a child and lived in an orphanage.

Duncan managed to bring the dogs back to the United States. (Nanette, his favorite, died before he could get her to California.) Amazed at the breed’s intelligence, athleticism and loyalty, Duncan took Rin Tin Tin to Hollywood in the naive belief that he was a star in the making. Duncan wrote the screenplay that started Rin Tin Tin’s acting career.

In the 1920’s one out of two Americans saw a movie every week. It was the silent film era and “Rinty”, as Duncan called him, could express himself and register emotion to portray a real character. Trained by Duncan, Rin Tin Tin, could show an array of expressions such as sorrow, distrust, jealousy and joy. He could look natural whereas his human co-stars had to pantomime and exaggerate to convey meaning.

Rin Tin Tin became a huge star. Warner Bros. paid him eight times as much as it paid its human actors! Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow were such fans they bought Rinty’s pups. Duncan and Rin Tin Tin toured the country for publicity and received a hero’s welcome. They consistently drew large crowds and received keys to the cities they visited. Rinty and Duncan were living a life of luxury that came from their success and fame.

In 1932 at the age of 14, Rin Tin Tin died. But his off spring continued to work under the same name. It was Rin Tin Tin IV that starred in the television series of the fifties. Other dogs may have filled in for stunts and close-ups, but the contract was always with Rin Tin Tin (unlike Lassie who was based on a literary character and played by various male collies).

The heart of the story is a loving relationship between a man and his dog. Duncan admired, respected and adored Rinty. He wanted to show him off. It was never his intention to exploit the dog. Over the years Duncan made — and lost — money in business with Rin Tin Tin. He had legal problems over who owned rights to Rin Tin Tin. Producers, studios and breeders all made claims. Herbert B. Leonard, who produced the TV series, died destitute fighting to keep control of Rin Tin Tin’s legacy.

Orlean’s book is not just about one dog’s life and legacy: It is about how our relationship with animals has changed throughout history, their contribution during wartime and how dogs have molded and shaped our world as helpers and companions. It is also about Hollywood celebrity and the politics of the film and TV business.

Animal lovers can appreciate the deep commitment and dedication of those who bond with their pets. That relationship can be so powerful that we want our pets to live forever. Lee Duncan did that with Rin Tin Tin.