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Rin Tin Tin: A Silent Film Star On Four Legs

This interview originally aired on Fresh Air on Jan. 9, 2012. Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend is now out in paperback.

If you're a baby boomer, you might remember the old TV Series The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, about a German Shepherd and a boy named Rusty who lived with a cavalry troop in the American West. In 1954, Rin Tin Tin was such a big star, he was "interviewed" by a writer for The New Yorker, who noted that he turned up his nose at roast beef and drank milk from a champagne glass. What many of us didn't know — until our next guest, writer Susan Orlean, told us — is that Rin Tin Tin, the TV star, was a reincarnation of an even bigger movie star who had dominated the silent screen in the 1920s, and nearly won an Oscar for best actor ... and that Rin Tin Tin was a real dog, rescued from a World War I battlefield by Lee Duncan, an American doughboy who devoted his life to training and promoting that dog and others that bore the Rin Tin Tin legacy.

Orleans wrote a book about the Rin Tin Tin story, and about American's evolving relationship with dogs in the twentieth century. Susan Orlean is a staff writer for The New Yorker who has written seven books, including The Orchid Thief, which was made into the film Adaptation. Her book, which is now in paperback, is called Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.

Interview Highlights

On Rin Tin Tin and the Oscars

"The story was that [Rin Tin Tin] was in line to get the first Best Actor award. It was the first year the Oscars were being given out. It wouldn't have been unheard of. He was a huge box-office star. It wasn't a crazy idea. He was that popular and he was that seriously regarded as an actor. But the academy, according to the story, believed that this new idea of handing out these Oscars could possibly be damaged by the first Best Actor being a dog even though everyone loved Rin Tin Tin."

On dogs in World War I

"They laid communication wire. They carried communication messages. They worked as cadaver dogs. After a battle had ended, dogs that were trained for this purpose were released onto a battlefield to quickly identify to the medics which of the bodies still had life in them. They were many times carrying supplies out into a field so that any soldiers who were injured and able to help themselves in some way were able to get the supplies from the dogs — or if they were dying, they could have the companionship of a dog as they were in their last moments."

Susan Orlean is a staff writer for the <em>New Yorker</em> and has contributed articles to <em>Vogue, Rolling Stone</em> and<em> Esquire.</em> She is the author of several books, including <em>The Orchid Thief</em>.
Gasper Tringale /
Susan Orlean is a staff writer for the New Yorker and has contributed articles to Vogue, Rolling Stone and Esquire. She is the author of several books, including The Orchid Thief.

On how Lee Duncan discovered Rin Tin Tin

"He was sent to examine battlefields the Germans just left [in France]. When he got to the field, he noticed a building hit by artillery and recognized it was a kennel. He decided to just take a look and see what was left of this kennel. Inside, he found the bodies of a dozen or so dogs that had been killed by the shelling. At the last minute, he heard a whimpering in the back of the kennel. So he made his way through this array of dogs who had been killed and found a female who was alive who had given birth. She had a litter of five puppies. He simply could not walk away. ... He took them back to the barracks and decided to take care of them."

On Rin Tin Tin and merchandising in the 1950s

"Practically everything you wanted was available in a Rin Tin Tin-branded version. This was the early beginning of merchandising. There was no merchandising before the 1950s. Rin Tin Tin was one of the early big licensers, and kids went crazy."

On Rin Tin Tin being played by multiple dogs in the 1950s

"Rin Tin Tin in the 1920s was a dog who became an actor and appeared in movies, performing roles. In the 1950s, Rin Tin Tin had become an idea. He was a character played by a multitude of dogs. It was generally three dogs who played the part."

On Twitter (Orlean tweets as @susanorlean)

"I think for me Twitter is the equivalent of working in an office and having those casual conversations that make ... you feel less isolated in the course of writing. Because writing is so solitary — it's such a private enterprise. I first got involved with Twitter when I began writing this book and was spending day after day entirely by myself. I was living out in the country. And here was a way to chat with people and in some cases use them as a cheering squad. I would often post my word count for the day. And people would say, 'Go, you can do it.' And I began to find this relationship with the world of Twitter that I had been missing since I had been working in an office."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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