Rin Tin Tin: The Dog, the Legend

Rin Tin Tin is more than the most celebrated dog in the history of cinema -- for a while, he was America's biggest star, period. His life is a case study in how fame works, and where it fails.


Here’s a truism of 21st-century life: We think a lot about celebrity. Behind every peek we sneak at candids of Beyoncé pushing a stroller, there lurk some unanswerable questions about our own dull lives — and our wish for these lives, maybe ironically (or perhaps just stupidly) to last forever. Somewhere in this impossible gap we dream up, between the boring present and an eternal future gifted to us by fame, hide the marks left by many embarrassing pratfalls. (Who among us hasn’t drempt up silly ideas for get-rich-quick book deals?) But therein lies a couple good stories, too.

Rin Tin Tin’s is one of the richest of these stories. It says more about how we live today than, say, a Secret Service scandal ever can. You’ll just have to trust me on this one. The trouble is, to find the truth nugget in Rin’s life, you have to press beyond the Vaseline-smeared lenses and syrupy strings that muck up just about every surviving image we have of the original Rinty. It can be a drag, man. And extremely embarrassing to do on a 15-inch laptop screen in a coffeeshop filled with attractive administrative types on their lunch breaks.

First, some background: Near the end of the First World War, Rin was discovered by an American serviceman, Lee Duncan, on a battlefield in France. Within a couple years, the German Shepherd was one of the first truly global celebrities. When Rin first appeared before a camera, at a dog show in Los Angeles, only Charlie Chaplin’s fame had reached the level of ubiquity and nuisance we now take for granted with our own living idols.

By 1925, Rin’s star had arguably eclipsed Chaplin’s. The first of many wonder dogs would live out the remaining seven years of his life through press releases and carefully cultivated myths, all issued by people who lived off the power of this new-fangled phenomenon — mass popularity. Rin’s handlers had coconspirators, of course: “the people,” or fans who got some kind of uplift from the story of this glamorous canine. When other noteworthy dogs passed away, it was the highest honor for Rin to appear at their funeral and lay a wreath. When Rin’s own time came, he reportedly died in the arms of Jean Harlow. And, of course, there were the countless promotional appearances for the various movies and radio shows that kept his name foremost in the public mind.

This whirlwind of a life started in 1918 and ended in 1932. Not only was it a very packed 14 years for Rin, Duncan, and the American movie industry (which, during this time, was transformed into the global business empire it remains today), this half-blink also witnessed the passing of an old world, one in which branding was an afterthought and suddenly crowds in the thousands were always considered a very bad thing.

As time passes, it becomes harder to define exactly what Rin meant to the making of our celebrity-focused culture. It’s not much easier to pin down his role in his own life. Over the last ten years, Susan Orlean attempted to do both in researching and writing her biography, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. I’d say, with as much humility that such declarations can be made, that she nailed it.

Here’s Orlean, writing about the succession of Rins that followed, after the original died (I very badly want to believe) in Harlow’s bosom:

“There will always be a Rin Tin Tin,” Lee Duncan said, time and time again, to reporters, to visitors, to fan magazines, to neighbors, to family, to friends. At first this must have sounded absurd — just wishful thinking about the creature that had eased his loneliness and made him famous around the world. And yet, just as Lee believed, there has always been a Rin Tin Tin. The second Rin Tin Tin was not the talent his father was, but still, he was Rin Tin Tin, carrying on what the first dog had begun. After Rin Tin Tin Jr. there was Rin Tin Tin III, and then another Rin Tin Tin after him, and then another, and then another: there has always been another. And Rin Tin Tin has always been more than a dog. He was an idea and an ideal — a hero who was also a friend, a fighter who was also a caretaker, a mute genius, a companionable loner. He was one dog and many dogs, a real animal and an invented character, a pet as well as an international celebrity. He was born in 1918 and he never died.

The life of Rin Tin Tin is the purest case study we have of fame’s simple cause and effect. It begins mechanically: Your image is multiplied by a million and disseminated all over the world. The upshot is wild — insane, even. You live forever as a lie everyone knows, but hardly anyone cares to get right.

Rest easy, Rin Tin Tin.

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