In September 1918, an American soldier named Lee Duncan found “a frantic German shepherd female with a litter of five puppies” in the Meuse Valley of France. Duncan was an animal lover whose immediate instinct was to rescue the forlorn dogs. He managed to do so — in the circumstances, it wasn’t easy — and to get the dogs back to his base. He “knew he couldn’t manage all the dogs,” so he gave away the mother and three of the puppies, and “kept the two prettiest, a male and a female, for himself.” He named the dogs after dolls that were then popular good-luck charms: The female became Nanette and the male Rin Tin Tin.
The rest of the tale is as remarkable as its beginning. Duncan, a native Californian who had been orphaned as a boy, was a solitary young man who was more comfortable with animals than with people and who made extraordinary efforts to get the dogs across the Atlantic. For a time they boarded at a kennel on Long Island, where Nanette developed pneumonia and died; the owner of the kennel gave Duncan a female puppy whom he named Nanette II. He was able to get both dogs to California, where the saga of Rin Tin Tin turned into movie history.
American sentiments about Germany were considerably less than affectionate in the wake of World War I — after the United States entered the war, anti-German feelings had reached near fever pitch, and they were slow to subside — yet the German shepherd rapidly became one of the country’s most popular breeds, despite its German origins and its importance to the German military. Duncan “was not the only soldier to have brought home a dog,”Susan Orlean writes, “and he was one of many to come home with stories praising the German shepherds they’d seen in battle.” Rin Tin Tin, by the age of 3, was on his way to becoming, in the mind of the movie-going public, the embodiment of his young breed:
“He had lost his puppy fluffiness; his coat was lustrous and dark, nearly black, with gold marbling on his legs and chin and chest. His tail was as bushy as a squirrel’s. He wasn’t overly tall or overly broad, his chest wasn’t especially deep, his legs weren’t unusually muscular or long, but he was powerful and nimble, as light on his feet as a mountain goat. His ears were comically large, tulip-shaped, and set far apart on a wide skull. His face was more arresting than beautiful, his expression worried and pitying and generous: instead of a look of doggy excitement it was something more tender, a little sorrowful, as if he was viewing with charity and resignation the whole enterprise of living and striving and hoping.”
So at least Susan Orlean says. What matters is that in the early 1920s the movie industry was beginning to take shape and demonstrating a massive appetite for what soon came to be known as stars. Sound had yet to come to the movies, so whether characters could speak clearly was less important than how they looked and moved. Another German shepherd, named Strongheart, made his first film in 1921, and made six successful films before his death eight years later, but it was Rin Tin Tin, whose career began at about the same time, who became a true star, not merely because of his looks but because he possessed uncanny acting ability, conveying a wide variety of emotions and pulling off remarkable physical feats.