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.
Only six of his silent films still exist, and to today’s audiences they seem contrived and melodramatic, yet Rin Tin Tin rose above his surroundings. The movies may be corny, but he is a commanding presence. When he died in 1932, the nation mourned. One radio announcer said on the air: “Last night a whole radio network and thousands of radio fans paid homage to a great dog, a gentleman, a scholar, a hero, a cinema star — in fact, a dog which was virtually everything we could wish to be.” He lived on, though, through the succession of Rin Tin Tins who succeeded him — “quietly and completely, as if they lived in a universe that had managed to exist outside the boundaries of time” — many of them reared and trained by Duncan right up to his own death in September 1960.
Rin Tin Tin lived on first in sound movies and then, beginning in 1954, in a hugely popular television show, “The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin,” as the television folk decided to punctuate his name. It ran on ABC and then in re-runs on CBS, ending in 1964 when it was decided that changing popular tastes rendered the show too old-fashioned, but Rin Tin Tin lives on to this day as a symbol of courage and heroism. Whether he is still as famous as Lassie is debatable, but it is a mark of Rin Tin Tin’s staying power that only four years ago the feature film “Finding Rin Tin Tin” was released, telling the story of how Duncan found, rescued and brought to stardom the dog whom he loved so deeply.
It’s a touching and revealing story, not merely on its own merits but because it parallels the changing place of dogs in American life, from outdoor workers to indoor pets, but unfortunately there are too many times in this book when it seems to be far less about Rin Tin Tin than about Susan Orlean. She has, as I noted two decades ago while reviewing her book about Saturday nights in America, a talent for choosing interesting subjects but then making them far less interesting by using “the first-person singular to grating excess.” Over the years this tendency has, if anything, gotten worse.
Thus, for example, in one paragraph devoted to her research in Duncan’s papers, as she describes her commute between Los Angeles and Riverside she manages to use the first-person singular a dozen times, not one of which sheds even a flicker of light on Duncan, Rin Tin Tin or anything else remotely related to the subject of her book. A few pages later she comes up with this:
“This was the first time I had ever spent so much time learning about one person’s life, and it was a new experience for me to fall so deeply into it, and, strangest of all, to feel, as I did sometimes, that I knew more about Lee than he might have known about himself, and more than I would have known if I had met him and talked to him and learned about him in that more usual way. Before I spent these hours in . . . Lee’s file boxes in Riverside, I had never realized how crackling and alive someone’s papers could be. I always assumed that archives would be as dull as an accountant’s ledger. But instead, they made me feel as though I had drilled my way inside a still-humming life.”
Apart from the self-absorption and grammatical awkwardness of that passage, what stands out is its breathtaking ingenuousness. Anyone who knows anything about research in general and biographical research in particular knows that (a) files can be as exciting as life itself and (b) the relationship between writer and subject becomes almost as intimate as any genuine human relationship, sometimes more so. Yet Orlean only underscores her naivete when she says a few pages later, “I had come to feel that I knew Lee Duncan. He had become as familiar to me as a family member, and, as is often the case with a family member, he also remained a mystery.”
It is possible that, had Orlean resisted what must have been an overpowering urge to insert herself into her narrative at every available moment, “Rin Tin Tin” might have been an interesting account of what is obviously an interesting story. Instead she succumbed to that urge over and over again, with the unhappy result that the book is merely tiresome.