The story of canine film and TV star Rin Tin Tin is unique and mythic even by American standards. Born on a World War I battlefield (that’s not a legend, it actually happened) and rescued back to the US by American solider Lee Duncan, he became an immortal, a movie star, a TV star, a hero beloved by millions.
Susan Orlean, a staff writer for The New Yorker and devoted lover of animals, sets out to explore how and why this legend was born, how and why it’s lasted, and how and why the name Rin Tin Tin still rings in America. She does this by charting Rin Tin Tin’s birth in France, his first brushes with showbusiness and eventual blockbuster success and his death, which was such a major event in 1932 that radio broadcasts were interrupted nationwide to announce it.
But the story of Rin Tin Tin doesn’t end there, and neither does Orlean’s. She continues on to follow Duncan as he presses forward with his faith in the Rin Tin Tin (or “Rinty,” as he called him) name and bloodline, taking Rin Tin Tin Jr. and future descendants – including The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin TV star Rin Tin Tin IV – on into their own careers, with varying degrees of success. And then the book goes further still, chronicling the efforts of producer Bert Leonard to get The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin on television, and finally on to the modern admirers of Rin Tin Tin, including owners of the remaining descendants of the bloodline.
The lasting effect of Orlean’s book is a unique, immersive and thoroughly engrossing chronicle of how a legend is born and then refuses to die. It’s a very American tale. Rin Tin Tin, the original, died nearly 80 years ago, but the name and the image still linger. The dog is a kind of god, a restless spirit that fades but doesn’t vanish. Orlean is fascinated by this, and her elegant, natural and often witty prose makes that fascination infectious.
We study human celebrities constantly, either out of envy or out of some attempt to understand how a person lives in such a bright and unforgiving spotlight. What Orlean does in Rin Tin Tin, through the study of a beloved animal with uncommon charisma and spirit, is not only fascinating in itself, but also a welcome new angle on the phenomenon of celebrity and cinematic immortality.