A young American soldier serving in France during World War I discovered Rin Tin Tin in a bombed out dog kennel.
From those humble beginnings, the dark-haired German shepherd rose to become an internationally recognized Hollywood star. Now, following several decades of subsiding public interest in the dog, New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean has written a new book, "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend," in which she chronicles the history and allure of the canine celebrity.
The book's publication underpins the continuing appeal of Rin Tin Tin and, presumably, the dog character would still be a big box-office draw if a new movie were to come out. But, it's not certain that will ever happen.
Even so, the man who first found the dog in that bombed out shelter, Lee Duncan, said early on that there would always be a Rin Tin Tin, and his words seemed prescient as the Rin Tin Tin franchise has successfully reinvented itself following the initial success in silent films and then for several decades thereafter in "talkies," radio and television. More recently, the Rin Tin Tin name has mostly disappeared from the public eye amid a plethora of legal squabbles described in Orlean's book.
Orlean, whose previous work includes "The Orchid Thief" — which later became the basis for the film, "Adaptation" — writes that Duncan happened upon the bombed out dog kennel while inspecting the ruins of a German encampment in Fluiry, France. When he first looked inside the long, low concrete building, Duncan saw at least 20 dogs that had been killed by artillery shells. One dog still had a pigeon cage strapped to its back. Two pigeons in the cage survived the bombing, and Duncan set them free. He then heard whimpering coming from the back corner of the kennel. There, he found a female German shepherd with a litter of five puppies.
Duncan brought the mother and puppies back to the American base. He kept two of the puppies for himself and gave the mother and three remaining puppies to other soldiers.
Of the two puppies Duncan kept, one was a male and the other a female. He named them Rin Tin Tin and Nanette after a pair of dolls that had been popular in France as good luck charms during World War I.
Luck and happenstance would reappear several more times in the lives of Rin Tin Tin and his owner Lee Duncan. Within a few years, the dog grew into an international sensation and brought millions of dollars to Duncan, the movie studios and the television producers who made several films, a handful of television series and, of course, lots of Rin Tin Tin merchandise.
Becoming a star
Rin Tin Tin's big break came in the early 1920s when an acquaintance of Duncan's came to a dog show and filmed Rin Tin Tin jumping over a nearly 12-foot wall. A newsreel company later purchased the film and sent Duncan a check for $350.
Duncan, who had always thought the dog was good enough to star in films, redoubled his efforts to break into Hollywood after receiving the check from the newsreel company.
He landed Rin Tin Tin's first role in an unusual way: by walking around outside the studios, knocking on doors and seeing if anyone was interested in using a trained dog in a film. Orlean notes in the book that this was not as implausible as it might sound, that the movie business in the early 1920s was still "nearly homemade" and "bit players were often plucked from the crowds that gathered at the studio gates."
Rin Tin Tin was cast in a few other movies before he began starring in his own films during an eight-year relationship with Warner Bros. The very first Rin Tin Tin film released by Warner Bros., "Where the North Begins," grossed $352,000 (about $4.3 million today) and propelled the dog to celebrity status.
Over the course of his movie career, Rin Tin Tin starred in 23 Hollywood films. In addition to the money he made from the movies, Rin Tin Tin (and Duncan) also received substantial sums for personal appearances and product endorsements.
But, with the advent of sound in Hollywood films, Warner Bros. decided to cancel the contract with Rin Tin Tin. The letter sent to Duncan in 1929 stated that, "the making of any animal pictures, such as we have in the past with Rin Tin Tin, is not in keeping with the policy that has been adopted by us for talking pictures, very obviously, of course, because dogs don't talk."
Not long afterward, the economy soured and Duncan had several personal setbacks. Shortly after depositing one of his last pay checks from Warner Bros., his bank failed. He discovered that his investment in a laundry business had been a fraud. Later, a wave destroyed the beach house he owned in Malibu.
But a larger tragedy came in August 1932. Rin Tin Tin, at 13 years old, died unexpectedly. Rumors began circulating that he had died in the arms of actress Jean Harlow, a neighbor, but Orlean discounts that story in the book.
Radio broadcasters interrupted their programs to announce the news. Theaters put up signs in their windows to let fans know about Rin Tin Tin's demise. And, every newspaper in the country ran an obituary.
The TV years
The Rin Tin Tin story, however, did not end there.
Duncan continued breeding the Rin Tin Tin line and he enjoyed training German shepherds. But, as Orlean notes in the book, the dogs that appeared in subsequent films, on stage at personal appearances and on television may or may not have descended from the original Rin Tin Tin. Not all of the ancestors of the original Rin Tin Tin grew into trainable dogs, so substitutes and even stunt doubles had to be brought in to do most of the work on a shoot. Nevertheless, the public more or less bought the illusion that the dogs they saw on screen were related to the original Rin Tin Tin.
Over the next several years, Duncan and his dogs participated in various small projects, but the next big success came in 1954 when "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin," started airing on ABC. In addition to Rin Tin Tin, the show starred Lee Aaker as Rusty, an orphaned boy of 9 or 10 years old who was being raised by U.S. Calvary soldiers in the Old West.
The show succeeded almost immediately. Orlean recounts how it became the second highest-rated program on ABC, trailing only the Walt Disney Show, and broke records for how fast it climbed the ratings charts. Nine million of 30 million televisions tuned in to watch "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin," Orlean notes.
The show plodded along for next few years, but the ratings gradually deflated. In 1959, Nabisco canceled its sponsorship and production of "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin" came to a close.
Duncan died the next year and, unfortunately, he never explicitly said what should happen to the dogs and the Rin Tin Tin name. According to Orlean, Duncan gave the rights to the dog as a cinematic character to Herbert B. "Bert" Leonard, the producer of "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin." Other than that, Duncan did nothing to protect the copyrights, trademarks or other brand markings related to the Rin Tin Tin legacy. Orlean writes that he never had a lawyer.
The Endless Lawsuit period
These untidy legalisms later devolved into what Orlean calls the "Endless Lawsuit" period in the Rin Tin Tin story.
A bulk of the legal fighting involved Leonard, the producer of the Rin Tin Tin television show, and Daphne Hereford, the granddaughter of a Texas woman who bought four Rin Tin Tin-descended dogs from Duncan decades ago. For her part, Hereford owned several trademarks related to Rin Tin Tin and, unbeknownst to Leonard, had been working to promote and breed Rin Tin Tin dogs in Texas for several years.
As Orlean notes, it was really only a matter of time before Leonard and Hereford would collide. But, they weren't the only ones fighting over Rin Tin Tin issues.
Here's how Orlean summed up the lawsuit period:
"At the time, Bert [Leonard] was suing the producers of 'Rin Tin Tin K-9 Cop' for cutting him out of the show; the City of Pearland, Texas, where Daphne was then living, was suing her to reduce the number of dogs she had on her property; soon, Bert would sue Daphne again over her trademark for Rin Tin Tin dog food, and Columbia Pictures would oppose her trademark on Rin Tin Tin 'entertainment services,'" Orlean writes. "Sony Pictures, for arcane reasons having to do with copyright and the fact that Bert owed them a fortune, was suing him for attempting to release the five colorized episodes of the television show as a film."
The legal wrangling seems to have slowed down in recent years but there was a federal lawsuit filed by Hereford about three years ago over a recent film entitled "Finding Rin Tin Tin."
Orlean's book begs the question of whether we've seen the last of Rin Tin Tin on the big or little screen.
At this point, the dog could be considered a ghost of pop culture's past. Many recognize the name but few could pick him out of a crowd. Of course, the name alone has nostalgic value and a certain amount of worth in intellectual property. But, given the number of lawsuits filed over the years, filmmakers and executives from the major studios would probably think twice about any effort to revive the dog's popularity with a new movie.
Indeed, it's not hard to imagine Orlean's book as the final chapter in the Rin Tin Tin story. That would be a shame, but only time will tell.