I’m not one who ordinarily dwells on the sentimental. I would almost always rather offer up a quick quip than a prolonged pondering. But today is a day for ponderings, as I sit at my computer with an aging dog sleeping next to me. This dog is my constant companion and we understand each other.
I don’t mind telling you that when this creature is too old for our daily walks, I just may turn into that woman . . . that woman who pushes her dog in a pram. Let’s just say that I haven’t ruled it out. I feel it’s only fair, since the old guy has been my personal trainer for years. He has roused me from bed on the mornings when bed still sounded like a really good idea. He has survived a mauling by an angry dog that outweighed him by about 300%. And he has survived an unfortunate run-in with a school bus. But, age is starting to take its toll and I can see my dog, which a vet once described as a “ball of muscle,” beginning to wind down a little. That’s what happens with animals. It’s simply a cruel fact of life. But my dog isn’t ready to wind down completely and I may have a long time to push him around in a pram like some eccentric old woman from a screwball comedy.
At any rate, all this pondering made me think of dogs that have left a lasting legacy. You know how one pondering always leads to another. Well, the next thing I knew I was pondering Rin Tin Tin. So, that’s what we’re going to talk about today—Rin Tin Tin, the dog with a legacy that has spanned close to a hundred years.
The Woof Heard ‘Round the World
Rin Tin Tin didn’t always have a celebrity lifestyle. This dog learned firsthand, er, first paw, that war is hell. In 1918, the dog kennel in Lorraine, France, where he was being housed with his mother and four littermates, was bombed. If it were not for a man named Lee Duncan, a U.S. Air Force Corporal, the world would have missed out on one of the biggest canine superstars of all time.
Lee Duncan and his battalion rescued and took charge of the dogs. Duncan took one female and one male pup, while the other dogs were divided among the other soldiers. Duncan named his duo, Nannette and Rin Tin Tin, after French puppets, Nénette and Rintintin. It’s all very worldly, when you stop and think about it—German shepherds, rescued in France, by an American G.I. It’s the sort of story that could launch a Hollywood career!
A Dog and His Big-Time Movie Producer
Duncan’s dogs were the only two survivors of the dogs rescued that day. When the war ended and it was time for Duncan to return to the states, he arranged for Rin Tin Tin and Nanette to make the journey with him. Sadly, Nanette became ill during the trip and died soon after arriving in America.
Rin Tin Tin had lost his birth family, but he still had a devoted friend in Duncan. In 1922, Duncan entered Rin Tin Tin in a Los Angeles dog show. I love a good story about how a celebrity was discovered. While Rin Tin Tin’s story doesn’t have the unexpected charm of Lana Turner being discovered while drinking a soda at Schwab’s drugstore, it is a very fitting story for a celebrity dog. At the dog show, Rin Tin Tin wowed the audience by jumping 13.5 feet. Yeah, that’s the sort of thing that will get a French, German shepherd living in America noticed by a big-time movie producer.
Producer Darryl Zanuck, approached Duncan after the show. He wanted to know if he could film Rin Tin Tin with his big-time movie producer camera. He flashed a wad of dough and Duncan thought that sounded like a great idea. Rin Tin Tin earned $350 for frolicking in front of the camera—well, for frolicking and jumping over a wall that was almost twelve feet high!
Using good old-fashioned American ingenuity, Duncan then contacted every studio in tinsel town about making a film starring Rin Tin Tin. While at Warner Bros, Duncan saw a film crew attempting to shoot a scene with a wolf. Duncan looked at the wolf. He looked at his dog. And he thought, “Close enough!” He approached the director and said that Rin Tin Tin could take over for the wolf and get it right in one take. He did it . . . and a star was born!
Just a Regular Dog Next Door
Rin Tin Tin went on to make more than twenty movies for Warner Bros. The pup from the bombed out kennel had become a household name. In his prime, Warner Bros. kept eighteen stand-ins for Rin Tin Tin. He had his own private chef to cook tenderloin steaks for him. He ate while classical music played in the background to aid his digestion. If that sounds like overkill, it might help to know that Rin Tin Tin was the one who brought Warner Bros back from the brink of bankruptcy. By 1926, the pooch was commanding a salary of $6,000 a week. In today’s dollars and cents, that is $80,000 a week! I can only hope he never got too big to take a lap from the toilet!
He had his own live radio show in the 1930s, entitled, “The Wonder Dog.” Rin Tin Tin did his own sound effects. “Arf!”
In August 1932, just shy of his fourteenth birthday, Rin Tin Tin died. That might have been the end, but it wasn’t. Duncan enjoyed German shepherds and he continued breeding dogs from the Rin Tin Tin bloodline. While there were plenty of descendants, not all of them had Rin Tin Tin’s natural abilities. Doubles were brought in to do the serious acting, while the offspring focused on scratching themselves and drinking out of toilets. But, it didn’t matter to the public. They continued to believe in the Rin Tin Tin Dynasty.
In 1954, ABC began producing a show called “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” for television. This story had it all! It had and orphaned boy named Rusty being raised by U.S. Cavalry soldiers in the Old West. And, most important, it had a German Shepherd who went by the name Rin Tin Tin. In reality, the part of Rin Tin Tin was played a non-relative, while Rin Tin Tin IV stayed home drinking from his toilet in Riverside, California.
Lee Duncan died in 1960. He had enjoyed a mighty fine ride with the pup from the bombed out kennel. Unfortunately, he never trademarked the name, “Rin Tin Tin.” Years of court battles followed his death. The name was finally trademarked to a Texas dog breeder in 1993.
As for the Rin-Tin-Tin bloodline, that is still going strong. In Latexo, Texas, a litter of little chips of the block is born each year. Rin Tin Tin XII continues to makes public appearances and carries on in the steps of his famous four-legged forefather. I like that, because I know how difficult it is to contemplate saying, “Goodbye,” to a constant companion.
Now, please excuse me. I think I’m going to spend some time browsing online stores for dog prams. Maybe being “that woman” isn’t such a bad thing.
Here’s a fantastic video of Rin-Tin-Tin from the early days to today…you’ll enjoy it!