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Rin Tin Tin: A Silent Film Star On Four Legs

Susan Orlean is a staff writer for the New Yorker and has contributed articles to Vogue, Rolling Stone and Esquire. She is the author of several books, including The Orchid Thief. ( )

This interview originally aired on Fresh Air on Jan. 9, 2012. Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend is now out in paperback.

If you're a baby boomer, you might remember the old TV Series The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, about a German Shepherd and a boy named Rusty who lived with a cavalry troop in the American West. In 1954, Rin Tin Tin was such a big star, he was "interviewed" by a writer for The New Yorker, who noted that he turned up his nose at roast beef and drank milk from a champagne glass. What many of us didn't know — until our next guest, writer Susan Orlean, told us — is that Rin Tin Tin, the TV star, was a reincarnation of an even bigger movie star who had dominated the silent screen in the 1920s, and nearly won an Oscar for best actor ... and that Rin Tin Tin was a real dog, rescued from a World War I battlefield by Lee Duncan, an American doughboy who devoted his life to training and promoting that dog and others that bore the Rin Tin Tin legacy.

Orleans wrote a book about the Rin Tin Tin story, and about American's evolving relationship with dogs in the twentieth century. Susan Orlean is a staff writer for The New Yorker who has written seven books, including The Orchid Thief, which was made into the film Adaptation. Her book, which is now in paperback, is called Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.


Interview Highlights

On Rin Tin Tin and the Oscars

"The story was that [Rin Tin Tin] was in line to get the first Best Actor award. It was the first year the Oscars were being given out. It wouldn't have been unheard of. He was a huge box-office star. It wasn't a crazy idea. He was that popular and he was that seriously regarded as an actor. But the academy, according to the story, believed that this new idea of handing out these Oscars could possibly be damaged by the first Best Actor being a dog even though everyone loved Rin Tin Tin."

On dogs in World War I

"They laid communication wire. They carried communication messages. They worked as cadaver dogs. After a battle had ended, dogs that were trained for this purpose were released onto a battlefield to quickly identify to the medics which of the bodies still had life in them. They were many times carrying supplies out into a field so that any soldiers who were injured and able to help themselves in some way were able to get the supplies from the dogs — or if they were dying, they could have the companionship of a dog as they were in their last moments."

On how Lee Duncan discovered Rin Tin Tin

"He was sent to examine battlefields the Germans just left [in France]. When he got to the field, he noticed a building hit by artillery and recognized it was a kennel. He decided to just take a look and see what was left of this kennel. Inside, he found the bodies of a dozen or so dogs that had been killed by the shelling. At the last minute, he heard a whimpering in the back of the kennel. So he made his way through this array of dogs who had been killed and found a female who was alive who had given birth. She had a litter of five puppies. He simply could not walk away. ... He took them back to the barracks and decided to take care of them."

On Rin Tin Tin and merchandising in the 1950s

"Practically everything you wanted was available in a Rin Tin Tin-branded version. This was the early beginning of merchandising. There was no merchandising before the 1950s. Rin Tin Tin was one of the early big licensers, and kids went crazy."

On Rin Tin Tin being played by multiple dogs in the 1950s

"Rin Tin Tin in the 1920s was a dog who became an actor and appeared in movies, performing roles. In the 1950s, Rin Tin Tin had become an idea. He was a character played by a multitude of dogs. It was generally three dogs who played the part."

On Twitter (Orlean tweets as @susanorlean)

"I think for me Twitter is the equivalent of working in an office and having those casual conversations that make ... you feel less isolated in the course of writing. Because writing is so solitary — it's such a private enterprise. I first got involved with Twitter when I began writing this book and was spending day after day entirely by myself. I was living out in the country. And here was a way to chat with people and in some cases use them as a cheering squad. I would often post my word count for the day. And people would say, 'Go, you can do it.' And I began to find this relationship with the world of Twitter that I had been missing since I had been working in an office."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross. If you're a baby boomer, you might remember the old TV series "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin," about a German shepherd and a boy named Rusty who lived with a cavalry troop in the American West. In 1954, Rin Tin Tin was such a big star he was, quote, "interviewed" by a writer for the New Yorker, who noted that he turned up his nose at roast beef and drank milk from a champagne glass.

What many of us didn't know, until next our guest, writer Susan Orlean, told us, is that Rin Tin Tin the TV star was a reincarnation of an ever bigger movie star who had dominated the silent screen in the 1920s and nearly won an Oscar for Best Actor. The original Rin Tin Tin was rescued from a World War I battlefield by Lee Duncan, an American Doughboy who devoted his life to training and promoting that dog and others that bore the Rin Tin Tin legacy.

Susan Orlean's book about the Rin Tin Tin and about America's evolving relationship with dogs in the 20th century is called "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend." Orlean is a staff writer for The New Yorker, who has written seven books, including "The Orchard Thief." Susan Orlean spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Susan Orlean, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, people of our generation when they hear the name Rin Tin Tin, they think of the TV show of the '50s, probably most of us. But what we learn from you is that in the 1920s, the original Rin Tin Tin was a silent movie star. How big was he?

SUSAN ORLEAN: His fame in the 1920s might have even been greater than his fame in the 1950s, which is considerable. Part of that is because the impact of movies was so enormous. But he was also a superstar. He literally and figuratively leaped off the screen.

These movies were greeted as events. People of all ages went to the movies. They were shown all over the world. It wasn't a minor statement to say that he saved Warner Brothers.

Warner Brothers was a small studio at the time that they began making Rin Tin Tin films. Not only did he make them a major studio, but every time they found themselves in any sort of financial straits, they would release a Rin Tin Tin film, and it would set things straight. He was known around the Warner Brothers lot as the mortgage-lifter for that reason.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Now, he made more than 20 silent pictures, and he was the star, right? I mean, what were the plots like? How was he depicted?

ORLEAN: He was always the hero, and he always saved the day. But he didn't do it with the snap of a finger. There was always a struggle. And he was in these films with the big silent film actors of the time, and yet he was the big draw, even when he was in a movie with June Marlowe or Charles Farrell or Jason Robards. Rin Tin Tin was the leading man.

DAVIES: There would be real character development, right? Rin Tin Tin might have been accused of a crime, like killing sheep, and then his master might doubt him and even consider doing away with him, and then both he and the master have to struggle with their relationship.

And, you know, we should say that this was a time when he wasn't the only animal prominently featured in silent films. You write there was this other dog, Strongheart, which was also a big draw. Why were animals more prominently featured in silent films than they later were in talkies?

ORLEAN: Not only was Strongheart making films and a huge box office draw at the time, but nearly 80 other German shepherds were starring in films in the '20s, which is just a staggering fact and something that really astonished me. And they were the leading actors in those films. Moreover, dogs look much more natural not talking than people do. When you see some of these films, the people are - there's a quality in a silent film that's a bit ridiculous because we know people can talk, and yet there they are either pantomiming or using exaggerated gestures to make their point and then having the inner title card flash up and explain to us what they've just said.

A dog is just doing what they do naturally. And they never look - they never look diminished the way people sometimes can. So they were the perfect silent hero. They just suited the medium absolutely perfectly.

DAVIES: DAVIES: So what happened to Rin Tin Tin when the silent movie era ended?

ORLEAN: At the end of the silent film era, Warner Brothers terminated Lee's contract. They sent him a letter saying they were putting all of their attention as a company into this new medium of talking pictures, and everyone knows, as they said in the letter, that dogs don't talk.

In silent film, dogs and people didn't talk. Dogs then were on the same level as people in film. As soon as people were starting to hear speech in film, they became fascinated by it. They were obsessed with the technology. The fact that dogs didn't speak made them seem so much less interesting in a movie when people were so fascinated by the new capacity to hear sound in film.

So the 80 German shepherds that were starring in movies during the 1920s basically all lost their jobs, and really Rin Tin Tin is the only one among them who managed to sustain a little bit of a career. He started appearing in B-films that were coming out during that time. So he was no longer with a major studio, but he was still making films, whereas most of those other dogs just vanished and perhaps retired to a comfortable house somewhere in the country.

DAVIES: Dogs don't live forever, and in 1932, Rin Tin Tin dies. What was the impact on the entertainment world?

ORLEAN: It was a huge event. It was on a scale that is hard for us to imagine now. When Rin Tin Tin died in 1932, radio programming around the country was interrupted with a news bulletin announcing his death.

The next day there was an hour-long radio program in his memory. Every major newspaper carried a significant obituary extolling his virtues and talking about the loss of Rin Tin Tin as a tragedy, as an irreplaceable figure in American and international culture.

I just think it was viewed as a loss that was insurmountable. A lot of movie theaters hung pictures of him, and a lot of stores around the country, the shop owners would put - had a picture of Rin Tin Tin in their window as a sort of memorial to him and his passing.

DAVIES: Our guest is Susan Orlean; her new book is "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is writer Susan Orlean. Her new book is called "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend." I want to talk about Lee Duncan, the man who was Rin Tin Tin's trainer throughout, you know, so much of the life of the character.

He got Rin Tin Tin as a soldier in World War I. Just tell us a little about his background, why he got into the Army.

ORLEAN: Lee was born in the late 1890s in California. His mother was a young woman who had fallen in love with a man who proved to be not very reliable, and after she had a second kid, he abandoned her.

She was really not able to take care of her kids very well, and she put them in an orphanage for what turned out to be five years. She was finally able to reclaim both Lee and his sister when her own circumstances were improved a little bit, and she moved to a huge ranch that her parents were managing.

So Lee grew up on that ranch. He was a pretty lonely kid with no special ambition. The one thing he really wanted to do was to fly, and when World War I began, and the opportunity to enlist presented itself, he did enlist, I think mostly imagining that he'd get a pilot's license out of it.

Of course, he ended up in a horrific piece of history. He was stationed in France and was in a squadron that was really in the thick of the battle. His greatest affection had always been animals. So what he did when he had time and was on furlough and so forth was actually tour the countryside looking for a dog to bring back with him when the war was over.

DAVIES: And one of the fascinating parts of the story that you relate here is the way as many as 16 million animals were used in World War I. I mean a lot of them, you know, mules and horses pulling artillery, but dogs were used not by the United States but by the European armies. What were some of the roles that dogs played in the military then?

ORLEAN: Dogs played an enormous number of roles. They were sentries, of course, and worked as guard dogs. They laid communication wire. They carried messages. They worked as cadaver dogs, meaning that after a battle had ended, they - dogs who were trained for this purpose were released onto a battlefield to quickly identify to the medics which of the bodies still had life in them.

They were many times carrying supplies, first aid supplies, out into a field so that any soldiers who were injured could - and who were able to help themselves in some way - could get the supplies from the dogs, or if they were dying, they could have the companionship of a dog as they were in their last moments.

DAVIES: And just so I'm clear about this, the cadaver dogs would be trained to, when it smelled - it distinguished the smell of a live soldier from a dead one and then bark when he found a live one?

ORLEAN: Exactly. I mean, when you think of a huge battlefield strewn with bodies, and many of them were beyond help, but a medic had to quickly find the soldiers who still had some life in them and not waste their time stopping at each body.

So the dogs helped basically work as a triage unit and head out into the field, and dogs can distinguish between a live and a dead body. So they would sit beside the soldiers who were actually still alive, so the medics could quickly get to those people.

It was an incredibly important role, when you look at the numbers of soldiers involved in some of these battles in World War I and imagine that there could be 1,000 bodies laying out in a field and only a few medics who had to get to those soldiers who were still alive as quickly as they could.

DAVIES: Other dogs carrying, as you said, medical supplies onto the field. And I love this: terriers that were saddled with packs of cigarettes to cheer up the troops.

ORLEAN: Yes, I think these were probably the most popular dogs in World War I, the cigarette dogs, and they were often - they used little dogs, these terriers. They were just saddled with packs of cigarettes, and they would wander around among the troops delivering the cigarettes, and I'm sure they were warmly welcomed.

DAVIES: All right, so tell us about how Lee Duncan found Rin Tin Tin.

ORLEAN: Lee was stationed in the Mews Valley(ph) in France, and he had been sent to examine a battlefield that the Germans had just been pushed out of, just to see if it would serve as a suitable landing strip for the Allies. When he got to the field, he noticed a building that had been hit by artillery but he recognized that it was a kennel. He decided to just take a look and see what was left of this kennel.

Inside he found the bodies of a dozen or so dogs that had been killed by the shelling. At the last minute he heard a whimpering in the back of the kennel.

So he made his way through this array of dogs who had been killed and found a female who was alive and had just given birth. She had a litter of five puppies.

He, being an animal lover, simply could not walk away, even though in the middle of a very intense period of World War I having dogs would not be a very convenient thing, moreover having a mother and newborn puppies, but he could not leave them. He wrangled them somehow into his vehicle and took them back to the barracks and decided to take care of them.

DAVIES: You know, most of the folks in my generation know of Rin Tin Tin from the TV series in the '50s. And you write about this. This was a big revival of the Rin Tin Tin career. What was Lee Duncan's situation in 1952 when TV was growing and this idea came out?

ORLEAN: The early '50s were kind of a difficult period for him. During World War II, he had been very purposeful. He had been involved with the Army, helping them trained the K-9 Corps and Rin Tin Tin was the U.S. Army's mascot during that period. So he felt very purposeful and was earning enough money to be comfortable.

But when the war ended he was a little bit lost. There, he made one movie right after the war, which starred Rin Tin Tin called "The Return of Rin Tin Tin," and then nothing was really happening. You know, dog movies were not the big deal that they had been in the '20s. He was very skeptical about television, which was a very new medium at the time. So he was casting around, and I'm not quite sure what he thought would happen.

He was in some financial straits. In fact, at that point, he had had a sponsorship with Ken-L Ration and that's where he got his dog food for free. And Ken-L Ration basically came to him and said, you know, you're not really doing enough right now to warrant us treating you as one of our sponsors, so we're going to cut off your dog food.

And Lee's financial circumstances were tight enough that that really mattered. To lose the free dog food really mattered. So he thought I've got to do something and obviously the big excitement at the moment was television. So he finally opened himself up to the idea that maybe Rin Tin Tin's future would be in TV and not in film. And it turns out he was right.

DAVIES: I believe a stunt man brings this producer, Bert Leonard, to visit Lee Duncan, right?

ORLEAN: Yes. And Bert had an idea the minute he met Lee and saw the dog. He hatched a plan. He was a great storyteller, and he came up with this idea that Lee loved, which was to set the show in the late 1870s. It would star a boy and the dog who were the only survivors of an Indian raid.

And who are taken in by a cavalry troop in Arizona, and live with them and have their adventures together. And Lee loved the idea. So did Screen Gems. And the next thing we knew, Rin Tin Tin was debuting on American television in the fall of 1954 and was an immediate huge success, once again having the kind of acclaim that he had had in the 1920s, both in the U.S. and all over the world, because the show was broadcast internationally, as well.

DAVIES: Right. And TV had this enormous reach and there was merchandising, right? There were Rin Tin Tin lunchboxes and thermoses.

(LAUGHTER)

ORLEAN: There was Rin Tin Tin - practically everything you wanted was available in a Rin Tin Tin-branded version. And this was the early beginning of merchandising. You know, there was no merchandising before the '50s. Rin Tin Tin was one of the early big licensors. And kids went crazy. There were Rin Tin Tin products of just every sort, both identified with the dog and with the stars of the show, Rusty and Sgt. Rip Masters who became huge stars in and of themselves.

DAVIES: Our guest is Susan Orlean. Her new book is "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us we're speaking with writer Susan Orlean. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of "The Orchid Thief." Her new book is "Rin Tin Tin." The series went off the air in 1957, then there were Saturday reruns. Do you think there's another comeback in store for this character? Are you it?

ORLEAN: You know, the idea of a hero is one obviously one of the enduring columns that holds up the whole idea of art and storytelling. So the way that Rin Tin Tin is a hero makes him a character that can be revived endlessly. And I feel like we've come to look at dogs with a great deal of admiration again the way that we did in earlier decades.

We've seen them again in service in the last decade or two that has made them seem heroic again. Dogs doing search and rescue after 9/11. Dogs working in therapy roles. I think that we've, once again, started to look at them not just as pets but as these rather extraordinary creatures who live with us and can work for us. And it makes me think that Rin Tin Tin would once again resonate with a lot of people.

DAVIES: You've begun raising a lot of animals. And you wrote, I think it was in The New Yorker, about your experience with chickens. What interests you about chickens?

ORLEAN: Yes. I had suddenly, some years ago, became completely obsessed with the idea of having chickens. And when I moved to the country, the realization that I could really have them came as this great excitement. And I started with four and then added, and then began adding a few other animals.

I now have turkeys and guinea fowl and ducks, and just got some geese. It was, I think - the fact is I like animals in general. I never had livestock and it was really fun to have the experience of having animals that weren't house pets, but were, kind of, workers.

And yet taking care of them gave me this enormous satisfaction. And chickens are really funny and they're a lot of fun to watch and be around. And I like the fact too that they were useful. I mean we - I haven't bought eggs in years because my chickens provide them for me.

DAVIES: Right, but when you bring the mentality of a pet owner to this, do you then find you're taking your chicken to the vet when it gets sick?

ORLEAN: Yes. And I will say this was a great realization that I was not a true farmer. One of my chickens was sick and I called a poultry farm in my area to ask them for the name of an avian vet and there was a long pause on the phone. And the owner of the poultry farm said, well, if the chicken is sick then you cull it, which I realize is a very nice way of saying you kill it.

And it's a very practical response if you have a poultry farm of thousands of chickens. But I couldn't bring myself to do it and I took my chicken to the vet, which made me, probably, one of the few people in my community that had brought their chicken into the vet. And the vet was a little surprised. For some reason, when I made the appointment, they didn't know that it was a chicken and she opened the crate expecting a kitten.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Did the chicken have a name?

ORLEAN: Yes. Her name was Beauty. And although on her prescription it said Chicken Orlean, which I found...

(LAUGHTER)

ORLEAN: ...which I found incredibly funny and touching. And, you know, I don't bring my chickens into the house. I don't, you know, have them in the bathtub with me. I mean, people can certainly - there are people who treat chickens like pets that way, and I don't.

They definitely live outside. But when you have a small enough flock that you can name all of them, your relationship with them is quite different from if you're a farmer with, say, 100 chickens. And there are just certain practicalities to how you treat them when you have that many.

DAVIES: Well, Susan Orlean, we're out of time. It's been fascinating. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.

ORLEAN: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Susan Orlean speaking with Dave Davies. Her book about the first major show biz animal star, "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend," is now out in paperback.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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