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From war orphan to Hollywood icon

Rin Tin Tin in Boston, 1930.
Rin Tin Tin in Boston, 1930.
Boston Public Library/Flickr (cc by-nc-nd)

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He was born on a French battlefield during World War I. His immigration to Hollywood led to principal roles in nearly two dozen blockbuster silent films. He founded an entertainment dynasty, and his descendants went on to star in talkies, radio shows and one of the most popular television adventure series of the Baby Boom era. It may sound surprising, but this Hollywood legend turns out to be one of America's favorite dogs: Rin Tin Tin.

Rin Tin Tin was found by a young American soldier, Lee Duncan, who smuggled him home to the states. Raised in an orphanage himself, Duncan bonded with the motherless puppy and spent hours training him, eventually pushing the dog into stardom.

Susan Orlean, author of "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend", spoke with AirTalk's Larry Mantle about how her exploration of "Rinty's" story led to the discovery of the pup's substantial legacy.

"It meant tackling a lot more research than I expected. A span of about 100 years of pop culture history, American history, dog history, to make it really a complete story," she said.

The dog was well-trained and extremely athletic, characteristics that served him well as an animal silent film star. At 80 pounds, Rin Tin Tin could allegedly clear eleven-foot jumps. His career began after Warner Bros. Pictures contracted the dog to replace wolves resistant to film direction, and audiences loved it.

"Warner Brothers referred to him as the 'mortgage lifter,'" Orlean said. "He saved them from bankruptcy many times. Anytime they were in really tough straits, they'd release a Rin Tin Tin film and they were incredibly popular."

The original Rin Tin Tin died in 1932, but his character, as portrayed by some of his many descendants, went on to endear millions, both as an international film star and spokesdog for the US Army during World War II. Orlean realized the power of the pup icon when she read the 1932 reactions to his death.

"There was a national radio broadcast that interrupted programming all over the country to announce it. There was an hour long program played the next day to memorialize his life. It's hard for us to imagine that a dog meant so much," she continued.

Orlean said that the dog provided much more to Americans than entertainment; he helped launch an idea of the companion dog in newly urbanized America.

"On the farm a dog was a worker, generally lived outside. In the city, they were living in the house. Rin Tin Tin symbolized this idea the dog was your compatriot, your equal," she said.


Were you part of the Rin Tin Tin era? What memories do you associate with the show? If you have a dog, what does he or she mean to you?


Susan Orlean, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend and writer for The New Yorker

Susan Orlean will be at the Paley Center of Los Angeles on October 12 for a talk, Q & A, and book signing.