Friday, October 14, 2011

Remembering a Legend

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend

We're all familiar with celebrity tragedy stories these days.  Brandon Lee dies during the filming of "The Crow" -- Heath Ledger on "The Dark Knight" -- and the stories become not just front page news and fodder for tabloids, but eventually the stuff of legend.  We might think this is a new phenomenon, fueled by our modern media.  But it is really as old as Hollywood itself (and maybe even older -- look at public furor created by Conan Doyle trying to kill Sherlock Holmes).

In 1932 another Hollywood legend died.  He was as big in his day as any movie star has ever been; the news of his passing broke into radio programs across the country.  The United Press bulletin read:

"Rin Tin Tin, greatest of animal motion-picture actors, pursued a ghostly villain in a canine happy-hunting ground today."

As Susan Orlean recounts in her wonderful new book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend:

The story was soon floated on the great raft of legend.  It was rumored that Rin Tin Tin had died at night; that he had died on the set of Pride of the Legion during a rehearsal; that he had died while leaping into the arms of Jean Harlow ... that he had collapsed on Lee's front lawn and Harlow had raced over to comfort him, where she "cradled the great furry head in her lap, and there he died."

She goes on to recount how, following his death an hour-long tribute was broadcast on radios stations around the country  " Last night a whole radio network and thousands of radio fans paid homage to a great dog ... a gentleman, a scholar, a hero, a cinema star -- in fact, a dog which was virtually everything we could wish to be."

That's the way legends are remembered.

In his day Rin Tin Tin, who was found as a puppy by an American soldier, Lee Duncan, in the ruins of a burned out kennel, starred in twenty-three "blockbuster" silent films, was credited with saving Warner Brothers from bankruptcy, and won the heart of a nation.  His career suffered a set-back with the advent of talkies but he went on to star in serials as well.  He was without a doubt one of the greatest stars of his era.  Over the decades to come his descendents would star on radio and TV -- twenty years later his grandson rescued both his owner, Duncan, and the family name from the edge or ruin when he starred in the The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (a show I remember from re-runs as a child) which climbed the ratings faster than any other show in the history of television. 

Rin Tin Tin:  The Life and the Legend is one of those wonderful books of popular history that captures not just an individual but an entire era of American life -- in this case, several years, from the great age of silent films to the golden age of television.  And Rin Tin Tin, in one of his incarnations, was a star in all of them. 

Lee Duncan was a man with a troubled family history, who spent part of his life in an orphanage, and struggled with human relationships all his life.  But he believed in Rin Tin Tin with an unfailing faith, and the world came to believe too.  As the years went on, others would take up the legacy, inspired by devotion to the symbol of courage and friendship and unfaltering love.  Orlean captures that feeling powerfully in her book -- those of us with memories of Rin Tin Tin from our childhood will find them flooding back, and those who don't remember will discover him all over again. 

More than anything, this book made me long for Rin Tin Tin's return.  Our world could use a hero like Rinny again -- if only to remind us of all the things we might wish to be. (I can see Rinny as a Search and Rescue dog working at today's disaster sites, as a police dog finding bad guys on a TV cop show, or even as a canine astronaut exploring space -- the possibilities are endless.)

Perhaps nothing sums up what Rinny meant to generations of movie, radio and TV fans better than a poem that Lee Duncan wrote after the star's death -- something all dog lovers will understand:

A real selfless love like yours old pal
Is something I shall never know again
And I must always be a better man
Because you loved me greatly, Rin Tin Tin.

The world is better for the enduring legacy of Rinny, and for Susan Orlean's wonderful book that keeps it alive.

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Readers interested in books about dogs might also like to check out my earlier reviews: "Born to Bark", "A Brace of Dog Memoirs" "Goodbye Alpha Dog", "Two Dogs in Search of a Master", "A Nose for Justice", "Whatever Happened to America's Dog?" and "Scent of the Missing".

You can also enjoy my recent article "Crazy Flickers" over at 10,000 Birds.  They have a great site, well worth checking out even if I wasn't included.  And "Change of Seasons" at the Seattle Mariners Baseball Blog SoDo Mojo.  



Readers of Birds and Beasts might also enjoy our sister blog Birdland West, which covers birds and wildlife, mostly in the Seattle Area.


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