Nov. 16 2011 12:00 AM

Looking back on the career of a four-legged legend


The subject of Susan Orlean’s latest
book is a Hollywood legend who was, in the author’s words, "envied for
his enormous wealth and feared for his enormous teeth."

That would be Rin Tin Tin, the superstar
German Shepherd who was (literally) top dog in the movie world of the
1920s. Almost everyone has heard the name, but far fewer have actually
seen one of the silent films that made him an international sensation.

During a visit to Ann Arbor last month
to promote "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend," Orlean (a vivacious
and witty woman who is not at all like the crazed Susan Orlean
character Meryl Streep played in "Adaptation," based on Orlean’s book,
"The Orchid Thief") explained that’s not surprising: Although the first
"Rinty," as he was known to fans, made 27 features, at one point all
but four were considered "lost films."

Prints of two of Rinty’s blockbusters,
"Jaws of Steel" and "Clash of the Wolves," were discovered a few years
ago in the cabinet of a movie theater in South Africa. Orlean brought
the 1925 "Clash" (released at the peak of the star’s career) on tour
with her to give contemporary audiences an idea of what our
grandparents and great-grandparents eagerly lined up to see more than
75 years ago: The giggles, gasps and cheers it elicited from the
audience when she screened it at the Michigan Theatre were validation
that, decades after his heyday, Rin Tin Tin can still enthrall a crowd.

The film also demonstrated that the
amazingly spry animal could actually act, too. Although the screenplay
of "Clash" is as corny as they come — Rinty plays a half-breed wolf
named Lobo who gives up his position as leader of the pack for the
domestic life, only to be forced to face the wild once more when
prejudice rears its ugly head — the film is irresistibly fascinating
because of the complex stuntwork involving the star. When he races
through a stampede, that’s not some feat of digital magic, and when a
supposedly injured Rinty limps across the desert sand and tumbles down
a hillside, the star goes all out, like some sort of canine "Camille."

No wonder, as Orlean pointed out, Rin
Tin Tin was on track to be voted best actor at the very first Academy
Awards before the rules were amended to prevent any non-human
performers from winning. Warner Brothers, which had Rinty under
contract, called him "the mortage lifter" because of his box office
drawing power, which, Orlean mentioned, led to him being paid as eight
times as much as most of  his two-legged co-stars.

The only thing more astonishing than his
screen presence was his backstory: Rinty was rescued from the rubble of
a World War I battlefield in the French countryside and brought to
America by serviceman Lee Duncan, who trained his pet to perform. When
the dog became an overnight success, Duncan was called upon to perform
one feat that even Rinty couldn’t master: signing autographs.

Orlean said she’s been asked why she
chose to write about Rin Tin Tin instead of the more high-profile
Lassie. "Lassie was a character in a book that became a character in
film and on TV," she said. "Rin Tin Tin was a real dog."

Orlean joked that "when I started the
book, I had no children, and now my son can read the book." But her
work has paid off splendidly. "Rin Tin Tin" shines a spotlight on a
true talent worthy of rediscovery.

‘Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend’ by Susan Orlean

Available at bookstores nationwide. Visit for more information.