Were you a Rin Tin Tin kid or a Lassie kid? Writer Susan Orlean, whom I met in Columbus Wednesday night, says that if you grew up during the 1950s you were probably either one or the other. Both dogs had popular television series running during that decade. Viewers, whether young or old, tended to favor one dog or the other. I, like Orlean, was a Rin Tin Tin kid. My wife, who just loves dogs, liked them both, although she admits she watched Lassie more often.
Orlean, in Columbus on a book tour to promote Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, says the same kids who took positions on Rin Tin Tin vs. Lassie were later divided on the Beatles or Rolling Stones question. Today we're divided on which Medicare supplement is best.
The essential difference between the two dogs, she said in her Thurber House speech at the Columbus Museum of Art, is that Rin Tin Tin was a real dog who became a movie star and then, decades later, a TV star, while Lassie was a fictional dog who was played on screen by various actor dogs. Her book tells the story of Rin Tin Tin and his descendants who took his name after his death in 1932. It is also the story of Lee Duncan, who found a litter of German shepherd puppies on a battlefield in France in 1918 and took the one he named Rin Tin Tin to Hollywood. The dog made 28 silent movies for Warner Brothers until at the end of the silent era his movie contract was canceled because "dogs can't talk." The later television series proved Rin Tin Tin could be a star even with sound.