Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Almost human

In movies and on television, the German shepherd known as Rin Tin Tin seemed almost human. As Susan Orlean reports in her excellent book Rin Tin Tin, the dog often seemed almost human in real life, too. Consider:

- The dog's name and number were once listed in the Los Angeles telephone directory.

- He earned more for his movies than human actors did, once making $1,000 a week for a silent picture when the lead human actor made only $150.

- Rin Tin Tin was named a co-respondent in a divorce case, a position normally taken by the other woman.

- In Academy Awards voting one year, Rin Tin Tin got the most votes in the Best Actor category, although Emil Jannings was eventually given the Oscar.

Rin Tin Tin's entire story is an amazing one, starting with his discovery, along with other puppies, on a French battlefield at the close of World War I by Lee Duncan, an American soldier. Duncan brought the dog home with him at the end of the war, trained him and eventually turned him into one of the biggest stars of the silent era in Hollywood. Decades later, one of his descendants using the same name became a huge star in a popular television series (although other dogs actually appeared on the screen).

Yet Orlean's book is not just the story of a famous dog. It is also the story of the less famous people behind the dog, including Duncan, who made Rin Tin Tin the center of  his life; Bert Leonard, a colorful Hollywood producer responsible for The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin on television in the 1950s (he also produced Route 66 and Naked City); and Janniettia Brodsgaard and Daphne Hereford, two Texas women responsible for keeping Rin Tin Tin's breeding line alive.

Of course, to that list must now be added the name of Susan Orlean, whose long research and excellent story-telling ability have brought  Rin Tin Tin back into the public eye.

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