When Warner Bros. Went to the Dog(s)

Rin Tin Tin, the original – and largely forgotten – canine superstar.

Have you ever jokingly asked your pet to get a job?

“Go and make us rich,” you might tease. “And don’t come back until you do.”

Very few of us have pets who can stock our bank accounts. It’s not like we own a major Hollywood studio and can release Beloved Animal Movies whenever cash flow becomes a trickle. We’re not the Warner Brothers, for pete sake.

Now, those Warner Brothers could turn animals into cold, hard cash. It started in earnest in 1923 when the studio bought a script entitled Where the North Begins, which featured a heroic German Shepherd. The script was sold by World War I vet, Lee Duncan, and starred his remarkable dog, Rin Tin Tin.

The story of Duncan and Rin Tin Tin began in France, during the Great War. Duncan, an air corporal, found a litter of German Shepherd puppies in a half-destroyed kennel. Duncan rescued the pups, and managed to bring his favourite back to the United States.

Duncan had an usual way with dogs and was a gifted trainer, a skill he developed during his unhappy childhood. He knew Rin Tin Tin could be a real movie star.

According to Susan Orleans, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, German Shepherds were virtually unheard of in the United States before WWI. She says that, at the time, the idea of a dog as a household pet was rather novel.

Imagine, then, how unusual it would be in the mid-1920s to see a movie starring a dog rather than a human. Here is a clip from one of Rin Tin Tin’s earliest (and best) movies, Clash of the Wolves (1925):

When you watch Rin Tin Tin in action, you realize he’s very smart. In fact, he’s probably smarter than all of us put together.

Here is another look at Clash of the Wolves, in which Rinty does a fine bit of acting. (Yes, acting. He wasn’t called “the Barrymore of Dogdom” for nothing.)

Rin Tin Tin was under contract to Warner Bros. for eight years, and whenever the studio ran short of funds, it would release a new Rin Tin Tin movie. In the mid-1920s, there was almost no bigger box-office draw than Rin Tin Tin; Jack Warner dubbed him “the mortgage lifter.”

Rinty died suddenly in the summer of 1932. Legend has it he died in Jean Harlow’s arms, but Orleans says his death was not so glamorous. Duncan heard Rinty cough strangely and, when he ran to the dog, he found him lying on the ground. He died minutes later.

By now Rin Tin Tin more than a dog; he was an American Institution. To protect this institution, Warner Bros. had 18 other dogs as stand-ins for the original Rinty, and Duncan himself was training a successor. The practice of having multiple dogs on tap continued throughout the 1930s and 40s – even into the 1950s, when Rin Tin Tin became a television show.

The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (1954-59) was a hugely successful series that spawned a wildly profitable merchandising industry. It was shot in colour even though most Americans had black and white television sets.

Television Rin Tin Tin
The Television Rin Tin Tin. Image: Miky Mouse

If you’re thinking Television Rinty looks nothing like Movie Rinty, you’d be correct. But it doesn’t matter. As we discovered, Rin Tin Tin is a character with interchangeable actors, like Batman.

A film based on Rin Tin Tin’s life, Finding Rin Tin Tin, was released in 2007. This beautifully-filmed movie explores Lee Duncan’s rescue of Rinty as a puppy in France – a story, ironically, that Duncan was unable to make during his lifetime.

Rin Tin Tin showed other canine stars (Lassie and Benji) how it could be done. But these later canine stars don’t have quite the same caché as our original 1920s hero – a dog who saved puppies, humans, and a major Hollywood studio.

This post is part of the FORGOTTEN STARS blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Click HERE to see all the other contributions!




  1. Super post — many thanks. I was a complete ignoramus about Rin Tin Tin and know even less than that about Lee Duncan, so your account was extraordinarily useful to me, as well as absorbing reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The original Rinty was just gorgeous – and a real hero. He was probably Warners’ least temperamental star. And just for the record, my cat is a lazy freeloader. Thanks for a great entry in the blogathon.


  3. Ruth, I very much enjoyed the life and times of Rin-Tin-Tin, having had a German Shepard dearly-loved in our family for 25 years old (died of old age, bless her). Also, I once worked in a company in which one of the films and TV shows included Rin-Tin-Tin. Your blog post was very enjoyable indeed — swell post, my friend, as always! 😀


  4. When I saw that your choice for Forgotten Stars was Rin Tin Tin I barked in excitement! Terrific choice and you didn’t disappoint. There was a time when I was addicted to watching Rin’s movies online so I know many of those, but have never seen the TV show or the 2007 movie. Gotta get to those. FUN and essential read. 🙂



    • Thanks, Aurora. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the TV show. Because they shot in colour (expensive), they had to cut corners elsewhere. One way they did this was to have actors play multiple characters – in the same episode!


  5. Great choice and post! loved reading this and learned a lot, even though I’ve enjoyed some of the movies, knew none of the background. I only remember reading in a Darryl Zanuck bio how he wrote many of the Rin Tin Tin scripts under a pseudonym. cheers


  6. A wonderful change-of-pace choice for a forgotten star…well done! I’m a dog person and, as such, am a sucker for dog movies. Rinty was indeed a big star and also inspired the Peter Bogdanovich film WON TON TON, THE DOG WHO SAVED HOLLYWOOD.


  7. What a great choice for the blogathon! Rin Tin Tin was really a huge star in his day (there’s a legend that he even received the most votes for the first Academy Award). And he has such a moving backstory, being rescued in France. He definitely should be remembered. Thanks for such a great post.


    • He was a great big star, wasn’t he? And he deserved an Oscar, in my opinion. He truly was a miracle dog, to be rescued in the way he was, and then for Lee Duncan to actually get him back into the U.S… Amazing.


  8. I read Susan Orlean’s book on Rin Tin Tin not long ago and was really happy to see you’d chosen to feature him for the CMBA blogathon. Talk about a “forgotten star”! Great choice, great piece…”Yo-o, Rinty!”


  9. Great post Ruth. Susan Orlean’s book has been on my wish-list for a while so this was a nice reminder to actually BUY it! That said, perhaps I’ve learned enough from your post 😉


  10. What a great post, Ruth. I do recall bits and pieces of Rinnie’s story, maybe as a result of the promo tour for the 2007 film. I know I never read the book and I didn’t see the silent films, other than a few clips. I very much remember watching the TV show — in reruns, I’ll have you know 😀 — on Saturday mornings. The clip showing the show’s opening sequence brought a big grin to my face. I must have really loved that show because I’m amazed at how much of that sequence I remember. Yet, I can barely remember what I had for lunch on Friday. 🙂


    • Isn’t it amazing how memory works? I recently ordered a book online that was a favourite of mine as a child. As soon as I saw the book’s cover on the Amazon website, I could suddenly remember all the illustrations and each plot development. Yet, like you, I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday.

      You must have loved “Rin Tin Tin”. I hope you have the chance to read Susan Orlean’s book, if you’re into that sort of thing. She has a beautiful writing style.


  11. Ruth, I really enjoyed reading your post about Rin Tin Tin. I have always heard of him, but never seen the movies or TV show. It is really sad that Duncan didn’t get to see the movie made about Rin Tin Tin’s life. If it took 18 dogs to replace him, he must have really been something special. Like a previous commenter mentioned, our pets are very lazy. We have not seen a dime from one of our turtles. Thanks for a fascinating read about a great actor!


    • It is sad about Lee Duncan. He tried so hard to have that movie made, but it just never came to be in his lifetime.

      You’re absolutely right about Rinty and the 18 stand-ins! Just shows what a remarkable performer he was.


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