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.
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!