72 of 81 people found the following review helpful
on September 7, 2011
Rin Tin Tin, who has been both a dog and a symbol for nearly 90 years, is the subject of Susan Orlean's latest book. She is one of our best narrative/observational nonfiction writers, on a level with the John McPhee of old, before he got obsessed with geology.
This is her second book length piece, based more on research than on observation, and it shows. The writing is just as captivating as ever. Rin Tin Tin and his career are both interesting and throw light on both how movies have changed in 90 years and how the place of dogs in our culture has changed in the same period. Much of the story is about the humans around Rin Tin Tin, from Lee Duncan the orphan boy who discovered Rinty in France to the producers and writers of the TV shows, to the various people who feel that they are the true custodians of the legacy of Rin Tin Tin.
We spend a lot of time with these guys, and they just aren't that interesting. Rin Tin Tin himself and his assorted namesakes and descendants are more interesting than their human handlers and promoters. Which makes parts of the book dull going despite the sparkle of most of the writing. The best parts came at the start, where we get the story of how Rin Tin Tin was found and brought back to the US, and in the spots where Ms. Orlean observes such scenes as the dog's grave in France and so on. The history drags a bit, I am sorry to say.
So: if you are interested both in dogs and in how they were presented in the movies and on TV, this book is for you. If you enjoy Susan Orlean's writing, this book might be for you. It's not her best, but her less-than-best is still beyond what most nonfictioneers can do.
114 of 144 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2011
The first one-third of this book is the tale (a remarkable story well-told, and the only reason that two stars were given) of the wartime discovery, adoption, bonding, training and eventual life and career of the original movie-star dog and his owner/trainer Lee Duncan. If only the tale had stopped here, however brief, it would have been time well-spent. Unfortunately, the next large chunk is the pathetic tale of Duncan's attempt to keep the Rin Tin Tin brand alive via a series of unworthy successors, who were at least linked by bloodline to the original marvel. The remainder is an ever-more pathetic and rambling discourse on the evolution of America's relationships with companion animals, related to the previous tale by the far-less interesting story of the hugely successful 1950's television show that had little to do with the original dog (Duncan's latest "successor" may not have been related to the original at all, and was so ineptly trained/capable that another trainer's dog was finally used in the show and Duncan sidelined altogether). From here, the story meanders endlessly from boring tales of the career decline of the television series' producer to a obsessed breeder's attempt to claim the franchise by dint of having inherited her grandmother's breeding business based upon the purchase of one of Rin Tin Tin's descendents. Through all of this morass, the author keeps inserting her own "journey" and what it meant to her by way of (it seems) justifcation for why she kept writing after the basic story had long since been concluded. I honestly don't know how I managed to get through to the end. Perhaps I just wanted to see how far the author would drift from any coherent thesis or point. The prose, which was eloquent in the first third of the book, gradually descended into florid descriptions of her childhoold obsession with a plastic Rin Tin Tin toy owned by her grandfather (he wouldn't let her play with it, you see, this is why she had to tell this story...) and other such arcane and uninteresting personal revelations told with grandiose gravitas. An author for our FaceBook world, who believes that every random thought or feeling (George Carlin called them "brain droppings") must be breathlessly related to the world.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Lee Duncan, the original Rin Tin Tin's trainer, used to say that there would always be a Rin Tin Tin. Author Susan Orlean explores the unexpected truth behind Duncan's statement in this book. Orleans begins the story with a tale about her grandfather's Rin Tin Tin toy, always out of reach and off-limits for the grandchildren, as way to explain her fascination with the dog and his life.
Duncan was a young soldier in France during World War I, where he found the first Rinty and his littermate, Nanette. He named the two pups after popular French dolls of the time. When Duncan demobbed to the United States after the war, he brought both dogs with him.
In the early days of Hollywood, Duncan took the well-trained Rinty with him door-to-door. He asked if there was anyway that his dog (who could emote on command) could be in a film -- little realizing that the dog would eventually become an enormous franchise that required succeeding generations of new Rintys in order to accomplish. From the early days of silent films through television and beyond, Rin Tin Tin acquired new fans long after the death of the original dog found in France.
Orlean studied Duncan's records, as well as those of Bert Leonard (who was the producer of the 1950s Rin Tin Tin television program). She interviewed people who have Rinty pups and who could tell stories of the earliest days in Hollywood working with the dog -- as well as Duncan's family.
What I came away with after reading this book was a sense that Rinty would be immortal because there would always be stories to tell about him -- and that there would always be a place for courage in the face of difficult odds. This book is, in an unusual way, a love story about the public and the Wonder Dog of the Movies. Animal lovers are sure to enjoy it.
(Review based on uncorrected advance proof.)
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on January 11, 2012
I love German Shepherds and have been lucky enough to own two of these remarkable animals. I bought the book to learn about the world's most famous Shepherd. It was exciting to read about a struggling bitch raising her pups on a French battlefield with just enough food to keep them alive. Equally moving was learning that Lee Duncan, a boy raised mainly in an orphanage, adopted the pup who became Rin Tin Tin. Duncan's extraordinary bond with this dog, his pups and his stand ins was equally compelling. The dog was actually named as co-respondent in one of Duncan's divorces.
The little we are told about Duncan's training the dog to display different facial expressions was also of interest. As was the dog's success in silent films (he didn't mug) and his difficulties in talkies.
However when the book began telling us what felt like the life story of almost everyone who ever petted Rin Tin Tin or his successors I couldn't wait for it to end. The author's own interest in this dog was unconvincing. She could have just told the fascinating story of the dog, his owner and some of their adventures in tinsel land.
A good dog has to conform to a meaningful and useful shape. So too, does a story.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on January 10, 2012
Loved the parts of the book about Rin Tin Tin and those involved in his life and care but the book goes way beyond Rin Tin Tin and those others and that is where it gets lost in my opinion. Shorten the book by half, no problem, just keep the focus on Rin Tin Tin and not on the other filler material. Still, glad for the book, I learned a great deal.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on November 5, 2011
Rin Tin Tin was a dog but his name came to be more than a dog. The original dog had the name and carried it into a series of silent movies where the name metamorphosed into a legend due to a bond formed between the dog and a soldier who found and adopted him over in France during World War I. The author did a beautiful job of telling this part of the story despite the loss of most of the dog's film stories; she had to use newspaper reviews and other second hand accounts to describe the reception accorded these films but there were a few films available for first hand viewing and the dog's ability could be seen. but there is a problem, as in all life. Times bring change; standards change and what is new and absorbing when first seen pales and even falls into disfavor with these changes. In Rin Tin Tin's case, however, his acting soared beyond this normal occurrence; his fame never failed. New dogs took the place of the original; intercourse between the film characters became normal and the mute animals fell out of their high regard. To overcome this the stories associated with the animals changed, Rin Tin Tin made the change successfully according to the author.
Here is the beginning of the book'd decline. Orlean kept my interest up to this point, despite her failure to bring Duncan to life. She stressed his bond with his dog, she made a point of this bond accounting for Rinty's success in his feature films but with the talkies this bond was stretched, the owner could no longer give the dog voice commands and hand signals did not get the response movie goers had been expecting. Trainers were used with the new dogs; different writers were used to come up with the new type stories and only the name remained. At first Rinty's new film career succeeded but now it became susceptible to the changes; film was no longer the dominant venue, television was. Orlean spends time telling us about the other animal actors, their successes and failures; she throws in names of those now handling Rin Tin Tin and how well this worked and the money problems becoming common to all connected with dog; even the sponsor used its pocketbook to compel changes. Interesting, yes, if this were a book on economics, Orleans gets sidetracked from an account of the dog and spends the rest of her time in the book with the humans, the dogs become incidental to her writing; she intrudes personally as though that were a driving factor in what she writes. The rest of the book hardly deserves comment, there is no account of the dogs. Are the dogs supporting the legend or is it solely machinations of the humans? Is the legend still alive? Can it be resurrected? The book does not say.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on November 6, 2012
A number of other reviewers have pointed to factual inaccuracies in Orlean's book, ranging from the myth of how Lee Duncan discovered Rinty on a World War I battlefield as a puppy (he was, in fact, bred, not found in a bombed-out kennel etc.) to impossible dates and so on. One odd story that Orlean has promulgated most--on radio and television especially--is that Rin Tin Tin almost won the first Academy Award for Best Actor back in 1928. No film historian could believe such a claim, and in fact it too is incorrect. Documents at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences library (where Orlean did research, according to her book) actually show the opposite: Rin Tin Tin's name as Best Actor was used to disparage the newly established Academy Awards themselves. Jack Warner wrote in Rin Tin Tin, as well as other joke names, on his "Official Nomination Paper" for "Academy Awards of Merit" and was chastized by the organization's president for not taking the awards seriously as a result. (Warner wrote in "Nanette--Rinty's Frau" for Best Actress...) Darryl Zanuck, who worked for Warner Bros. at the time, also wrote a letter to the Academy in which he named his boss Jack L. Warner the best producer, himself the best associate producer, the best director "any Warner Brothers Director" (to be "selected by drawing straws"), the best writer "any writer under contract to Warner Brothers," and finally, for "most popular player--Rin-Tin-Tin," a Warners "star." Again, a joke.
Moreover, perusal of any history of the Oscars would show that nominating procedures were entirely different then than they are now, and Rin Tin Tin's career was on something of a downward slide by 1928 as well (Warners broke their contract with the dog and Lee Duncan the following year). Finally, since the Academy was founded at least partly to raise the status of motion pictures as an art form, it would make no sense for the membership even to ponder nominating a dog for an acting award, which of course they never did...
Orlean's book isn't really about Rin Tin Tin, it's about her engagement with his myth, which is fine. And she's a journalist, not a scholar or even a historian. But she does seem to be presenting what "really" happened as well, and some acknowledgment of competing versions of her stories would have been nice. Ann Elwood's book on Rin Tin Tin *does* employ tremendous amounts of historical research (Orlean mentions Elwood and her book, but apparently ignored the research therein), and she also spends a lot more time considering what Rinty's life must have been like (as many others have noted, the dog himself is somewhat absent from Orlean's book). I recommend Elwood's book highly if you want a more factual account of Rinty's life and career.
22 of 28 people found the following review helpful
The first half of this book, where the author talks about Lee Duncan and his dog was fabulous. Here is a gripping saga of a boy who spent part of his early life in an orphanage, growing up and going to war, befriending a mother dog and her litter of puppies on a battlefield in war-torn France. We learn where the name "Rin Tin Tin" originated and why Rin's mate was called "Nanette". This is an enthralling saga of a dog who became a movie star.
The author also discusses other dogs who performed in the silent movie era and notes what was about Rin Tin Tin that made him so special, despite the dark coat that made him hard to light for the camera.
I loved this part of the book. I enjoyed the author's chronicle of her search for the town where Lee found the puppies and how hard it was, since the name and spelling of the town had changed in the years since World War I.
There is real value in these pages about the early days of movie making and the changing culture of the times. In silent films, a dog actor closely bonded to his human trainer could give a more natural and affecting performance than a human overacting to compensate for the lack of words. Attitudes toward animals were changing. All these factors allowed for Rin Tin Tin, but the essential element of the story was and remains the bond between the human and the dog. And the dog was something else as anyone lucky enough to have seen even a snippet of one of his silent films can attest.
But the latter half of the book is about the branding and marketing of Rin Tin Tin, of the lesser dogs that succeeded him, of the plastic figurines that depicted them, of the declining fortunes of his trainer, of the TV producer who created a show to capitalize on the name and of all the tawdry schemes and hoaxes and frauds and cheats and dog breeders who tried to exploit that. And of the lawsuits.
And none of that had anything to do with the dog. I really wish I could give the author five stars for the beginning of the book. I really wish she had found some redeeming twist at the end. In fact, she only fantasizes about an ending; it becomes all about her. What I felt as I ground my way through the last chapters was that the author had lost sight of her subject completely and was desperately padding out her material to achieve some predetermined length.
Or else she was betrayed by her own first sentence: "He believed the dog was immortal." She seemed to believe that she could go on and on, talking about tangents that weren't really about the dog in the hope this would prove her point. As if exploiting the name "Rin Tin Tin" somehow was the same as immortalizing our animal hero--but it isn't. I came to the end of the book feeling ashamed -- my interest in Rin Tin Tin the real dog had been exploited by the author. If I had wanted to read a book about showbiz lawsuits and marketing I would have looked in a different section. I can't recommend this book to animal lovers...maybe fans of pop culture would have a different take on it.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on September 30, 2011
Lee Duncan had an unhappy childhood. Deserted by a father who left his son a legacy of unrealistic dreams and a future in an orphanage, he invested his love and trust in dogs. Even then, he seemed doomed to lose. Circumstances beyond his control made him give up at least one beloved companion at a young age. What a surprise, then, that the battlefield gave him his greatest gift.
As a soldier in France, Duncan happened upon a bombed-out kennel. Among the slaughtered animals was a whimpering mother with a small litter. These tiny creatures may have been what brought Duncan through the war alive. They certainly must have been what kept him focused, for he could barely stand to be separated from his dogs. After the war ended, he made it back home with Rin Tin Tin and his sister, Nanette.
There he set out to take Rin Tin Tin from foundling to movie star. Duncan, the pup's savior, was so passionate about his dog that he pestered movie producers until he found one willing to give Rinty a chance. In RIN TIN TIN: THE LIFE AND THE LEGEND, Susan Orlean takes a look back at how that puppy that miraculously survived the battlefields of World War I became a hero.
"...from a standstill, life around Rin Tin Tin always seemed to accelerate out of the depths of disappointment to a new place filled with possibility. Just like that, wonderful things happened to someone who otherwise would have been luckless, friendless, abandoned. This is what the story of Rin Tin Tin had become in my mind --- a myth."
Of course, the original dog didn't survive the numerous decades that Rin Tin Tin movies and television episodes aired. None of us as children wanted to believe that our favorite film dog wasn't just one phenomenal animal. But it was his character that endured, as well as his bloodline. Duncan saw to that.
Duncan came along at a time when people needed desperately to believe in a moral world, on the heels of a monstrous war. Emotions were running high, and Americans craved entertainment that showed good triumphing over evil. He could give audiences what they wanted. Even better, Rin Tin Tin reputedly was a true wonder, able to leap to fantastic heights and act better than many of his human counterparts.
We are fortunate that Duncan had such a love for dogs that he risked his life and freedom to save a litter of days-old German shepherds. One of those pups grew up to be the legend of Rin Tin Tin. We are fortunate, too, that Duncan bred generations of little Rintys, to the continued benefit of moviegoers. To an extent, we are fortunate to have the memorabilia that Duncan left behind, for his widow cared little for any of it, entrusting it to a neighbor until she could figure out what to do with it. However, not being one of her priorities, she eventually abandoned it. The person who discovered it all understood the enduring value, having grown up watching Rin Tin Tin.
There is still a Rin Tin Tin fan club, nearly a hundred years after he was born. His descendants remain highly sought after to this day. In fact, Orlean admits her own desire to have a Rinty pup. She spent 10 years researching and writing THE LIFE AND LEGEND, trying to make sense out of how one man took one dog and made him into the most well-known canine in history. Baby boomers will eat this up, and then pass it on to their children and grandchildren, who will do the same. After all, it's about Rin Tin Tin.
--- Reviewed by Kate Ayers
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on November 9, 2011
I am the same age as the author of this book, and I, too, grew up loving Rin Tin Tin as well as Lassie, who spent her time saving the Olsen family from their ludicrous mishaps. In fact, over the years my husband and I have owned eleven German Shepherd Dogs, although our first dog was a collie (and that breed has been truly destroyed by show breeders).
It's puzzling that this book, written by a writer I admire, is so downright boring. Perhaps Susan Orlean spent too much time lingering over this material until she could no longer discern the story she had to tell. And what a terrific story it could have been, but it drifts off on tangents, and, curiously, there are only two photos in the whole book, which is remarkably frustrating. It was a gift for my birthday, and I intended to read it with pleasure, but I was sick to death of it about halfway through and simply couldn't finish it. I will read almost anything about dogs or cats, and I expected an elegant tale from Ms. Orlean, but instead of elegant it is merely spare, and it is never entirely clear what point the book intends to make. I hope she moves on to something else very soon!