Like most Hollywood legends, the story of Rin-Tin-Tin has many versions. One California professor has gone to great lengths to document the truth.
From the beginning Rin-Tin-Tin’s owner and trainer, Lee Duncan, who did not come from any type of show business background, knew the importance of “story” and all the studio had to do was pick up on the story line Duncan created.
Duncan (1893-1960) was born into a poor family in California. His father soon left them, and in 1898, his mother placed Lee and his sister in an orphanage as she was unable to support and take care of them. (Orphanages were sometimes used for temporary placements at this time.)
By 1900 Lee and his sister were with their mother again, living with an uncle. As explained by researcher and author Ann Elwood in her excellent book, Rin-Tin- Tin The Movie Star, this aspect of Duncan’s background helps explain Duncan’s allegiance to his dogs at the expense of human relationships, a trait that is consistent throughout Duncan’s life and probably contributed to his undivided devotion to building Rin-Tin-Tin’s career.
Duncan Acquires the Dog in Europe
While the birth of Rin-Tin-Tin in Germany and the adoption of Rinty and his sister Nanette is undisputed, the story that the pups were found on a battlefield is likely untrue, according to Elwood who tracked back through war timelines as well as the movements of Duncan’s squadron at the time. Based on the age of the dog, Elwood makes a compelling case for the belief that an older dog was found by the soldiers and this dog mated with a local dog to produce the puppies in question.
At any rate, Duncan totally devoted himself to being with the dogs rather than his fellow soldiers, and given the young age of the pups, it would have been a major time commitment. And of course, the story of “found on the battlefield” amidst a hail of gunfire was the story Duncan came home and told, and it certainly suited the studio press office.
When the fighting ended and troops were coming back to the U.S., Duncan was not leaving without his pups, and he convinced a superior to help him get permission to bring back Rinty and Nanette. (Nanette became ill on the journey to the States and eventually died of distemper.)
Rin-Tin-Tin and Duncan make it all the way back to California where Duncan returned to a job at a high end sporting good store where the owner frequently arranged hunting trips for his wealthy clients. Duncan, who had worked with hunting dogs before the war, became one of the regular guides. This may have given him social connections to the well-to-do of Hollywood that eventually helped Rin-Tin-Tin step into movie stardom.
Well-Trained and Talented
One thing about which there is no doubt is that Rin-Tin-Tin was a handsome and well-trained dog who was capable of great athleticism.
Rin-Tin-Tin first came to public notice at a dog show in Los Angeles where he performed some of the feats he and Duncan had been working on, including the scaling of an 11-foot, 9-inch wall.
Between the dog’s very notable talents and Duncan’s ability to connect with the right people, Rin-Tin-Tin had his first movie part in The Man From Hell’s River, and his career blossomed from there. Eventually Rinty made 26 films for Warner Brothers.
Another myth of the day was that Rin-Tin-Tin saved Warner Studios from financial ruin. In her book, Elwood gives full due to Rin-Tin-Tin’s box office success for Warner Brothers but does not fully buy into the “saved the studio” myth.
Not unlike other movie stars of his day, Rin-Tin-Tin was caught in a studio system where his living circumstances were determined by the requirements of his contract and by those who provided insurance for the star’s well-being. The famous dog lived in a kennel, it seems, because Duncan believed that was best for him, but the studio’s insurers placed other restrictions. Because they did not want him to roam free where he might get hurt, his exercise had to be taken at scheduled intervals on a hamster-wheel type of device.
While other dog stars eventually retired to a cottage with their trainer or some other loving soul, Duncan kept both Rinty and himself on task at all times. When not busy filming, Duncan put them on the road where they performed several times a day as part of various vaudeville shows, or he took Rinty to animal shelters and orphanages to provide awareness of some of the social issues Duncan clearly cared about. No matter what, Rin-Tin-Tin spent almost all of his days working.
There were some press reports that the need for “retakes” for filming may have caused Rin-Tin-Tin stress; there were various reports that re-doing a scene sometimes caused Rin-Tin-Tin to take a nip out of one of his stars or to overdo a scene, turning a pretend fight into an all-too-real tussle.
Based on Elwood’s detailed and well-substantiated research, it seems clear that one of the best known dogs in show business was just like his contemporary human counterparts who were victims of the “studio system,” trapped in a moneymaking scenario over which he had no control.
The career of the original Rin-Tin-Tin outlasted the coming of the talkies, and while dog pictures became less popular in the early 1930s, Rinty was still performing in 1931, and Duncan was accepting deals for 1932 when Rinty died somewhat unexpectedly of what would have been some age-related ailment.
Duncan kept going with Rin-Tin-Tin Junior who was the first of a long line of offspring to continue the family tradition.
Duncan did not pass away until 1960 but in 1957 he accepted a proposal from Jannettia Brodsgaard Propps who had been begging him for a puppy for a year so that she could continue the lineage. Her kennel, Bodyguard Kennels, eventually got a puppy, and she was careful to consult Duncan about genetic preferences he wanted for the line; it was she who successfully maintained the next generations of Rin-Tin-Tin offspring. When she died in 1988, her granddaughter, Daphne Hereford, took over the kennel; the dogs produced today are as similar as possible in structure, color, and intelligence to the original Rin-Tin-Tin who began it all.
Susan Orlean’s book continues the myth about Rin-Tin-Tin, and it makes a good story. That said, I believe that Professor Elwood’s research found the truth.
For another story about a movie star dog, read about Benji.