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Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend [Hardcover]

Susan Orlean
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 27 2011
He believed the dog was immortal.

So begins Susan Orlean’s sweeping, powerfully moving account of Rin Tin Tin’s journey from orphaned puppy to movie star and international icon. Orlean, a staff writer at The New Yorker who has been hailed as “a national treasure” by The Washington Post, spent nearly ten years researching and reporting her most captivating book to date: the story of a dog who was born in 1918 and never died.

It begins on a battlefield in France during World War I, when a young American soldier, Lee Duncan, discovered a newborn German shepherd in the ruins of a bombed-out dog kennel. To Duncan, who came of age in an orphanage, the dog’s survival was a miracle. He saw something in Rin Tin Tin that he felt compelled to share with the world. Duncan brought Rinty home to California, where the dog’s athleticism and acting ability drew the attention of Warner Bros. Over the next ten years, Rinty starred in twenty-three blockbuster silent films that saved the studio from bankruptcy and made him the most famous dog in the world. At the height of his popularity, Rin Tin Tin was Hollywood’s number one box office star.

During the decades that followed, Rinty and his descendants rose and fell with the times, making a tumultuous journey from silent films to talkies, from black-and-white to color, from radio programs to one of the most popular television shows of the baby boom era, The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin. The canine hero’s legacy was cemented by Duncan and a small group of others—including Bert Leonard, the producer of the TV series, and Daphne Hereford, the owner of the current Rin Tin Tin—who have dedicated their lives to making sure the dog’s legend will never die.

At its core, Rin Tin Tin is a poignant exploration of the enduring bond between humans and animals. It is also a richly textured history of twentieth-century entertainment and entrepreneurship. It spans ninety years and explores everything from the shift in status of dogs from working farmhands to beloved family members, from the birth of obedience training to the evolution of dog breeding, from the rise of Hollywood to the past and present of dogs in war. Filled with humor and heart and moments that will move you to tears, Susan Orlean’s first original book since The Orchid Thief is an irresistible blend of history, human interest, and masterful storytelling—a dazzling celebration of a great American dog by one of our most gifted writers.

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“Magnificent.” Vanity Fair

“Fascinating . . . The sweeping story of the soulful German shepherd who was born on the battlefields of World War I, immigrated to America, conquered Hollywood, struggled in the transition to the talkies, helped mobilize thousands of dog volunteers against Hitler and himself emerged victorious as the perfect family-friendly icon of cold war gunslinging, thanks to the new medium of television. . . . Do dogs deserve biographies? In Rin Tin Tin Susan Orlean answers that question resoundingly in the affirmative . . . By the end of this expertly told tale, she may persuade even the most hardened skeptic that Rin Tin Tin belongs on Mount Rushmore with George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt, or at least somewhere nearby with John Wayne and Seabiscuit.” —Jennifer Schuessler, front cover of The New York Times Book Review

“Remarkable . . . Orlean’s pursuit of detail is mind-boggling. . . . The book is less about a dog than the prototypes he embodied and the people who surrounded him. It is about story-making itself, about devotion, luck and heroes. . . . Ultimately, the reader is left well nourished and in awe of both Orlean’s reportorial devotion and at her magpie ability to find the tiniest sparkling detail." —Alexandra Horowitz, San Francisco Chronicle

“Deeply moving . . . An unforgettable book about the mutual devotion between one man and one dog.” —Scott Eyman, The Wall Street Journal

“Dazzling . . . Susan Orlean has fashioned a masterpiece of reporting and storytelling, some of it quite personal and all of it compelling. Animal-related books have always peppered best-seller lists—Seabiscuit comes quickly to mind—and this one will top such lists. It deserves to, and also to work its way into millions of hearts and minds. . . . [Carl] Sandburg called Rin Tin Tin ‘thrillingly intelligent’ and ‘phenomenal.’ The same can be said for this remarkable book. . . . Spectacular.” Chicago Tribune

“Epic . . . Heartfelt . . . An enormously satisfying story about a dog and the man who believed in him.” —Carol Memmott, USA Today

“Stunning . . . A book so moving it melted the heart of at least this one dogged Lassie lover . . . Don’t let the book’s title fool you. Calling Rin Tin Tin the story of a dog is like calling Moby-Dick the story of a whale. Orlean surfs the tide of time, pushing off in the 1900s and landing in the now, delivering a witty synopsis of nearly a century of Rin Tin Tins and American popular culture. The result is a truly exceptional book that marries historical journalism, memoir, and the technique of character-driven, psychologically astute, finely crafted fiction: a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.” —Meredith Maran, The Boston Globe

“It's a story of magnificent obsession. Nearly a decade in the making, combining worldwide research with personal connection, it offers the kind of satisfactions you only get when an impeccable writer gets hold of one heck of a story. . . . Deft . . . Insightful . . . Fascinating.” —Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

“Susan Orlean has written a book about how an orphaned dog became part of millions of households, and hearts, in a way that may reveal the changing bonds between humans and animals, too. . . . One of the many pleasures of this book is the historical breadth of the story.” —Scott Simon, NPR’s Weekend Edition

“An improbably fascinating tale of one of the first canine celebrities, the times that catapulted him to fame, and the legacy that endures.” People magazine’s “Great Fall Reads”

“Brilliant . . . Orlean, a staff writer for The New Yorker, earned considerable critical praise for her 1998 book The Orchid Thief. But if there were any book she was born to write, it's this one. The product of years of dogged research, it's her magnum opus, a work filled with fascinating stories . . . [and] stunning prose that is both compassionate and perceptive.” —Michael Schaub, NPR

“Engrossing . . . Delightful . . . Olean finds much more to the story than a man and his dog . . . . Its heart lies in her exploration of how a dog could come to embody the ideal of heroic devotion and, eventually, exist as an icon outside the boundaries of time.” —Douglass K. Daniel, The Associated Press

“Orlean relates the histories of the original Rin Tin Tin and his various successors with her customary eye for captivating detail.” Entertainment Weekly

“Heartening . . . It’s a story that may surprise you. . . . Rin Tin Tin embodied the spirit of America.” —Rita Braver, CBS Sunday Morning

“Rapturous . . . This dog’s eye history of Hollywood in the 1920s is exuberant and told with as much energy as love. . . . It is to be numbered among the best Hollywood biographies.” —David Thomson, The New Republic

“Fascinating . . . Orlean’s deadpan sense of humor and ear for the odd and beguiling fact make it hard to put down the book. But there’s also something haunting about it, a sense of the brevity of life and fame. . . . Orlean’s writing is built to last. As individual as a fingerprint, or a face, it turns what could have been a footnote to history into a touching account of the way one life resonates with others.” —Margaret Quamme, The Columbus Dispatch

Rin Tin Tin is a tale of devotion . . . [and] an eloquent, powerful inquiry into ‘how we create heroes and what we want from them,’ and about what endures in our culture. . . . Orlean’s book runs much deeper than Baby Boomer nostalgia. . . . Orlean manages to surprise us repeatedly.” —Heller McAlpin, The Christian Science Monitor


“It is a book that is best read in solitude, or at least in the company of someone who won't be annoyed when you speak up every few moments to share some fascinating fact that Orlean has uncovered, which she does on nearly every page.” —Robert Philpot, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“Rin Tin Tin was more than a dog. He embodied the core paradoxes of the American ideal: He was a loner who was also a faithful companion, a brave fighter who was also vulnerable. I was astonished to learn from this delightful book that he has existed for eleven generations over a century. By chronicling his amazing ups and downs, Susan Orlean has produced a hugely entertaining and unforgettable reading experience.” —Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs

“Not only does Susan Orlean give us a fascinating and big-hearted account of all the many incarnations of Rin Tin Tin, she shows us the ever-changing role of American dogs in times of war and peace. This book is for anyone who has ever had a dog or loved a dog or watched a dog on television or thought their dog could be a movie star. In short—everyone.” —Ann Patchett, author of State of Wonder and Bel Canto

“I adored this book. It weaves history, war, show business, humanity, wit, and grace into an incredible story about America, the human-animal bond, and the countless ways we would be lost without dogs by our sides, on our screens, and in our books. This is the story Susan Orlean was born to tell—it’s filled with amazing characters, reporting, and writing.” —Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

“Move over Seabiscuit, Rin Tin Tin will be the most-talked-about animal hero of the year and beyond. . . A spectacularly compelling portrait . . . Engrossing, dynamic, and affecting."Booklist (starred review)

“[Orlean] combines all her skills and passions in this astonishing story . . . A terrific dog’s tale that will make readers sit up and beg for more.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Stirring . . . A tale of passion and dedication overcoming adversity. . . . Even readers coming to Rin Tin Tin for the first time will find it difficult to refrain from joining Duncan in his hope that Rin Tin Tin’s legacy will ‘go on forever.’” Publishers Weekly

About the Author

Susan Orlean has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992. She is the author of seven books, including Rin Tin Tin, Saturday Night, and The Orchid Thief, which was made into the Academy Award–winning film Adaptation. She lives with her family and her animals in upstate New York and may be reached at SusanOrlean.com and Twitter.com/SusanOrlean.

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Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By Donald Mitchell #1 HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
"So he brought the people down to the water. And the LORD said to Gideon, 'Everyone who laps from the water with his tongue, as a dog laps, you shall set apart by himself; likewise everyone who gets down on his knees to drink.'" -- Judges 7:5 (NKJV)

As God pointed out in Judges 7:5, there's a lot that can be learned from dogs. Ms. Orlean in Rin Tin Tin takes that point to its furthest extension in my experience. If you are a fan of the New Yorker, you know that its nonfiction pieces can be beyond encyclopedic in scope, taking you to places where your mind has questioned ... but hasn't taken the time to seek. Rin Tin Tin is like having months of the New Yorker in which each issue has some new aspect of Rin Tin Tin tied back to all the other pieces.

Ms. Orlean has three admirable skills that are part of this book's highlights: She can weave together a nonfiction story with the artistry of a novelist in connecting various elements and characters; her imagination pulls her to places and questions that take readers beyond what they could conceive of for themselves; and she has the dogged (pun intended) determination to keep turning over stones until something interesting turns up.

Before commenting further, let me explain my perspective. I'm a dog lover, but don't care for German shepherds. I grew up just a few miles from where Lee Duncan lived and bred dogs for many years in Riverside, California. Despite being invited to visit Lee Duncan and his current Rin Tin Tin many times, I passed. I watched the television show as a youngster (I'm a little older than Ms. Orlean), but I liked Lassie better. As a youngster, the story of the original Rin Tin Tin didn't excite me. I find it more interesting now.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Dog, A Character, A Dream, A Myth Jan. 27 2012
By James Gallen TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
Most of us, at least of sufficient age, have heard of Rin Tin Tin, either from the television show or movies, but what was it, a dog, a character, a dream, a myth? As author Susan Orlean tells us, he was a bit of each.

Rin Tin Tin was a German Shepherd rescued from a battlefield in France in 1918 by an American soldier, Lee Duncan. Duncan brought him home and turned him into a movie star, a cult and a dynasty. Starting in silent films, the original Rin Tin Tin became the idol of millions. In the silent films the animals were often the stars whereas in talkies they assumed more supporting roles. As time passed Lee came to realize that owners usually outlive their dogs so Lee designated a Rin Tin Tin, Jr. and a series of successors.

Through Lee and a series of dogs Rin Tin Tin remained in the public eye, becoming a spokesdog for products, such as dog food and the figurehead for the War Dogs program during World War II. After the war the Rin Tin Tin Dynasty adapted to television with a program set in the West that ran for several years. Eventually Lee Duncan died and the Rin Tin Tin legacy was preserved by Bert Leonard, who had promoted the "brand" for several years, including the television program. As that was winding down, Jannettia Brodsgaard bought a Rinty descendent and established a line Texas. Sadly, like so many American stories, the courts would become involved in determining who had the rights to the Rin Tin Tin name and property.

Besides what Rin Tin Tin meant to the public, it became a life's work and a life's companion for his discoverer, Lee Duncan and some others who were captured in its orbit.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Irresistible Nov. 14 2011
Format:Hardcover
"Once upon a time, a hapless puppy was found, became a star, inspired people, stood for something, and endured." A staff writer for THE NEW YORKER, best-selling author Orleans is a thorough researcher. Her examination of how one dog had a profound impact on so many lives incorporates forays into the beginnings of Hollywood and TV, the German Shepherd Dog's origin and meteoric rise in popularity; the idea of dogs as heroes, as family companions, of obedience as a sport and of teaching owners how to train their dogs. I started this book one evening and had to make myself turn off the light at 3 a.m. Orleans' mingling of history with story telling is irresistible.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Suhail Zubaid AHMAD TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is about a favourite TV character of the days gone by. Of course, you get to know about the origin of Rin Tin Tin, how and where was he found as a puppy, and about the person who found him and owned him. But this is not just about it.

Author Susan Orlean does a magnificent job in not only telling us about the dog through primary research, but in the process, educates us about the horrors of the First World War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War and about the development of German Shepherd dogs as a breed, the age of the silent movies and talkies, development of Hollywood as a centre of film making, advent of television and its development, change in dog culture, the baby boomers, merchandising around popular TV programs, competitor dogs like Strongheart, Lassie, etc., so on and so forth. It kept a person like me deeply engrossed, but herein lies the problem also.

As long as the author stuck with the original Rin Tin Tin and his owner Lee Duncan, the story remained very interesting. For the second half of the book, her focus went off Rin Tin Tin and Duncan. My guess is that she could not find enough material on the dog itself to write about him as a central character. Instead, because of the available records, she started building the story on all attendant characters.

If you are a person like me who is interested in reading the main story and anything that is offered as an additional learning material, this book is for you. If you are interested only in Rin Tin Tin, the Dog then the second half of the book will prove to be a tad drag.

The book itself is easy to read due to large fonts. It is organized in chapters and sub-chapters that are easy to handle. It has some pictures also, although I would have welcomed more.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  220 reviews
71 of 80 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars About a boy and a dog Sept. 7 2011
By Jessica Weissman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
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.
112 of 140 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Tale of Authorial Self-Justification Oct. 19 2011
By Jack R. Meyer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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
5.0 out of 5 stars "There Will Always be a Rin Tin Tin" Sept. 12 2011
By Sharon E. Cathcart - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
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.)
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars If you want the facts, go to Ann Elwood's book... Nov. 6 2012
By gangomutts - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
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.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars When the tail drags Jan. 11 2012
By MarjorieRaskin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
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