Bookshelf: Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend

Bookshelf is a monthly column examining printed matter relating to television. While I love watching TV, I also love reading about it, from tie-in novels to TV Guides, from vintage television magazines to old newspaper articles. Bookshelf is published on the second Thursday of each month.

Rin Rin Rin: The Life and Legend
By Susan Orlean
First Published in 2011
Published by Simon & Schuster
324 Pages

This is another atypical Bookshelf column. It was published in 2011, so it is very new. It’s not a TV tie-in novel or a reference book. And there aren’t many people who would consider Rin Tin Tin to be obscure or forgotten. That might depend on which Rin Tin Tin they’re thinking about. The Rin Tin Tin from ABC’s The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (who wasn’t actually a Rin Tin Tin at all)? The Rin Tin Tin who starred in a variety of movies during the 1920s and early 130s and almost received an Academy Award? The Rin Tin Tin who starred in additional movies during the 1930s?

Personally, prior to reading Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend I’m pretty sure I thought Rin Tin Tin was a fictional dog like Lassie. I knew the name Rin Tin Tin and was aware there had been a Rin Tin Tin television show in the 1950s but had never watched it (I have seen a few episodes of Lassie, however). I don’t think I knew there were dozens of Rin Tin Tin movies.

A family member suggested I read this book and went as far as to mark the sections about the TV show in case I didn’t want to read the whole thing. I did read it all and found some of it interesting, some of it depressing, and some of it bizarre.

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend is a strange mix of biography and personal essay. But it is not really a biography of the original Rin Tin Tin. Much of it reads like a biography of Lee Duncan, the man who rescued a number of German Shepherd puppies while stationed in France during World War I. He named one Rin Tin Tin and after the war the two eventually made their way into the movies.

The latter part of the book turns into a biography of Herbert B. Leonard, the producer of The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, who championed the Rin Tin Tin legacy after Duncan’s death in 1960. Leonard also produced Circus Boy, Naked City, Route 66, and several other TV shows (several of them short-lived). These are the depressing parts. Both Duncan and Leonard had family and financial difficulties and could be very obsessive and perhaps overly dedicated at times. Duncan especially is a tragic character, closer to his dogs — and the memory of the original Rin Tin Tin — than his wife and daughter.

Since finishing the book I have learned that it has some factual errors. See this October 2011 Leonard Maltin post and this July 2012 post by Stephen Bowie for details. The personal essay portions are bizarre, however.

Time and time again, Orlean cuts away from the past to discuss her thoughts and feelings about Rin Tin Tin, tied to her travels while researching the book. These seem both out of place and unnecessary. Rin Tin Tin (all of the Rin Tin Tins, in fact), Duncan, and Leonard are more than interesting enough to keep readers turning the pages. The sections devoted to Orlean, on the other hand, may make some readers want to put down the book. Near the end, the book actually gets a little confusing as Orlean jumps around between various players in the Rin Tin Tin universe and herself.

Anyway, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin is by no means an obscure or forgotten TV series. It was very popular during its original prime time run on ABC from 1954 to 1959 and remained popular for many years after that, with ABC airing afternoon repeats from 1959 to 1961 and CBS airing repeats on Saturday mornings from 1962 to 1964. It then resurfaced in syndication in the mid-1970s with new color wraparounds and, oddly enough, tinted sepia. If you’re a fan of the TV series, there is a lot of information about its production in this book.

What I found most intriguing were the little details. For example, Orlean reveals that when Leonard went to film the color wraparounds in 1975, he was only able to afford to complete 22 of them. All 164 episodes of The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin were tinted sepia, however. In the late 1970s, Leonard somehow managed to convince someone to foot the bill to fully colorize 65 episodes in an attempt to refresh them for syndication. These episodes never aired. No one was interested in syndicating them. He later edited five together to create a feature film that he likewise was unable to find someone to distribute it.

Orlean also writes about a variety of TV show concepts that Leonard came up with, many of which involved Rin Tin Tin. Some were apparently little more than titles. Others were partly or fully scripted but never produced.

The single most interesting thing to come out of reading Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend, however? A single line from the section of the book about the original Rin Tin Tin:

In 1926, Rin Tin Tin appeared on an experimental television station in New York City called W2XCR.

That’s it. There were no additional details or even a time frame for Rin Tin Tin’s appearance. Whatever and whenever his appearance was, it is long lost to time.


5 Comments

  • Gail Gauthier says:

    Interesting work on the factual problems..

    Any thoughts on the new Max movie fitting into the Rin Tin Tin world? One of the movie posters looks similar to some of the RTT Life and Legend covers. It involves a war dog, Rin Tin Tin was originally a war dog. This narrative seems to be one that we can’t give up. Lassie…not so much.

    • David says:

      I saw the movie “Max,” and really enjoyed it. It definitely was like a latter day Rin Tin Tin or Lassie movie.

  • Bob says:

    For a minute I thought that movie was going to be about Jamie Sommer’s dog “Maximillian”

  • Karen Martin says:

    Today I came across an article in the March / April 2007 issue of Stereo World (a magazine about 3-D images) called Ster-e-yoooooo Rinty! which was about collecting memorabilia connected to the 1950s Rin Tin Tin TV show (including View Master reels and other 3-D items). There was also information about the actors on the show.

    At the end of the article was a note stating that much of the information in the article came from the book “Saturday Morning TV” by Gary Grossman. I’ve never read the book, but it’s readily available from online sellers at a reasonable price, and has gotten good reviews. I thought I’d mention the book in case fans of the Rin Tin Tin TV show would like to obtain it.

  • Dyson says:

    I knew nothing about Rin Tin Tin other than that he was the perfect dog, and that he was a character on television. When by chance I learned that Rin Tin Tin was a real dog, not just a television character a real dog with a real life that was extraordinary I was drawn into the story and eventually to the idea of writing this book.

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