A retrospective look at Rin Tin Tin

Rin Tin Tin the famous Warner Brothers animal film star, being groomed in his dressing room by his owner Lee Duncan, for his forthcoming role in 'Jaws Of Steel.' (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Rin Tin Tin the famous Warner Brothers animal film star, being groomed in his dressing room by his owner Lee Duncan, for his forthcoming role in 'Jaws Of Steel.' (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) /

A German Shepherd was one of the most famous actors in Hollywood in the 1920s.

World War I ended 100 years ago yesterday, and one of its more positive contributions to history came in the form of an Alsatian named Rin Tin Tin.

According to author Susan Orlean in her 2011 biography Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, an Army Air Service corporal named Lee Duncan was exploring the French town of Filrey when he stumbled across the bombed ruins of a kennel, where he found a starving mother and five week-old puppies.

Being kindhearted and better with animals than people, Duncan rescued the dogs, keeping two of the puppies for his own, a male and a female which he named after French good-luck charms.

Duncan smuggled the dogs back home to the States once the Great War ended the next year, and the female dog died of pneumonia on the way, being replaced by a kind breeder of police dogs.

Back home in Los Angeles, several of Duncan’s friends convinced him that Rin Tin Tin would be an excellent dog for the movies, and Duncan liked that idea, so he set about trying to find a role for his German Shepherd.

Most of his roles were to play wolves or near-wolves, as directors felt dogs were easier to train than actual wolves were.

As the movie deals continued, Rinty’s stardom increased and he was featured in advertisements for Ken-L Rations, one of the leading dog-food companies of the time, setting a precedent for Taco Bell’s Nacho or Duke of Bush’s Beans.

The original Rin Tin Tin died in 1932, likely of old age, as he was 14 at the time, very elderly for his breed.

He starred in 27 films in total: The Man from Hell’s River and My Dad in 1922, 1923’s Where the North Begins and Shadows of the North, 1924’s Find Your Man; Hello, ‘Frisco and The Lighthouse by the Sea, 1925’s Tracked in the Snow Country, Below the Line and Clash of the Wolves.

He was in three pictures in 1926 – The Night Cry, A Hero of the Big Snows, and While London Sleeps. 1927 saw Rinty star in Hills of Kentucky, Tracked by the Police, Jaws of Steel and A Dog of the Regiment. 

In 1928 he appeared in A Race for Life, Rinty of the Desert and Land of the Silver Fox. In 1929 he was in four pictures – The Million Dollar Collar, Frozen River, The Show of Shows and Tiger Rose. 

1930 saw Rinty in The Lone Defender, On the Border, The Man Hunter and Rough Waters, while his final film came in 1931’s The Lightning Warrior.

Rinty’s son, Rin Tin Tin Jr, also starred in the movies, appearing in 14 pictures from 1932 to 1939. He also did voice work for the Rin Tin Tin radio series on CBS, following in his father’s pawsteps, as Rinty did some voice work for the first radio show on the NBC Blue Network.

Rinty Jr died of pneumonia in 1941, and while Rin Tin Tin III only appeared in one film, 1947’s The Return of Rin Tin Tin, he contributed greatly to the war effort, helping train around 5,000 canine officers during World War II.

Rinty’s legacy continued into the next decade with a 1954-59 TV show on ABC that featured Rin Tin Tin IV, though as he wasn’t very talented, most of the onscreen work was credited to dogs named Flame Jr, Blaze and Hey You. A Mutual radio series ran weekly for most of 1955.

Rin Tin Tin was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.

The bloodline still exists somewhere in Texas, the current namesake is Rin Tin Tin XIII, and for many years they have been trained as service dogs.

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