Sunday, January 8, 2012

Rin Tin Tin, by Susan Orlean

I grew up watching “Lassie” reruns as a child. The show ran on the Nickelodeon in the early mornings and late afternoons, long before the network found a fortune with original programming featuring animated sponges and teen singing sensations. I can vividly recall not only the show’s opening narration (“With, June Lockhart, Jon Provost as Timmy, and of course, Lassie”), but also the whole plots from episodes that really shouldn’t be remembered. After watching the show, I would beg my parents for a dog, promising to take great care of it, and praying I could have a friend just like Lassie. When I actually got a dog, it took some time before I accepted that the lovely mutt I had would never save me from an escaped convict or an escaped circus elephant. My dog would not measure up.

Susan Orlean also grew up longing for a canine creature that she could not have. Near the beginning of her fascinating and thoughtful new book, Rin Tin Tin, Orlean describes her fascination with a certain canine that she loved but could not have as a child. Her grandfather’s office contained toys that he would allow his grandchildren to play with on occasion, but one in particular was off limits: a Rin Tin Tin figurine. “I didn’t understand why this was the one treasure we could never touch; it wasn’t more delicate than the other toys, and it didn’t have any finicky mechanism. There was no explanation; it was simply not ours to have.” The memory of this forbidden toy sparked an obsession with the film and television star, an obsession that resulted in her sprawling meditation on the dog and its lasting legacy, as well as the quest for permanence in our daily lives.

To say that Rin Tin Tin was one of the biggest stars on the planet is an understatement. The dog star, which could have easily faded into obscurity, became one of the earliest stars of silent Hollywood, and had the miraculous ability not only to survive the change from silent film to sound, but also from film to television. Rinty, as he was to be known, was found on a WWI battlefield in France by an American soldier, Lee Duncan. Duncan, who grew up fatherless, and was sent to an orphanage by his mother as a child, instantly recognized the dog as a kindred, and managed to bring the dog home with him after the war’s end. German Shepherds were a new type of dog at the time, having been breed in 1899 by German Max Emil Friedrich von Stephanitz for their sharpness, pointed ears, and alert demeanor, in hopes of becoming a nation dog. Duncan was fiercely protective of his new friend, choosing to spend most of his time with Rin Tin Tin, instead of the humans around him. (In fact, his former wife would claim in her divorce papers that Duncan was more interested in the dog than in her.) Duncan worked tirelessly with the dog, training Rinty, and making the most out of the dog’s mental sharpness. Duncan’s attention to the dog paid off when Rinty was cast in his first film, Where the North Begins, which was an instant silent film success, and launched the dog’s stardom. A television series would follow nearly twenty years later, cementing the Rin Tin Tin’s place in history.

Orlean details Duncan and Rinty’s continual rise and fall in breathless, almost conversation prose, but with a journalist’s acuity, and a fan’s admiration. Her writing is so deceptively simple that it is impossible not be swept away with the many directions her story takes. The reader follows her through not only the history of the dog, but through histories upon histories. Her journalist’s eye takes the reader on tours of early Hollywood, television, animal husbandry, and war; alongside the surprising use of canines in every major war this country has fought; and through obsessions and devotions, both obtainable and not. Her quest to understand Rin Tin Tin is almost spiritual: “What lasts? What lingers?” she asks. “Could it be that we fill out our lives, experience all the we experience, and then simply leave this world and are forgotten?” These are the questions that haunt and propel all of Orlean’s work. For one man it might be an elusive orchid (as in Orlean’s previous work, The Orchid Thief). For another it might be a dog. Reading Rin Tin Tin, one cannot help but search for their own answers. A lasting legacy indeed.

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