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rin tin tin

23 may 2012

Rin Tin Tin is one strange story. "The narrative had begun to curlicue and twist into a slightly cracked comedy," says Susan Orlean of the process of researching the book. "I myself began to feel like I was getting a little unhinged" (283).

Even the cultural phenomenon that provoked the book sounds somewhat crazy. Think of how it must have seemed to some Rip Van Winkle of the 1920s. There's this machine that takes lots of pictures in a row and flashes them on a blank curtain in a theater. Everybody in town goes to see the pictures. Their favorite pictures show stories about a dog who runs around getting into trouble and saving people from trouble. Anyone who'd fallen asleep at the turn of the 20th century would awake to find the world gone seriously mad.

Hollywood has always been a place where you're as good as your last film. But few movie stars have ever had such a roller-coaster ride of fame and fortune as Rin Tin Tin. His fortunes were so various that he didn't always seem to be the same dog, which is in fact a perfectly literal statement of his identity.

With the help of archives of papers relating to Lee Duncan, the original Rin Tin Tin's owner and trainer, Orlean pieces together the complicated lives of the many dogs that collectively embodied the greatest canine legend of the movies. Duncan stumbled on the original Rin Tin Tin in a bombed-out section of the Western Front. German shepherds were a recent breed, not at all common, and Duncan saw potential in the pup as a show dog back in the States. But more primally, he saw an orphan like himself, in need of a companion.

Duncan entered Rin Tin Tin in some events: the dog was an outstanding athlete. Somebody filmed him jumping a 12-foot wall. The film made the newsreels. Soon Duncan was shopping a feature-film script. Soon thereafter, Rin Tin Tin was the biggest box-office star in Hollywood.

And soon thereafter, Duncan couldn't get anyone to answer his phone calls. Talking pictures reduced the value of a wordless star. But in the early 1930s, Rin Tin Tin re-emerged as a star of serials – not the dominant figure in the medium, but still a hugely popular staple in weekly installments. The original Rin Tin Tin died in 1932, and his son Junior soldiered on.

It's in the 1940s and 50s that the story becomes a bit surreal. Duncan was on his third Rin Tin Tin, piecing together a marginal living, in one sense hoping for a break that would propel his dog to stardom, in another hoping to be left alone with man's best friend. Project after project fell through; the most consistent money-maker was the vaudeville circuit, but that was dying too, leaving Duncan hostage to the boredom of "personal appearances" at this event or that. Then, a hustling TV producer named Bert Leonard pitched a Rin Tin Tin TV series to ABC. The show was a huge hit, making both men rich (or in Duncan's case, rich for a third time; he'd lost two previous fortunes). But the Rin Tin Tin in the show was not Duncan's dog; it was an actor taking the name of a grandson of an actor, playing the part of the grandson playing a fictional character based on that grandfather's previous roles (although there was probably no blood relation between grandfather and grandson), if you see what I mean (and I'm not sure you can unless you are a devotee of Charlie Kaufman films, which wraps back in a weird way to Susan Orlean herself).

In Rin Tin Tin, Orlean continues the exploration of esoteric knowledges that she so memorably began in The Orchid Thief. At one point, she runs into a fellow who has made it his hobby to watch old episodes of shows like Rin Tin Tin and identify the backlot locations on which certain scenes were filmed, pegging them to the current geography of the old lots. "I have all this knowledge of this stuff now," the expert says. "It makes me feel like I'm important." Orlean:

This seemed like an unusual sort of hobby, but no matter how specialized or particular a hobby might be, it always seems that someone has dug into it. Immersing yourself in single interest so thoroughly sometimes means that the interest stops being something you do; instead you become a servant of that interest. But for many people, that kind of engagement is a comfort. Maybe embracing one thing that is so explicit is like whittling all you know and feel and care about into a single point—one that is so fine it can be threaded through life's eye. (209)
Everyone interested in Rin Tin Tin seems to become a servant of that interest. Orlean, naturally, admits to such servitude herself. "It seems we are forever weighing things with a finger on the scale," she says, "always too quick to give up or too ardent by half" (277). Susan Orlean is too ardent by three-quarters about Rin Tin Tin.

All the better for readers like me, who are always too quick to give up. We have to borrow devotion from the authors we consume, and Orlean is one of the most faithful acolytes of unwavering interest.

I have one minor peeve with Orlean's book. She's inconsistent in giving dollar values. She gives a lot of them, as the salaries and savings of Lee Duncan and his dogs are often important points; but she wavers between giving them at face value and giving them in 2011 dollars. The result is sentences like this:

In 1941, years after his silent films had vanished from theaters in the United States, Lee received an annual royalty check worth about $11,000 from Japanese distributors for the same movies, which continued to be shown in theaters there. (143)
What does "worth about" mean? I infer that it means $11,000 in 2011 terms. For one thing, $11,000 in 1941 dollars would buy what something between $175,000 and $200,000 bought in 2011 – which doesn't square with Duncan's relative poverty at the time, as Orlean portrays it. But I'm not 100% sure; you can't be. Hilarious sums of money got tossed around in the motion-picture business in the 1920s and 30s. Carole Lombard is said to have made $10,000 a week in the late 1930s, which sounds like a vast sum till you realize that it would translate a much vaster eight million dollars a year today, and you start to get giggly. (Come to think of it, if Carole Lombard made $10,000 a week, I doubt that Lee Duncan was getting $11,000 a year for the Japanese residuals from Rin Tin Tin silents. It was probably more like $500 or $600 in actual 1941 dollars – welcome, but not enough to keep him afloat.)

Not sticking to face-value figures makes a book like Rin Tin Tin internally confusing, and also reduces its long-term readability. Fifty years from now, somebody's going to pick up this book and have no idea at all what $11,000 was worth in 2011 – thus having to do a double translation, rather than merely coping with the original.

Orlean, Susan. Rin Tin Tin: The life and the legend. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.

UPDATE 5/29/12: Rin-Tin-Tin expert Ann Elwood reminds me that Duncan was not technically an orphan (nor does Orlean say he was, though she stresses his abandomnment complex). And Elwood also notes that Duncan's story of finding Rin Tin Tin on the front is largely apocryphal, as Orlean also establishes.