The Dynasty and Legacy of Rin Tin Tin
Some twelve thousand years ago, in what is now the Jordan Valley of Israel, a middle-aged man of the Natufian civilization died. When modern archaeologists excavated his tomb, they found that he had been buried with one hand lying on a puppy that had been buried with him. According to the archaeologists, that tomb shows that the very first animal domesticated by the human race was the dog, which was mankind’s hunting companion and pet since ancient times (Edelson, 28). In the catacombs of Hollywood we uncover another representative of this great canine legacy – a dog named Rin Tin Tin. He was one of the first animal “stars” beloved to not one man but to millions of fans around the world. This entertainment great changed Hollywood and acted as a guide and example for successive animal celebrities.
Rin Tin Tin showed the world that an animal could be just as big of a star as a human. This was one of the ironic truths for those working with “Rinty” as they used to call him. He would always steal the show from his human counterparts. Rinty was a strong influence to many future animal stars such as Lassie and Bengi. Rinty made dogs and other animals hero’s in the hearts of the people. He gave people an appreciation for animals all over the world. Even though Rinty helped other species of animal actors break through he was the biggest influence on other dogs in the film industry.
Rin Tin Tin did have a predecessor. One of the greatest of those before Rin Tin Tin was a German shepherd named Strongheart. Director Larry Trimble decided in 1920 that a series of films starring a heroic dog would be a profitable venture and so the first dog star was made (Rothel, 152). A three-year-old German shepherd named Etzel von Oeringen, born of champion stock in Germany and trained to kill for military purposes was trained to be an actor in American motion pictures. Etzel von Oeringen, soon named Strongheart, became a star in a 1921 epic titled “The Silent Call”. Strongheart played a dog that was half wolf and that was more intelligent than its human owners. In this film Strongheart saved the life of a woman and managed to get her married, all while raising a family of his own. But terrible things happen to his family. There is a scene in which Strongheart returns to his cave to find that an explorer has sealed off his puppies; “a scene that brought tears to many an eye and established Strongheart’s box office appeal.”(Edelson, 121)
Strongheart soon lost first place in the public’s eye to the dog who still remains an instantly recognizable Hollywood legend, even though few of those who have heard of Rin Tin Tin have ever seen one of his films: Rin Tin Tin.
The Rin Tin Tin story began during World War I when “Lee Duncan, a noncommissioned pilot in the American Air Force, heard some pitiful whines as he was inspecting a newly captured German airport in France.”(Ring, 15) Duncan found a litter of German shepherd puppies huddled with their mother in a trench. He gave away some of the puppies, but kept two for himself, a male and a female that he named Nenette and Rin Tin Tin.
Duncan ended up bringing the two dogs home with him when the war ended. Nenette died, but Duncan began training Rin Tin Tin on his ranch in Southern California. For several years, Duncan’s efforts to break Rin Tin Tin into movies got him nowhere. Then, in 1925, he persuaded the then-struggling movie studio called Warner Brothers to make a picture based on a short story called “Llewellyn and His Dog.” Warners hired an unknown writer named Darryl Zanuck to create a script for a silent film called “Where the North Begins” (Edelson, 43).
Rin Tin Tin’s arrival at Warner Bros. was a blessing. The Warner Bros. had been struggling at the time and Rin Tin Tin put them back on top of their game. Such films as “The Night Cry”, “Clash of Wolves”, and “A Dog of the Regiment” might have predictable plots, but film audiences loved to see Rin Tin Tin perform. When Warners celebrated its thirtieth anniversary, Rin Tin Tin was at the head table, and the Rinty dynasty could look back on a career of stardom with many of Hollywood’s biggest names, including Myrna Loy, Jackie Cooper, and George Brent, in films, series, and TV programs that had earned hundreds of millions of dollars (Rothel, 160). When Rinty, died in 1932, he received a newspaper obituary that is memorable: “Rin Tin Tin, greatest of the animal motion picture actors, pursued a ghostly villain into a canine happy hunting grounds today. More than eighty years old as comparative human age is measured, his passing was mourned this morning by his owner and friend, Lee Duncan.” (Ring, 28) After Rinty’s death, Rinty II was there to take his father’s place. The second Rin Tin Tin did not have the success that his father did. Sound films had just come in and some said that Rin Tin Tin II had a small bark that could not match his father’s (Edelson, 49).
Just as Rin Tin Tin was fading from the Hollywood scene there came Lassie. “Lassie Come Home” had a cast that included Elizabeth Taylor, Roddy McDowall, Edmund Gwenn, Dame May Whitty and Elsa Lanchester. All that most people remember about the film these days is Lassie coming home, over hill and dale, against all the odds, in a plot that had the dog returning to its original owners after they had been forced to sell him (Edelson, 55-56).
Rudd Weatherwax was the trainer for the Rin Tin Tin Dynasty, and he trained Lassie as well. Rin Tin Tin III was his best dog. He not only starred in films but also served in the military during World War II, training dogs for the K-9 Corps. “Rinty III held the rank of sergeant and was given several medals, including a Purple Heart that was awarded for an injury he suffered when a jeep ran over his leg during maneuvers.” (Rothel, 168) Duncan rated Rinty III as good an actor as his grandfather. “He could respond to more than five hundred commands-crawling like a panther, feigning sleep, fighting imaginary fleas (for a comic effect), pulling a bell rope, herding sheep and chickens, beating out a fire with a sack, and simulating a vicious attack on wrong-doers, to mention just a few of his accomplishments.”(Rothel, 171) Rinty III starred in films and also was the first to make the transition into television. But it was Rinty IV, born on January 18, 1956 who ultimately starred in a long-running television series, “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin,” that was close to the top of the ratings in the late 1960’s. Rinty IV carried a $250,000 life insurance policy, and was protected by five guard dogs. He lived in air-conditioned comfort and ate a carefully chosen diet (Rothel, 173).
Rin Tin Tin lived the Hollywood dream; starting with humble beginnings he was destined to become the nation’s first canine movie star, making 22 movies, signing his own contracts with a paw print, and at the height of his success was his studio’s major wage earner. Rin Tin Tin showed the world that an animal could be just as big a star as a human. He changed the face of Hollywood’s animal movies and showed that people were very receptive to animal actors. Rinty was an inspirational lead for many other animals staring in movies, television shows and commercials. Rin Tin Tin’s appearance on the big screen affected the course of movie making history and his films will continue to influence audiences and inspire successors for generations to come.