Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend - Susan Orlean

Rin Tin Tin: The Life And The Legend
Susan Orlean
Simon and Schuster
Copyright: September 27, 2011

The product description:
He believed the dog was immortal.
So begins Susan Orlean’s sweeping, powerfully moving account of Rin Tin Tin’s journey from orphaned puppy to movie star and international icon. Orlean, a staff writer at The New Yorker who has been hailed as “a national treasure” by The Washington Post, spent nearly ten years researching and reporting her most captivating book to date: the story of a dog who was born in 1918 and never died.
It begins on a battlefield in France during World War I, when a young American soldier, Lee Duncan, discovered a newborn German shepherd in the ruins of a bombed-out dog kennel. To Duncan, who came of age in an orphanage, the dog’s survival was a miracle. He saw something in Rin Tin Tin that he felt compelled to share with the world. Duncan brought Rinty home to California, where the dog’s athleticism and acting ability drew the attention of Warner Bros. Over the next ten years, Rinty starred in twenty-three blockbuster silent films that saved the studio from bankruptcy and made him the most famous dog in the world. At the height of his popularity, Rin Tin Tin was Hollywood’s number one box office star.
During the decades that followed, Rinty and his descendants rose and fell with the times, making a tumultuous journey from silent films to talkies, from black-and-white to color, from radio programs to one of the most popular television shows of the baby boom era, The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin. The canine hero’s legacy was cemented by Duncan and a small group of others—including Bert Leonard, the producer of the TV series, and Daphne Hereford, the owner of the current Rin Tin Tin—who have dedicated their lives to making sure the dog’s legend will never die.
At its core, Rin Tin Tin is a poignant exploration of the enduring bond between humans and animals. It is also a richly textured history of twentieth-century entertainment and entrepreneurship. It spans ninety years and explores everything from the shift in status of dogs from working farmhands to beloved family members, from the birth of obedience training to the evolution of dog breeding, from the rise of Hollywood to the past and present of dogs in war. Filled with humor and heart and moments that will move you to tears, Susan Orlean’s first original book since The Orchid Thief is an irresistible blend of history, human interest, and masterful storytelling—a dazzling celebration of a great American dog by one of our most gifted writers. 
My own German Shepherd.

I've never seen a Rin Tin Tin show or movie, and yet I still knew of him, at least a little bit. I think everyone does. But, when I had the chance to read Susan Orlean's book, I jumped at the chance. My family has had German Shepherds off and on as long as I can remember, and I love the breed. In fact, at many points in the story I was remembering my own dog, Pixie, pictured at the right.

The book, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend is about many things, not just the original Rin Tin Tin dog, but his owner, Lee Duncan, his successors, the movie business, and American culture from the First World War to today, and even the history of the German Shepherd breed, for the legend of Rin Tin Tin spans them all. Rin Tin Tin was clearly so many things to so many people, including that dream of the perfect dog every kid wanted.

That's basically why I went for the book though: because I love German Shepherds. And, it was everything I wanted in a dog story as well as being so much more. There's the story of the actual Rin Tin Tin, which is wound about the story of his owner, and then the building of the legend which lives even today. This book is also the story of dogs in the movies as it included brief anecdotes about other dogs starring in the early silent  movies, the evolution of Lassie etc.

I really liked the layout of the book as it broke into the author's experiences as she was researching the history of Rin Tin Tin, Lee Duncan and his family, along with her reminiscences of Rin Tin Tin and the meaning he'd held for her as a child. One of the best moments (and one which reminded me of my dog when we first got her) was when she was delivering a puppy to it's new family. It's almost the same feelings I had about my dog then when we first got her. The way the whole book was laid out really shows how Rin Tin Tin was both a real dog and also a symbol of so much more for the last half a century or so, with all of the personal meanings that have been attached to him by different people.

Recommended for any dog-lover and maybe even for aficionados of the old silent movies and early TV series as there's plenty to fascinate both in Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. I certainly enjoyed the read and found the way the book continued past the life of the original dog into the legend he became to be a nice change from the inevitable sad ending to most animal stories.

This was an ARC copy that I was sent to read, but all the opinions are mine.
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