Before there was Marley or Benji or even Lassie, there was Rin Tin Tin. In her book of the same name (Simon and Schuster, $27), New Yorker writer Susan Orlean chronicles the life and afterlife of the German shepherd who became arguably the most important dog in the history of showbiz—from the time trainer Lee Duncan rescued him from a World War I battlefield to his 26 early films, which launched Warner Bros. The dog was paid eight times as much as the studio’s human actors.
Learning that Rinty had 18 stunt doubles dilutes the legend slightly. Not that it matters. As Orlean aptly points out, Rin Tin Tin was “a stroke of luck in a luckless time.” Rin Tin Tin isn’t the equal of The Orchid Thief, Orlean’s masterpiece: she seems uncomfortable being left out of the story and struggles to interweave her own narrative—“of who I am and how I happened to become the person I seem to be”—with that of the dog.
Like the 85-pound Alsatian’s other human costars, Orlean shines brightest from the background. Rin Tin Tin was not just a trained dog but a real actor, capable of “working through his own set of dissonant feelings.” Also, he could leap 12-foot walls in a single bound and was made to “act out” fight scenes with actual wolves. They don’t make dogs like that anymore.