September 10, 1918– Rin Tin Tin (I think the name is Jewish) was born on a battlefield during WW I. He went on to be a big American film star and a Gay Icon. Rin Tin Tin is credited with saving Warner Bros. Studios from certain bankruptcy in the 1920s. At the apex of his popularity, Rin Tin Tin received more than 20,000 fan letters a week, that’s 140,000 a week in dog years.
In late summer of 1918, US Army Corporal Lee Duncan discovered a bombed out German war dog station while on a scouting mission. Inside he found a shell-shocked mother German Shepherd along with her five puppies.
Not wanting to leave them alone and helpless, Duncan brought them back to his base camp where he took care of them. When he returned home to California, Duncan brought Rin Tin Tin with him. Rin Tin Tin was named after the small dolls that French soldiers carried with them for good-luck.
Duncan settled into his home in LA and he became interested in the fledgling film industry. Knowing his dog was mighty special, he made the rounds to the studios, but they foolishly showed little interest in a canine movie star.
Duncan and Rin Tin Tin finally caught their big break when they came upon a crew shooting a scene with a wolf while they were hiking around the Silverlake reservoir. Asking for the chance to show what he had, Rin Tin Tin performed a stunt in a single take that had frustrated the director and crew trying to make the scene work with the real wolf.
In 1922, Rin Tin Tin (his friends called him “Rinty”) made his debut in a low budget western called The Man From Hell’s River. He did all his own stunt work and learned his dialogue phonetically.
Rinty’s charisma, good-looks, athleticism, fearless stunt abilities and acting talent attracted the attention of the struggling Warner Bros. Together they made 24 films that helped reestablish the studio and made Rin Tin Tin a household name, fashion icon and magazine cover boy.
In 1929, Rin Tin Tin received the most votes for the first ever Academy Award for Best Actor, but the Academy determined that a stupid human should win.
At the height of his celebrity, Rinty earned a salary of $1000 a week, had his own production unit, a chauffeur driven limousine, a personal chef, a Pilates teacher, lawyer, life-coach, and a diamond studded collar. Not much is known about his personal life, but Rinty was spotted at several underground gay spots around Hollywood and was known to attend director George Cukor’s infamous male-only Sunday afternoon pool parties, until one Sunday when he tragically ate the entire buffet and humped hunky Forrest Tucker’s leg. Although he was quite a stud, siring 48 pups, including a favorite named Junior, Rin Tin Tin was known to lick the butt of male stunt dogs and was very probably bisexual. Despite a series of rumors, there is no definitive proof that he ate poop.
In 1930, in an ungrateful gesture, Warner Bros. released Rinty from his contract. He was forced to work low budget serials. He admitted to a Milk Bone addiction and went into rehab. After 40 films, Rin Tin Tin retired in 1931.
Surrounded by family and friends, human and canine, Rin Tin Tin took his final bow-wow in winter 1932. Millions of fans grieved at his passing. Rumors abounded and the fan magazines reported that Rinty died on the front lawn and in the arms of blond bombshell Jean Harlow who lived on the same street.
In a private ceremony, Duncan buried Rin Tin Tin in a bronze casket in his own backyard with a plain wooden cross to mark the location. Duncan suffered the financial effects of the Great Depression and could not afford a better burial. Eventually Duncan grew unable to even keep his own house, which he sold, and he quietly arranged to have Rinty’s body returned to the country of his birth for re-burial in the Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques, the famous pet cemetery in the Paris neighborhood of Asnières-sur-Seine.
Rin Tin Tin’s son Junior continued to work in serials and radio. Junior made a single film, playing opposite a young butt-sniffing Robert Blake in The Return Of Rin Tin Tin (1947). Junior also assisted Duncan in the training of more than 5,000 dogs for the Canine Corps in WW II war effort.
Rin Tin Tin’s grandson, Junior Jr., appeared on a television series in the 1950s, The Adventures Of Rin Tin Tin, where I first fell in love with him, and I fell hard. I had a Rin Tin Tin lunch box and a series of adventure books.
Several of Rin Tin Tin’s children and grandchildren were adopted by films stars including Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and Clark Gable.
Rin Tin Tin is the subject of an excellent biography, Rin Tin Tin: The Life And Legend (2011) by Susan Orlean, but his story really deserves its own film treatment. Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976) is a spoof of Rinty’s story starring Bruce Dern, Madeline Kahn and over 100 Golden Era movie stars in cameo roles, but we pee on it.
No other canine star ever again matched Rin Tin Tin’s very special magical brand of screen charisma, star power, or talent, especially which bitch Lassie.