German shepherd dog stares downward. Photo Credit: Hennepin County Public Library

Photo Credit: Hennepin County Library

Rin Tin Tin

Movie star, America’s favorite dog

Excerpts from America Comes Alive and Kate Kelly:

Rin Tin Tin likely would have been a German war dog if the World War I battle near Saint-Mihiel had gone differently. In September of 1918, the Allies broke through the German line in northeastern France. As the Germans evacuated the area, some men were sent out to scour the countryside to see what remained. Among the discoveries were a mother dog and her puppies, left behind in a damaged war dog station. Lee Duncan, a soldier from Southern California, could not bear to leave the dogs behind. With help from a buddy, he took them back to the base where his unit, the 135th Aero Squadron, was camped. The rest is Hollywood history. Duncan brought Rin Tin Tin and a his mother home to Southern California, traveling by train. He returned to his job at a high-end sporting goods store where the owner frequently arranged hunting trips for wealthy clients. Duncan, who had worked with hunting dogs before the war, became one of the regular guides. He devoted his off-hours to training his own dogs, and he was particularly good at it. Like most trainers today, Duncan did not use food as the reward. If Rinty, Rin Tin Tin, correctly carried out a command, he was given his favorite squeaky toy and some time to enjoy it.

Duncan and Rinty made enough of an impression that someone in the front office at one of the studios remembered them. When one of the directors was struggling to get a good performance out of a wolf in The Man from Hell’s River, Duncan got a call. He immediately reported to Warner Brothers studio. Rinty got his face smudged with dirt to hide the German shepherd markings, and a star was born. When not busy filming, Duncan put them on the road where Rin Tin Tin performed several times a day as part of various vaudeville shows. He also took Rinty to animal shelters and orphanages to provide awareness of social issues that were important to Duncan.

No matter what, Rin Tin Tin spent almost all of his days working. Duncan was accepting deals for 1932 when Rinty died, somewhat unexpectedly, of old age. In the United States, Rin Tin Tin’s death was big news. Regular radio programming was interrupted for a news bulletin, and a one-hour special aired later that week commemorating the dog.

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