Sunday, January 19, 2014

Most Faithfully

Hollywood is in the middle of its Awards Season.  Local newspapers are stuffed with full-page ads and inserts headed "For Your Consideration," which are mirrored on local radio and TV.   Everyone roots for their favorite movies and favorite actors, hoping they will win one or more of the coveted prizes.

It's not uncommon for me to find movie memorabilia at estate sales.  Scrapbooks with stock photographs of celebrities, or more often newspaper and magazine clippings relating to famous actors and actresses, are not uncommon things for people to save.

Yesterday I dropped by the estate sale of a woman who was born in 1912 and died last year at 95.  I found only one piece of Hollywood ephemera there: a signed photograph of one of a young lady's favorite actors.

"Most Faithfully, Rin-Tin-Tin" is in large script, and below in smaller letters it reads "Lee Duncan, Master and Friend, 1929."

Why would someone save a photograph ostensibly signed by a dog (and not even an original pawtograph!), until the day she died at age 95?  Rin Tin Tin must have been pretty special to her.

I decided to do a little research on this, one of Hollywood's first canine heroes, and it turns out that he was pretty special to a lot of people, not the least of whom were the heads of Warner Bros. studios.  

Note:  The dog in the photographs here is not the only one to carry the name "Rin Tin Tin."  Many people reading this blog will remember a handsome German Shepherd who had the title role in the popular 1950s TV series Rin Tin Tin.  The original Rin Tin Tin was a movie star in the 1920s and early '30s; I found lots of additional photos of him online.  And what a star he was.

Almost every Hollywood story is a mixture of truth and hype, so the actual story of the first Rin Tin Tin may never be fully known.  But as the generally-accepted story goes, Rin Tin Tin was found in France in 1918 by an American serviceman, Lee Duncan.  In 1919, when World War I was over, Duncan brought the dog back home to Southern California and spent hours each day training him.  

Duncan, like so many young people in the early 1920s, was tempted by the siren song of the movie industry, based only a few miles from his home.  Duncan wrote a screenplay set in the Sierra Nevada mountains for Rin Tin Tin, took the dog and went from studio to studio trying to interest them in his project.   

The Internet Movie Database shows Rin Tin Tin as one of the actors in The Man from Hell's River (1922), which starred Wallace Beery, and My Dad (also 1922), which starred longtime Hollywood actress Ruth Clifford.  

Then Warner Bros. bought Duncan's screenplay for Where the North Begins (1923) and cast Rin Tin Tin in the leading role.  It was the start of a beautiful, and very lucrative, relationship.  Rinty, as he was known, made 16 pictures for Warner Bros. between 1923 and 1928, then nine more -- well, I guess you could call them "barkies," instead of "talkies" between 1928 and '31.   The films were so successful that studio insiders reportedly called Rin Tin Tin "the mortgage lifter," because the proceeds from his movies bailed the studio out of financial trouble time and again.  Rin Tin Tin's films also helped launch the career of a young screenwriter named Daryl F. Zanuck.

In most of his films, Rin Tin Tin got top or near-top billing.  Most of his films were huge box office and critical successes, and by 1926 Rin Tin Tin was earning a reported $6,000 a week, the equivalent of almost $77,000 a week today -- more than most of Warner's human stars were earning at the time.  Rin Tin Tin did celebrity endorsements for Ken-L-Ration dog food.  He was often photographed in human-type poses.  Gossip columnists wrote about him, his "wife" Nannette and their puppies, as though they were human. 

In 1929, voting for the first Academy Awards took place, honoring the films of 1927 and 1928.  Multiple sources say that Rin Tin Tin actually received the most votes for Best Actor, but the Motion Picture Academy leaders decided that, for credibility's sake, the award should go to the Best Human Actor, and it was won by the Swiss-born German/Austrian actor Emil Jannings (who later went on to star in a number of Nazi propaganda films).  That same year, Warner Bros. was also given a special award of merit for producing the first "talking" picture, The Jazz Singer, which transformed the motion picture industry.

Rin Tin Tin's radio show, to which he contributed barks, started in 1930 (although a human actor named Bob Barker -- no, really -- supplied many of the canine sound effects) and he starred in it until 1932, when his son Rin Tin Tin, Junior took over.  Rin Tin Tin's last film was a 12-part serial in 1931, called The Lightning Warrior.  One of his co-stars, far down in the billing, was a young man named Yakima Canutt. 

Rin Tin Tin died in 1932.  His passing made international news.  Like his life, his death is the stuff of legend -- one account has the dog drawing his last breath in the front yard of his master's home, cradled in the arms of a neighbor, sex symbol Jean Harlow (which many human males at the time would have envied).  His name lives on through his many descendants; Rin Tin Tin the Twelfth is currently spokesdog for the American Humane Association. 

In her book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, author Susan Orlean wrote: 

In his way, Rin Tin Tin had come to represent something essentially American. He wasn’t born in the United States, and neither were his parents, but those facts only made him more quintessentially American: he was an immigrant in a country of immigrants. He was everything Americans wanted to think they were — brave, enterprising, bold, and most of all, individual.  

Perhaps that's what the young lady who saved his picture for 84 years admired about Rin Tin Tin; perhaps she, too, hoped to be brave, enterprising, bold, individual, and -- as the autographed picture said -- faithful.

CBS Sunday Morning did a story on Rin Tin Tin when Susan Orlean's book came out.  It has film footage of the original Rinty and several of the other dogs who carried his name:

Here’s a video clip of the original Rin Tin Tin, introducing a new movie with human stars:

The Internet Movie Database has more biographical and anecdotal information on the original Rin Tin Tin:

An NPR blog highlights a biography of Rin Tin Tin:

As does The Telegraph (UK):

Many people devote blog space to the memory of Rin Tin Tin, such as this one:

Susan Orlean's book is here:

Another book, Rin Tin Tin: The Movie Star gives some alternative information about the life of the famous canine:

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