SCOTT SIMON, Host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Film critics sometime say that the stars of the silent era were the most accomplished actors because they couldn't utter words. Talents like Chaplin and Valentino, Mary Pickford and Buster Keaton had to reveal a range of emotions with their eyes.
One admirer wrote of his favorite actor: He shows in his expression and acting such deep, human, contrasting feelings as trust and distrust, sorrow and joy, jealously and love, hatred and devotion.
Those raves were for an actor named Rin Tin Tin. He was one of the most famous names in the United States for much of the 20th Century, a star of movies and television and, of course, a dog.
L: The Life and the Legend."
Susan Orlean, who's also a New Yorker writer and the author of several previous bestsellers, including "The Orchid Thief," joins us from NPR West.
Thanks so much for being with us.
SUSAN ORLEAN: It's my pleasure, Scott.
SIMON: And Rin Tin Tin was an orphan of the First World War.
ORLEAN: That fact alone is what really propelled me into this book because I grew up at a time when Rin Tin Tin was a television star. But he was a character. I had no idea he was a real animal who had a life that was extraordinary. Being born on a battlefield in the middle of the war, being found by an American G.I. and brought back from France to the early days of Hollywood.
SIMON: Lee Duncan was the name of the soldier. And he sees a horrifying sight in the landscape to the battlefield. And that's a kennel filled with German Shepherd dogs that had been destroyed, one assumes, by artillery fire. In the middle, literally, of this destruction and death he finds these puppies.
ORLEAN: I can only imagine that for anyone this would've been a highly emotional moment. You know, you're surrounded by death. This was the middle of the war. It was just death every which way. In the middle of it, to find a new litter of puppies for anybody would be emotional. For Lee Duncan this was a moment that changed his life.
SIMON: And almost from that moment Lee Duncan seems to have thought that this dog he began to call Rin Tin Tin - Rinty, he called him - had star power.
ORLEAN: Isn't that funny? To put some context here. During the silent film era, dogs were on par with human actors. Nobody had the power of speech. A dog was just as credible as a character conveying through gesture and action and the look on his face. A dog was just as good as a human at doing that and, frankly, more natural.
SIMON: Let me draw you out a bit about Rin Tin Tin's acting ability because you maintain that he was not just a well-trained dog who could, you know, do tricks, but that he was a genuine actor. And you write at some length about what amounts to his defining role - his Hamlet - "Clash of the Wolves," a 1925 film.
ORLEAN: If you see this film, you'll come to understand why he was so successful. He's a great action star. He was a tremendous athlete. In fact, the very first thing of Rin Tin Tin that ever was caught on film was him clearing an 11-foot fence. And this was an 80 pound dog. So he was an incredible athlete.
He, though, genuinely acted. His face is immensely expressive. He was very good at looking depressed. And the moments in "Clash of the Wolves" that are very moving are the ones where he's injured, where's leaving his mate behind, where he thinks he's going to die and he's leaving the pack to go and die on his own. And you're really affected by the look on his face and his performance.
SIMON: I mean, he plays the leader of a wolf pack, because he's half dog, half wolf in the film. He climbs a tree. He - I find this so impressive - he fakes a limp?
ORLEAN: He fakes a limp so convincingly that Lee Duncan had to spend a great deal of time explaining to people that he was acting and it wasn't that Lee had injured the dog in order for him to limp convincingly.
SIMON: One of the many pleasures of this book is the historical breadth of the story, including that one of Rin Tin Tin's biggest fans was a little girl living in Amsterdam.
ORLEAN: One of Rin Tin Tin's greatest fans was Anne Frank. She dreamed about having a dog just like Rin Tin Tin. She wrote about it in her diary. For her very last birthday before she was sent to the camps, her greatest wish was to go to a Rin Tin Tin film with her friends. As it happened at that time, the Nazis had already forbidden Jews from attending any public theatrical events. So, her parents managed to get a copy of "Lighthouse by the Sea," one of Rinty's films, and showed it to Anne and a group of her friends in their home. What's heartbreaking and the great irony in this is that another one of Rin Tin Tin's greatest fans was none other than Adolph Hitler, who loved German Shepherds and elevated them to a status that was almost unheard of.
SIMON: Any great actor worries about age. And, of course, an actor who is a dog has a particularly short professional life. So, after about eight or nine years in the movies, well, I want you to tell us about the death of the original Rin Tin Tin and how the world reacted.
ORLEAN: It was just like every other Hollywood death. Much legend surrounded it. There were many, many rumors that actually Rin Tin Tin had died in Jean Harlow's arms. What was amazing to me was that there was a national news bulletin that went out immediately, interrupting programming all over the country announcing his death. The next day, there were an hour-long broadcast about Rin Tin Tin that was played all over the country. It was seen as a great national tragedy when he died.
SIMON: You know what touched me most about that section, though, I must say?
ORLEAN: What's that?
SIMON: Was the way in which Lee Duncan, who picked him up as a little puppy from the embers of World War I, still cherished him as his buddy, as his dog. His grief seemed entirely personal.
ORLEAN: Entirely. The formative moment in Lee's childhood was when he was four or five years old, when his mother, who had been abandoned by her husband, simply couldn't make it. She took Lee and his sister to Oakland, California, and she left the children at an orphanage. They had no idea if she would ever return to take them back. He was desperately lonely. And his mother, after five years, was able to come back and get her children. And she then went to live with her parents on a huge ranch in Southern California. There were no other kids around, and then he got a dog. And the dog became his true companion. And I think he found a kind of steadfastness with the dog that he hadn't found with his own mother. And that was where it began for him. It really can bring you to tears. Because the fact is that his entire livelihood was Rin Tin Tin. He was a rich man from Rin Tin Tin's movie career. But you never felt that that superseded his emotional connection to the dog as his dog.
SIMON: Lee Duncan, I guess, people would contact him from all over the country and say I've always wanted a dog like Rin Tin Tin and he would give them puppies, progeny.
ORLEAN: He loved the idea of continuing the legacy of Rin Tin Tin. I mean, when the original Rin Tin Tin was alive what mattered to him was his relationship with the dog. Then it became the idea of keeping him alive, and Lee would say there will always be a Rin Tin Tin.
SIMON: Susan Orlean. Her new book, "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend." Thanks so much.
ORLEAN: My pleasure, Scott.
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