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Hollywood’s enduring infatuation with dogs — the latest manifestation of which, A Dog’s Way Home, opens Jan. 11 — can all be traced back to Rin Tin Tin.
The first major canine movie star had a fittingly auspicious origin story: In 1918, Lee Duncan, a U.S. soldier fighting in World War I, discovered him among a litter of German shepherd puppies left to die on a bombed-out field in France. (They were apparently being bred to service the Imperial German Army.) Duncan found homes for the pups and kept two for himself, naming them Rin Tin Tin and Nanette, after two popular yarn dolls French children gave to soldiers as good-luck charms.
Nanette didn’t survive the journey back to America, but the handsome Rin Tin Tin did and soon resettled with his dad in Los Angeles. Rinty, as Duncan called him, won dog shows and agility competitions. Convinced he had a movie star on his hands, Duncan walked his dog up and down Gower Street, hoping one of the B-movie studios on “Poverty Row” might give Rinty a break. It worked: The dog was first cast as a wolf in 1922’s The Man From Hell’s River.
One year later, he was sharing billing with silent-movie actress Claire Adams in Where the North Begins. The silent film was written by Duncan, who studied Rinty’s facial expressions and concocted dramatic scenarios that took full advantage of them. The result was a dog who was able to “register emotions and portray a real character with its individual loves, loyalties and hates,” as Duncan once put it.
The film cost Warner Bros. $100,000 to produce ($1.5 million today) and made $352,000 ($5.2 million in 2019 dollars) — rescuing the studio from bankruptcy and leading to 26 more pictures until Rin Tin Tin’s death on Aug. 10, 1932, one month shy of his 14th birthday. Rin Tin Tin Jr., one of 50 pups he sired, went on to some success, as did grandpuppy Rin Tin Tin III, who starred in 1947’s The Return of Rin Tin Tin.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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