Rin Tin Tin was a male German Shepherd born in Flirey, France, who became an international star in motion pictures. A beloved canine hero of the screen, Rin Tin Tin actually owed his life to American soldier, Lee Duncan, who rescued him from a World War I battlefield.
While in France, Duncan found a damaged kennel which had once supplied the Imperial German Army with German Shepherd dogs. The only dogs that happened to have survived life in war-torn Flirey were a mother and five nursing puppies. Duncan rescued the dogs and snuck them aboard a ship that took him back to the U.S. after the end of the war. Duncan, Rin Tin Tin, and his adopted sibling, Nanette II, settled at his home in Los Angeles.
Rin Tin Tin was a dark sable color and had very dark eyes. Duncan trained Rin Tin Tin and obtained silent film work for the dog, becoming a box-office success. Rin Tin Tin went on to appear in 27 Hollywood films, gaining worldwide attention. He also increased the popularity of German Shepherd dogs as family pets.
After sustaining a leg injury and recovering to full health, Rin Tin Tin had learned to leap great heights. His winning leap was filmed by Duncan’s acquaintance Charley Jones, who had developed a slow-motion camera.While Rin Tin Tin’s leap was captured on film, Duncan became convinced Rin Tin Tin could become a successful in films.
Rin Tin Tin’s big break came in The Man from Hell’s River (1922), featuring Wallace Beery. Rin Tin Tin would be cast as a wolf or wolf-hybrid many times, with his first starring role in Where the North Begins (1923). This film was a success and saved Warner Bros. from bankruptcy, leading to 24 more screen appearances.
Warner Bros. fielded thousands of fan letters to Rin Tin Tin. Around the world, Rin Tin Tin was popular star, easily understood by all viewers from all over the world.
Rin Tin Tin also appeared in four sound features, with Duncan guiding Rin Tin Tin by hand signals. Rin Tin Tin and Nanette II produced at least 48 puppies; Duncan kept two of them, selling the rest or giving them as gifts. Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow each owned one of Rin Tin Tin’s descendants.
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 finer burial, let alone his expensive house. He sold his house and quietly arranged to have the dog’s body returned to his country of birth for reburial in the Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques, the pet cemetery in a Parisian suburb.
In the United States, Rin Tin Tin’s initiated a national response. Regular programming was interrupted by a news bulletin. An hour-long program about Rin Tin Tin played the next day.In a ceremony on February 8, 1960, Rin Tin Tin was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1627 Vine Street.
Duncan passed away on September 20, 1960, without ever having trademarked the name “Rin Tin Tin.” The tradition continued in Texas with Jannettia Brodsgaard Propps, who had purchased several direct descendant dogs from Duncan. Her granddaughter, Daphne Hereford, continued the lineage and the legacy of Rin Tin Tin following her grandmother’s death on December 17, 1988. Hereford passed the tradition to her daughter, Dorothy Yanchak, in July 2011.
The current Rin Tin Tin is twelfth in line from the original silent film star and makes personal appearances across the country to promote responsible pet ownership. Rin Tin Tin was the recipient of the 2011 American Humane Association Legacy award, accepted by a twelfth-generation Rin Tin Tin legacy dog in October 2011 at the first annual Hero Dog Awards in Beverly Hills.
For more information, I recommend reading Susan Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend.