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Rin Tin Tin (Orlean)

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend
Susan Orlean, 2011
Simon & Schuster
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781439190135


Summary
He believed the dog was immortal.

So begins Susan Orlean’s sweeping, powerfully moving account of Rin Tin Tin’s journey from orphaned puppy to movie star and international icon. Orlean, a staff writer at The New Yorker who has been hailed as “a national treasure” by the Washington Post, spent nearly ten years researching and reporting her most captivating book to date: the story of a dog who was born in 1918 and never died.

It begins on a battlefield in France during World War I, when a young American soldier, Lee Duncan, discovered a newborn German shepherd in the ruins of a bombed-out dog kennel. To Duncan, who came of age in an orphanage, the dog’s survival was a miracle. He saw something in Rin Tin Tin that he felt compelled to share with the world. Duncan brought Rinty home to California, where the dog’s athleticism and acting ability drew the attention of Warner Bros. Over the next ten years, Rinty starred in twenty-three blockbuster silent films that saved the studio from bankruptcy and made him the most famous dog in the world. At the height of his popularity, Rin Tin Tin was Hollywood’s number one box office star.

During the decades that followed, Rinty and his descendants rose and fell with the times, making a tumultuous journey from silent films to talkies, from black-and-white to color, from radio programs to one of the most popular television shows of the baby boom era, The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin. The canine hero’s legacy was cemented by Duncan and a small group of others—including Bert Leonard, the producer of the TV series, and Daphne Hereford, the owner of the current Rin Tin Tin—who have dedicated their lives to making sure the dog’s legend will never die.

At its core, Rin Tin Tin is a poignant exploration of the enduring bond between humans and animals. It is also a richly textured history of twentieth-century entertainment and entrepreneurship. It spans ninety years and explores everything from the shift in status of dogs from working farmhands to beloved family members, from the birth of obedience training to the evolution of dog breeding, from the rise of Hollywood to the past and present of dogs in war.

Filled with humor and heart and moments that will move you to tears, Susan Orlean’s first original book since The Orchid Thief is an irresistible blend of history, human interest, and masterful storytelling—a dazzling celebration of a great American dog by one of our most gifted writers. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—October 31, 1955
Where—Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Education—B.A., University of Michigan
Currently—lives in upstate New York


Susan Orlean (born October 31, 1955) is an American journalist. She has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992, and has contributed articles to Vogue, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Outside.

Orlean was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and graduated from the University of Michigan. She was then a staff writer at the Portland, Oregon, weekly Willamette Week, and soon began publishing stories in Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vogue, Outside, and Spy. In 1982 she moved to Boston and became a staff writer for the Boston Phoenix and later a regular contributor to the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. Her first book, Saturday Night, was published in 1990, shortly after she moved to New York and began writing for The New Yorker magazine. She became a New Yorker staff writer in 1992. Orlean was also a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 2003.

Susan Orlean is the author of several books, including The Orchid Thief, a profile of Florida orchid grower, breeder, and collector John Laroche. The book formed the basis of Charlie Kaufman's script for the Spike Jonze film Adaptation. Orlean (portrayed by Meryl Streep in an Oscar-nominated role) was, in effect, made into a fictional character; the movie portrayed her as becoming Laroche's lover and partner in a drug production operation, in which orchids were processed into a fictional psychoactive substance.

She also wrote the Women's Outside article, "Life's Swell" (published 1998). The article, a feature on a group of young surfer girls in Maui, was the basis of the film Blue Crush.

In 1999, she co-wrote The Skinny: What Every Skinny Woman Knows About Dieting (And Won't Tell You!) under her married name, Susan Sistrom. Her previously published magazine stories have been compiled in two collections, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People and My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere. She also served as editor for Best American Essays 2005 and Best American Travel Writing 2007. She contributed the Ohio chapter in "State By State" (2008). In 2011 she published a biographical history about the dog actor Rin Tin Tin. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
Fascinating.... The sweeping story of the soulful German shepherd who was born on the battlefields of World War I, immigrated to America, conquered Hollywood, struggled in the transition to the talkies, helped mobilize thousands of dog volunteers against Hitler and himself emerged victorious as the perfect family-friendly icon of cold war gunslinging, thanks to the new medium of television.... Do dogs deserve biographies? In Rin Tin Tin Susan Orlean answers that question resoundingly in the affirmative.... By the end of this expertly told tale, she may persuade even the most hardened skeptic that Rin Tin Tin belongs on Mount Rushmore with George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt, or at least somewhere nearby with John Wayne and Seabiscuit.
Jennifer Schuessler - New York Times Book Review


Stunning.... A book so moving it melted the heart of at least this one dogged Lassie lover.... Don't let the book's title fool you. Calling Rin Tin Tin the story of a dog is like calling Moby-Dick the story of a whale. Orlean surfs the tide of time, pushing off in the 1900s and landing in the now, delivering a witty synopsis of nearly a century of Rin Tin Tins and American popular culture. The result is a truly exceptional book that marries historical journalism, memoir, and the technique of character-driven, psychologically astute, finely crafted fiction: a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.
Meredith Maran - Boston Globe



Orlean's deadpan sense of humor and ear for the odd and beguiling fact make it hard to put down the book. But there's also something haunting about it, a sense of the brevity of life and fame. . . . Orlean's writing is built to last. As individual as a fingerprint, or a face, it turns what could have been a footnote to history into a touching account of the way one life resonates with others.
Margaret Quamme - Columbus Dispatch



Dazzling.... Susan Orlean has fashioned a masterpiece of reporting and storytelling, some of it quite personal and all of it compelling. Animal-related books have always peppered best-seller lists—Seabiscuit comes quickly to mind—and this one will top such lists. It deserves to, and also to work its way into millions of hearts and minds.... [Carl] Sandburg called Rin Tin Tin "thrillingly intelligent" and "phenomenal." The same can be said for this remarkable book.... Spectacular.
Chicago Tribune


It's a story of magnificent obsession. Nearly a decade in the making, combining worldwide research with personal connection, it offers the kind of satisfactions you only get when an impeccable writer gets hold of one heck of a story.
Kenneth Turan - Los Angeles Times


Remarkable.... Orlean's pursuit of detail is mind-boggling.... The book is less about a dog than the prototypes he embodied and the people who surrounded him. It is about story-making itself, about devotion, luck and heroes.... Ultimately, the reader is left well nourished and in awe of both Orlean's reportorial devotion and at her magpie ability to find the tiniest sparkling detail.
Alexandar Horowitz - San Francisco Chronicle


With this stirring biographical history, Orlean follows up her bestselling The Orchid Thief with another tale of passion and dedication overcoming adversity and even common sense—this one centering on Rin Tin Tin, the German shepherd who founded a film and TV dynasty. After spending a lonely childhood in an orphanage, the young soldier Lee Duncan discovers on the battlefield of WWI France the puppy that will make a name for him as one of Hollywood's top dog trainers, and become his life's guiding purpose. The book follows Rin Tin Tin's trajectory from early Hollywood's "Poverty Row," where Duncan sought the dog's first film deal, to international celebrity in silent films, radio shows, and TV programs. Though Rin Tin Tin's contracts began to lapse in later years, Duncan never ceased grooming canine successors and shopping around scripts, and producer Bert Leonard lived on friends' couches as he poured money into colorizing old episodes of The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. Orlean directs a sympathetic gaze toward these men so haunted by their memories of the dog that swept them into stardom. Even readers coming to Rin Tin Tin for the first time will find it difficult to refrain from joining Duncan in his hope that Rin Tin Tin's legacy will "go on forever..
Publishers Weekly


In this exceptional book, Orlean (staff writer, The New Yorker; author, The Orchid Thief) portrays the magical bond, which led to lasting international fame, between a special puppy found on a World War I battlefield and Lee Duncan, the man who rescued him. She spent ten years researching and writing their story, a richly textured narrative filled with personal accounts, astute cultural and social backdrops, behind-the-scenes details on film and television, and an informed look at the historical roles of dogs in war, on-screen, and in the home. Orlean describes Rin Tin Tin's career from the early days in film through the popular 1950s television series. His heroic persona transformed into immortal legend, as subsequent dogs sustained both his name and the noble qualities he symbolized. Duncan and others who were a part of Rinty's story are honestly yet compassionately portrayed. Orlean also shares her own tales of epic research. Verdict: This is a thoroughly researched and masterfully written work that will please a wide audience, especially those who remember this noble canine hero. It is also an important addition to the literature of cultural, entertainment, and animal history. —Carol J. Binkowski, Bloomfield, NJ
Library Journal



Discussion Questions
1. Were you familiar with Rin Tin Tin before reading this book? What memories do you have of the famous dog? What was it like to delve back into the history of Rin Tin Tin? If this was your first introduction to him, what impressions did the book give you?

2. Orlean attributes Lee's fierce love of dogs to his traumatic childhood, in which both his mother and father abandoned him for a time. As Orlean writes: "The experience shaped him; for the rest of his life, he was always deeply alone....The only companion in his loneliness he would ever find would be his dog, and his attachment to animals grew to be deeper than his attachment to any person." (p. 15) Do you agree with this assessment? What other forces, if any, contributed to Lee's love of dogs?

3. Lee and the first Rin Tin Tin shared an incredibly close bond. Do you think Lee's devotion to Rinty was more of an endearing character trait, or a symptom of deeper personal issues? Consider the many people who felt wronged or resentful toward Lee—his daughter Carolyn, his wife Charlotte, and his wife Eva, in your answer.

4. Lee steadfastly believed that Rinty was destined for greatness and, as Orlean writes, "he was lucky to be his human guide and companion." (p. 34) Do you think Lee underestimated, or misunderstood, his importance in creating the Rin Tin Tin juggernaut?

5. On the strangely frequent coincidences that kept Rin Tin Tin's narrative alive, Orlean writes, "Everything connected to Rin Tin Tin was full of happenstance and charm, lightning strikes of fortune and hairpin turns of luck; from a standstill, life around Rin Tin Tin always seemed to accelerate out of the depths of disappointment to a new place filled with possibility." (p. 262) Reflect on a few such serendipitous moments. Do you think life tends to look coincidental in hindsight—or was Rin Tin Tin's story really blessed?

6. Although he never made concrete plans to ensure the continuation of Rinty's legacy, Lee insisted that "There will always be a Rin Tin Tin." (p. 3) Was Lee being prophetic or delusional—or both?

7. The original Rin Tin Tin was considered essentially human in popular culture. A review of one of his films, for example, describes his eyes as conveying something "tragic, fierce, sad and…a nobility and degree of loyalty not credible in a person." (p. 71) Why was Rinty so completely and earnestly anthropomorphized by millions of fans? Where do you stand on the scale from "a dog is a dog" to "Rin Tin Tin was essentially human"?

8. Orlean notes that "when Rin Tin Tin first became famous, most dogs in the world would not sit down when asked." (p. 123) With that in mind, how much of the awe and reverence surrounding Rin Tin Tin the first would you attribute to the novelty of trained dogs? How much stands the test of time?

9. At the height of his earning power, Rin Tin Tin was paid eight times as much as his human co-stars. Do you think this was fair? Why or why not?

10. Orlean writes that Rin Tin Tin, alive on the screen, "was everything Americans wanted to think they were—brave, enterprising, bold, and most of all, individual." (pp. 87, 89) How much of Rin Tin Tin's emotional depth do you think came from viewers projecting their own feelings on him?

11. Orlean writes, "As his fame grew, Rin Tin Tin became, in a way, less particular—less specifically this one single dog—and more conceptual, the archetypal dog hero." (p. 97) In what ways did Rin Tin Tin shift from a literal representation to a symbolic figure? What specific moments, if any, highlight this shift?

12. How did the evolution of the film and television industries dictate the various reincarnations of Rin Tin Tin? Why was Rin Tin Tin—the dog and the archetype—so wildly successful, both in films and later in television?

13. By the late 1950s, Rin Tin Tin's aura of invincibility was beginning to wear off. Orlean explains, "Now, instead of being a miracle, he was a model. He was the dog you could aspire to have, and maybe even manage to have, at home." (p. 217) What explains this shift? Is it necessarily a bad one?

14. The criteria used to determine Rin Tin Tin's descendants evolved as the Rin Tin Tin ideal expanded through time and across mediums. As Orlean concludes, "The unbroken strand is not one of genetics but one of belief." (p. 137) Why did this evolution from genetics to belief occur? Do you think this reliance on human decisions, rather than canine pedigrees, undermines the magical reverence of Rin Tin Tin the first?

15. Orlean writes that at one point she felt like "everybody I met or heard about in connection to Rin Tin Tin was a little crazy." (p. 282) Do you agree? Why or why not? Consider the various actions that Lee, Burt, and Daphne took in the name of defending Rin Tin Tin's legacy.

16. Bert takes over as the protagonist of the book after Lee dies. How do you feel about the way the narrative continues after Lee's death?

17. What do you think Lee and Bert would have thought of this book?

18. Orlean wonders, of the many different iterations of Rin Tin Tin, "Could that wide, wide range of manifestations really belong to anyone?" (p. 297) What do you think? If yes, who owns which parts of the legacy—legally, sentimentally, practically? Do you think Orlean herself now owns a part of the legacy, too?

19. Orlean writes that she sometimes "began to wonder if the legacy of RTT was finally contracting." (p. 311) What do you think? How does her book factor in this observation?

20. Orlean delves into many historical events and movements in the book—dogs in the military, obedience training, movie and television history—to name a few. Which facts surprised you the most?

21. Do you believe that there will always be a Rin Tin Tin? Why or why not?
(Questions issued by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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