Rin Tin Tin: From War Dog to Film Star

A puppy rescued in France during WWI made history by becoming a famous film star in the US. The puppy was Rin Tin Tin, who captured thousands of hearts and made the small studio Warner Bros. into a major studio.

On September 15, 1918, a young American corporal named Leland Duncan was sent to a small farm town in France, a former German encampment flattened by bombing, to see if it would be suitable as an airfield. While strolling around, he came upon what appeared to be a kennel. Inside were at least a dozen war dogs killed by artillery shells and one frantic German shepherd with five very young puppies. Fond of animals, Duncan took the mom and puppies back to his barracks. Not able to care for all of them, he gave away the mom and three puppies to fellow soldiers, and kept the other two puppies. He named the male Rin Tin Tin and the female Nanette, after the good-luck charms that were popular with soldiers in France.

Corporal Duncan and Rin Tin Tin

When the war ended, almost two months after finding the dogs, Duncan was determined to bring the puppies home with him. After much hassle, he was able to get the paperwork needed to bring them on the ship back to America. Shortly after making it to the US, Nanette died of pneumonia - she was later replaced with another German shepherd named Nanette II. Duncan returned to his home in Los Angeles and resumed working at his former job in a sports shop. Knowing Rin Tin Tin (nicknamed Rinty) was a smart dog, Duncan began training him to do tricks, and later entered him in a dog show when he was nearly full grown. Competing with a female shepherd, Rin Tin Tin was caught on film jumping over an 11 1/2 foot wall, clearing it at almost 12 feet, winning the competition.

After watching Rinty on film, Duncan was determined to get him to Hollywood. Both would go to Poverty Row (a strip in Hollywood where small B-movie studies were located) and knock on doors, trying to interest someone in using Rin Tin Tin in a film. His efforts eventually paid off, after knocking on the door of Harry Warner. Rinty got a small part in a melodrama called The Man from Hell's River (1922), replacing a wolf that was not performing properly. This was the beginning of a eight year relationship with Warner Bros. His first starring role was in Where the North Begins (1923), a screenplay written by Duncan. The film was a huge success and Rin Tin Tin became a celebrity.

Thousands of fan letters were arriving at Warner Bros. requesting pictures of Rin Tin Tin. Each picture was autographed with a paw print and signed by Duncan on his behalf. Rinty's films were so profitable that Warner Bros. paid him almost eight times as much as they paid human actors. He was known as the mortgage lifter because every time the studio was hurting financially, it would release a Rin Tin Tin film and the income from that would set things right again. According to Hollywood legend, Rin Tin Tin received the most votes for Best Actor at the first Academy Award competition in 1929. The Academy was determined to have a human actor win, so the dog was removed as a choice.

Rinty's career with Warner Bros. ended in 1929 when the silent film era ended. The studio knew people were fascinated by the new capacity to hear sound, and felt dogs seemed less interesting in a movie since they could not talk. Rin Tin Tin continued his career with another studio, making a few more films, and even had his own radio show.

Rin Tin Tin died on August 10, 1932 at Duncan's home. Duncan said he heard Rinty bark in a peculiar way and went to see what the matter was. He found the dog lying on the ground, and within a moment he was gone. In the US, his death set off a national response. Newspapers ran long obituaries, regular programming was interrupted to pay homage, and an hour-long tribute was broadcast on radio networks across the country the day after his death. Rinty was buried with his favorite squeaky toy in Duncan's backyard. Shortly afterwards, he was reburied in the world's oldest pet cemetery in Paris. Rinty's son, Rin Tin Tin Junior, went on to act and appeared in several films in the 1930s. He lacked the abilities of his father, but audiences seemed happy to accept him as Rin Tin Tin. Today's descendents are trained as service dogs for special needs children, and the current Rin Tin Tin XII attends events across the country promoting the Rin Tin Tin legacy.

Rinty made 23 silent films, with only six of them known to exist today. He also appeared in four sound features. In 1960, Rin Tin Tin was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.