The life and death of another animal star

WAY BACK WHEN

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February 03, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

The death this week of Barbaro and the ensuing blizzard of newspaper copy that chronicled every moment of his all-too-brief life and the heroic medical efforts made to try to save him, reflects how seriously as a nation we love our animals and mourn their passing.

When Rin Tin Tin, the canine screen star of the Roaring '20s -- who never earned less than $30,000 during his nine-year career -- died in 1932, obituaries were published in many of the nation's newspapers, including The Sun, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.

The German shepherd's life story was like something out of a Hollywood screenwriter's typewriter.

When Lee Duncan, a World War I Army Air Corps gunner, stepped from his plane near Fliery, France, in the fall of 1918, he heard the cries of newborn puppies coming from a trench.

Lying dead outside a dugout were 11 German shepherds that had been killed by a shell moments earlier.

Entering the dugout, Duncan discovered another dog nursing five puppies whose eyes had yet to open. He gathered up the mother and her pups, wrapped them in his overcoat and returned with them to his headquarters.

The mother and three of the male pups soon died, leaving Rin Tin Tin and a female Duncan named Nannette.

There are two theories about how Rin Tin Tin got his name.

During a 1926 publicity visit to Baltimore, Duncan told The Evening Sun that he named the dogs after two children -- Rin Tin Tin and Nannette -- who were the only survivors of a village that had been destroyed by German artillery.

Another story says that they were named after inch-high French puppets -- Rin Tin Tin and Nannette -- that were given to American doughboys for good luck.

"Lieutenant Duncan, after cutting miles of red tape, succeeded in bringing his pets back to the United States. This was in the summer of 1919," reported The Evening Sun.

During the 15-day voyage aboard a troopship, Nannette fell ill with distemper and died shortly after landing in New York.

After returning home to Los Angeles and his job as a hardware store salesman, Duncan began teaching Rin Tin Tin tricks and attending dog shows. During one of those shows, thrilled crowds watched Rin Tin Tin sail over 12-foot-high fences.

Charles Jones, inventor of the slow-motion camera, filmed Rin Tin Tin's feat, and after selling the film to Novograph Pictures Co., the company offered Duncan $350 a week for the dog to appear in more films.

Duncan quit his job, and he and Rin Tin Tin began making the rounds of studios.

It was Harry Warner of Warner Brothers who took a chance and gave Rin Tin Tin his big break in 1922, when the dog was hired to play a wolf in the silent picture The Man From Hell's River. His first starring role came the next year in Where The North Begins, when he shared the bill with silent screen actress Claire Adams.

Legend has it that that film's success saved Warner Brothers from going into bankruptcy. Rin Tin Tin's filmography -- all for Warner -- eventually totaled 26 pictures.

More than 10,000 fan letters a week poured into the studio, and in 1930, Rin Tin Tin had his own radio show, The Wonder Dog.

The star never lacked for luxury and dined each day on tenderloin steaks prepared by a chef while classical music (to soothe the digestion) played in the background. His name and phone number were listed in the Los Angeles directory.

When Duncan's wife sued for divorce, she named Rin Tin Tin as a co-respondent, explaining that her husband loved the dog more than he loved her.

Rin Tin Tin made one official weeklong visit to Baltimore in the spring of 1926, when he appeared on the stage of the Metropolitan Theater at North and Pennsylvania avenues, which was showing his latest picture, The Night Cry.

"He's just as cocky as ever, his ears seemed perked as alertly as ever and by clever directing on the part of Herman Raymaker he is made to appear the most intelligent and understanding of all dogs. He has merely to cock his head to one side for the audience to break into an `Ah' and only to cock it to the other side to have them `Ah' again," wrote Q.E.D., The Sun's movie critic.

In 1932, Rin Tin Tin died, reportedly in the arms of Jean Harlow during the filming of Pride of the Legion.

His son, Rin Tin Tin Jr., stepped in and finished his father's role.

According to some newspaper accounts, Rin Tin Tin was buried under a white rose bush at Duncan's home on Club View Drive in Hollywood.

Other reports say that Duncan arranged for the dog's remains to be returned to France and buried in the Cimetieres des Chiens, the famous pet cemetery in a suburb of Paris.

"Duncan said a few words of farewell through misty eyes, and the greatest of all dog actors became a memory and a tradition," wrote a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

"Rin Tin Tin died on a studio lot where he had been taken for rehearsal for just one more picture. He was 14 years old at his death," observed the newspaper.

At his death, Rin Tin Tin left at least 20 sons and daughters. Rin Tin Tin Jr. continued acting through the 1930s. (One piece of work was the 12-part serial, The Adventures of Rex and Rinty.) His grandson, Rin Tin Tin III, starred with Robert Blake in The Return of Rin Tin Tin in 1947.

Baby boomers will remember The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin that starred another dog owned by Duncan and featured child actor Lee Aaker as Rusty and Joe Sawyer as Sgt. Biff O'Hara of the U.S. cavalry. The show aired on ABC from 1954 to 1959.

Duncan, who later moved to Rancho Rin Tin Tin, a 55-acre ranch in Riverside, Calif., died in 1960.

Rin Tin Tin is one of two dogs honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The other is Lassie.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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