IN THE FALL of 1954, the American television schedule included puppets and comics, average families and aging celebrities, cowboys, detectives, and two dogs with Hollywood histories. Lassie was gentle and pastoral in tone, more domesticated than The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin, which often included "shooting, knifing, punching, war, arrow shooting, Indian attacks, scuffles, gun-butting (but no sword play, strangling, torture, or flogging)," according to the Motion Picture Association of America's analysis. In fact, The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin was considered rough enough that censors in Britain removed certain scenes — especially ones that showed Rinty fighting — and Germany banned the show from playing on religious holidays.
Some of the early episodes were almost comically violent, a matter that the show's aggressive young producer Bert Leonard and Screen Gems squabbled over during production. In one such squabble, Bert conceded several points to the studio: "The actual kill of the mountain lion will be done off scene, and the savageness of the situation will be held down.... We will get enough of it to make it exciting but definitely not gruesome."
The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin was broadcast for the first time on Oct. 15, 1954. The debut episode told the story of how the "Fighting Blue Devils" of the 101st Cavalry came to be stewards of the young Rusty and his dog Rinty — or, as Sergeant O'Hara of the 101st put it, "How we found them two little orphans." Only after I had learned the personal history of Rinty's trainer, Lee Duncan, did I realize how this story recalled his own time as an orphan, and also the orphaned French boy who had lived with Lee's squadron during World War I — the "little chum" who had served as the squadron's mascot until French authorities took him away. It was Lee who had found the puppy he later named Rin Tin Tin on Sept. 15, 1918, in a German encampment, and it was Lee who raised and trained him and his progeny and made them into movie stars a generation ago.
Bert and Lee were confident that Rin Tin Tin would triumph again, but even so, the reception The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin received must have been overwhelming. The show was an instant success by every measure. It had one of the fastest ratings climbs in television history and from its start was ABC's second-highest-rated show overall, trailing only the Walt Disney show. Nine million of the 30 million televisions in the United States were tuned in, several million more than were tuned to Lassie, which had premiered on CBS a month earlier. It was also a critical success. "Crammed with action, gunplay, and chase scenes of pre-musical-cowpoke Westerns," wrote a critic in TV Guide. "It makes fine viewing for kids and nostalgic viewing for grown-ups."
Lee and Rin Tin Tin were once again the center of the nation's attention. How many years had passed since Rinty's great movies of the 1920s and '30s? And yet here they were, as if the dog were a fresh new discovery. The show was broadcasting in 70 other countries besides the United States. Just as in earlier decades, Rin Tin Tin was everywhere. He was a single point connecting people all over the world, from all different cultures and circumstances, all of them watching as the camera angled up to the crest of a hill where a big dog stood at alert, a depthless silhouette against a western sky in a placeless place somewhere in the timeless history of America.
AT CORRIGANVILLE MOVIE Ranch, where the series was shot, the cast and crew worked six days out of seven, racing to shoot two episodes a week. They shot 30 or 40 scenes every day. The schedule was so intense that none of the actors had time to launder their costumes. There was a flood of requests from schools and civic groups, hospitals, rodeos. Everyone wanted a visit from Rinty or from anyone connected to the show. Screen Gems, delighted and also besieged, hired a public relations executive named Wauhillau LaHay to manage the enthusiasm.
LaHay crafted a marvelously fictitious biography for Rin Tin Tin that circulated to the press — one more addition to the many versions of his life that had been concocted over the years. In LaHay's account, Rinty's mother was a German police dog from Buffalo that had been recruited for the Army Expeditionary Forces by Flight Commander William Thaw of the 135th Aero Squadron. According to LaHay's account, Lee somehow found Rinty in the hospital and "kidnapped him"; later the puppy accompanied Lee on his many (fictional) combat flights. Rinty, as LaHay explained, lived in sybaritic luxury. His valet curried him every morning with a butter-soft rubber brush and bathed him every afternoon in a porcelain tub. He lived in a miniature stucco palace with electric lights, plumbing, a sterling silver food trough, a radio that was always tuned to classical music, and a large mailbox, which was bursting with 10,000 fan letters a week.
The part about the fan letters was true.
Lee himself got hundreds of letters from dog owners, for whom he had become a sort of paradigm, the perfect dog owner of the perfect dog. By 1954, more than 40 percent of American households included at least one dog. Mixed breeds were the most common, and the most popular purebreds were beagles, boxers, cocker spaniels, and dachshunds. German shepherds and collies, the two breeds now in prime time, were the fifth and sixth most popular breeds. Just as he had in the 1920s and 1930s with old Rin, and then again in the 1940s with Rin Tin Tin III, Lee stood out as the person who could serve as an intermediary between people and this nation of dogs.
Many people said they remembered Rin Tin Tin from the period when the dog had appeared in air-conditioned movie palaces in the downtowns of the big cities — the old, crumbling city centers, which were now being abandoned for the suburbs. Rin Tin Tin marked the turn of time for the world they knew then, which by 1954 had begun to fade, as the baby boomers arrived in numbers to fill suburban homes.
With the show's success, El Rancho Rin Tin Tin, Lee's modest home in Riverside, Calif., became a destination: a place where you could see, in real life, the miracle dog of television. Lee had always kept old Rin to himself, but now he welcomed visitors to the ranch and encouraged them to play with Rinty. He always brought them to the Memory Room, urging them to sit a while so he could unfurl his stories of the past.
The fact that this dog, Rin Tin Tin IV, wasn't the dog that actually appeared on television didn't make Lee uncomfortable. (Rinty IV had failed the audition and been replaced by better-trained show biz dogs.) If he worried, he wouldn't have welcomed visitors who might point out the disparity. For one thing, the various dogs used on the show looked enough alike, and enough like his Rinty, that it would take close examination to tell them apart. But anyone could figure out that Rinty lived in Riverside while the show was being filmed 60 miles away, making it obvious that the dog at El Rancho Rin Tin Tin couldn't also be on the set. But no one complained.
With the show's success, Lee and his wife Eva finally had some money, and Lee built the house he had been promising Eva since they moved to Riverside. A local architect designed a long structure with an elegant entrance, big jalousie windows, and the first kidney-shaped swimming pool in Riverside. It wasn't ostentatious the way a Hollywood house could be, but by Riverside standards, it was a showplace. Bert also moved into a new house — the big Tudor on Los Feliz, with a swimming pool and a tennis court, just a block from Griffith Park. Bert was only 33 years old, but the success of The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin gave him new stature in Hollywood. He had never lacked for self-confidence, but now he could afford to indulge himself a little. He liked to take meetings in a bathrobe, clenching the fattest cigar he could find between his teeth. He was an avid tennis player and could hold his own on his backyard court, even though he liked to smoke those fat cigars while he played.
RIN TIN TIN was lucky to be reborn in the middle of the biggest baby boom in history. It began in 1946, when veterans came home from the war and got married. Seventy-seven million babies were born in the United States between 1946 and 1964. My family was a typical product of that period: My father was in the service in World War II, where he had served in Army intelligence, and then he returned home to Cleveland, his hometown. In our suburban neighborhood, every house seemed to have at least two or three kids, and new elementary schools popped up like mushrooms. It was like living in a children's village. There were more of us than adults. After dinner, on most nights, all the children on my street came out to play for one last hour before bedtime. We poured out of our houses in our pajamas, and in that shimmery time just after sundown we rode our bikes up and down the sidewalk, caught fireflies, traded baseball cards, lit punks, and ran zigzagging across lawns with sparklers, leaving glittering trails in the fading light. Then we went home and watched TV.
The babies of the boom consumed entertainment rapaciously, gobbling up movies and comic books and toys as well as TV. Almost as soon as The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin was on the air, you could buy a Rin Tin Tin cavalry mess kit, uniform, hat, bugle, gun, and holster, as well as a recording of the 101st Cavalry bugle calls, cavalry belt-and-suspender sets, a Rin Tin Tin–branded pocketknife, a telescope, a walkie-talkie, a beanie, a pennant, a 3-D color viewer with viewer cards, and all sorts of mechanical games. Companies' fortunes were made on licensed Rin Tin Tin products. These toys were "presold to 13,750,000 kids" in a "once in a blue moon" opportunity, according to an ad in Merchandising News magazine.
The effect of all these children, the mass of us, must have been bewildering to our parents, almost like witnessing an invasion of hungry aliens — and intriguing to sociologists and marketers. Children, and especially teenagers, had never been observed and measured and considered as a group before, but now sheer numbers made them a moving force. Beginning with the baby boom, anything manufactured or produced was evaluated for its potential to appeal to all these eager children. Not only did they rescue a once-famous movie dog from obscurity, but they seemed to dictate everything that their families, including their parents, watched and ate and bought. A 1955 issue of TV Guide summed things up with a story titled "Who's Boss of Your TV Set?"
The answer, according to the social scientists, was kids.
From Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, by Susan Orlean. ©2011 by Susan Orlean. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster.