“Nobody really knows where the name Rin Tin Tin came from,” Susan Orlean said during a Q&A here last Sunday night at the San Francisco Film Society-New People Cinema. Ms. Orlean, The New Yorker magazine cultural critic, author and essayist, was in town to discuss the legend and history of the famous movie dog, a figurine of which sat on a black cloth-draped table nearby.
Ms. Orlean chronicles the wise old German Shepherd in her new book Rin Tin Tin: The Life And The Legend, a heartfelt and revealing look at a canine who was a staple in the entertainment lives of those born in the 1950s or earlier. Rin Tin Tin made more than 20 silent films and was the most popular box office star Hollywood had for several years. The famed dog became a global sensation, was long a fixture first on television, and, as Ms. Orlean explained, an enduring, timeless legend.
One of the most famous films Rin Tin Tin starred in, if not his greatest silent film, according to Ms. Orlean, was Noel M. Smith’s 1925 Western “Clash Of The Wolves”, in which Rin Tin Tin saves the day from a nefarious claim jumper looking to take land from a prospector. The film was screened for the audience here, often a breathtaking experience, with some perilous sequences, and containing the kind of humor typical of the times.
“I grew up with Rin Tin Tin. I knew him as a television character, and discovering purely by accident that this little piece of my childhood memory had an enormous story behind it, was just completely overwhelming,” Ms. Orlean said. She had been working on a story for The New Yorker about the Animal Humane Society, which provides advisories in film credits certifying that no animals are hurt during filming.
Ms. Orlean, who introduced Mr. Smith’s film and read excerpts from her book, confessed that she wouldn’t have written Rin Tin Tin: The Life And The Legend had she not have learned of Rin Tin Tin’s silent film career.
“Rin Tin Tin did all of his own stunts. There were no doubles. There were no special effects,” Ms. Orlean observed.
The writer, portrayed by Meryl Streep in Spike Jonze’s comedy film “Adaptation” several years ago, had the audience here in stitches at several moments.
“Daryl Zanuck hated Rin Tin Tin. Jack Warner claimed that Rin Tin Tin bit him. Rin Tin Tin was being paid twice as much as anyone else in Hollywood, so I think there were other reasons why they didn’t like him.”
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For more of Omar’s film stories, movie reviews and interviews visit his Popcorn Reel website and watch his unscripted film reviews on YouTube. Follow him on Twitter.
For a list of Omar’s knotmove.com stories and film reviews, click here. He is a contributing film critic for “Ebert Presents At The Movies” on PBS television and also a far flung correspondent for the preeminent film critic Roger Ebert and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.