TCM recently ran one of the first all-talking pictures, Warner Brothers’ Show Of Shows. It was a revue of music, comedy and a bit of drama featuring all the stars who were under contract to Warners and First National in 1929.
The film was mostly in black and white, but there were two sequences in color — and one of those colored sequences featured the studio’s biggest star, Rin Tin Tin.
He’s pictured above with his owner and trainer, Leland Duncan, who was an American sergeant who had discovered a German shepherd and her new litter of puppies in the wreckage of an airfield in France during the closing months of World War I. He took one of the litter back with him to California, and named him Rinty.
As Rin Tin Tin the dog became a movie star, earned Duncan some five million dollars, saved Warner Bros. from one of their periodic descents into bankruptcy and made a name for a young screenwriter named Darryl Zanuck, wrote Zanuck biographer Mel Gussow. (In 1933, Zanuck decamped the studio after a salary dispute with Jack Warner, and co-founded Twentieth Century Fox.)
Zanuck developed a real rapport with the dog and was chiefly instrumental in guiding the canine’s career, dreaming up plots to exploit the Rin Tin Tin’s many facets. A 1924 adventure yarn, Find Your Man, pretty much set the template for a Rin Tin Tin movie — a wild adventure yarn with our canine hero surviving all manner of un-dog-like perils and remaining slavishly devoted to its master.
Gussow quotes Zanuck: Rin Tin Tin could do anything. (He had some help.)
Actually there were about five or six Rin Tin Tins at one time. One for long shots, one for close ups, one to play the gentle parts, one to fight. Another could jump and do terrific stunts. Another had marvelous eyes.
No question that by 1929, Rin Tin Tin was a huge international star. There is a story that in that same year, the dog garnered the most votes for best actor Oscar. (The Academy nixed that idea, and decreed that only human stars could complete.)
But Oscar or not, Rin Tin Tin is the biggest canine luminary in Hollywood history. (Lassie,the collie introduced in 1943, comes in a close second.)
Rin Tin Tin easily made the transition from silents to talkies, and he even starred on his own radio program, Wonder Dog. He died in 1932 and other dogs, also trained by Duncan, replaced him and starred in films and later TV.
The 1976 film, Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood, about vintage Hollywood was, of course, about Rin Tin Tin.