The Year was 1922

Lee Duncan and his dog were watching a movie crew shoot a scene with a wolf for a movie called Man from Hell’s River. The wolf could not get it. Duncan called to the crew, “Hey guys, my dog could do that on the first take.” “Oh, sure!” they said. “Get lost!” But after more wolf failures, they agree to give the dog a shot.

Lee Duncan and the soon to be famous puppy, Rin Tin Tin.

The dog, a large Alsatian, was not just any dog. Duncan had rescued him as a shell-shocked puppy from the trenches in France in World War I, where Duncan was a U.S. Army corporal. Man and dog survived the war and were now back in Duncan’s home state – California. Duncan and his dog were actually an act; Duncan was supporting them by give demonstrations of how high his dog could leap.

Duncan had named the puppy Rin Tin Tin after a French puppet. To the crew’s amazement, Rin Tin Tin did the job perfectly in one take. His movie career was born. Rin Tin Tin debuted in his own right the next year, 1923, in Where the North Begins. He was an instant star, one of the biggest box-office draws ever. Rin Tin Tin did all his own stunts, but did have understudies, in case something went wrong. It never did.

When the going rate for the human stars at Warner Brothers was $150/week, Rin Tin Tin was making a cool $1000/week. Rin Tin Tin has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and may have actually received the most votes for an Academy Award in 1929, but it was decided a human had to win best actor and the Oscar went to Emil Jennings.

Publicity shot with Rin Tin Tin and June Marlowe

But Rin Tin Tin’s biggest success was saving Warner Brother’s movie business. In spite of all the brothers’ innovations and investments, their film company was always on the verge of bankruptcy; it was put on a solid financial footing by the profits from Rin Tin Tin’s huge box office success.

Rin Tin Tin getting top billing

In all, Lee Duncan made about $5 million on his dog’s films, a huge fortune at that time. Rin Tin Tin made 26 movies and was set to make number 27 when suddenly, at age 14, he died. Duncan sent him back to France to be buried in his own country. There were sons and daughters; the line continues to this day.

Rin TIn Tin with Lee Duncan
Rin Tin Tin’s grave site in France


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Rose Kleidon says:

    Rin Tin Tin was a German Shepherd. The breed was renamed “Alsatian” in 1917 as part of the anti-German fervor of the WWI era. The American Kennel Club reinstated the original name in 1978.

  2. Steve Ellis says:

    I love this story. I grew up with a German Shepard named “Gruff” (by my dad). He was anything but gruff! He loved everyone; if someone had broken into our house in the middle of the night, Gruffy would have been delighted to see him! Gruffy looked remarkably like the photo of Rin Tin Tin in this story — both have lighter coloring than most German Shepards. I had no idea Rin Tin Tin was so prolific. Now I’m planning to look up some of his movies.

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