6 questions on "Rin Tin Tin" for Susan Orlean

I recently asked Susan Orlean six questions about her new book, Rin Tin Tin, and its regal subject. Here are excerpts of our conversation.

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3. Legend has it that Rin Tin Tin was found as an orphan puppy on a World War I battlefield. You suggest that this may not be true. Could he have been a star without this backstory?

That’s a good question. I think that the creation myth that Hollywood biographies often present – if we knew that Cary Grant’s name was really whatever it was – could we have believed in him as Cary Grant? That’s a tricky question.

The story of how Rin Tin Tin was found was not always told in the same way. That story was often rejiggered depending on which press agent was managing the account. I don’t think it was sufficient to make him a star. I think it certainly added a mythic quality because I think people were thrilled by the idea that it was almost pure luck that made him a star as opposed to a dog like Lassie who was trained to be a star and was a dog from a kennel. There was nothing mythic there. Rin Tin Tin seemed to embody something about myth and dreaming and aspiration and the story of how he was found contributed to that.

But I still think that his popularity came from both his actual talent for looking great on screen and the fact that he starred in movies that hit a certain note with the public. I think that at the end of the day it was that he had [his owner] Lee Duncan absolutely devoted to him and that the story grew over time. As Rin Tin Tin moved into generations of his character the idea that he could endure in itself became part of the legend.

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