The fascinating story of Rin Tin Tin: from war orphan to celebrated star of Hollywood

László Enikő

2023. December 1 - Photos: Getty Images Hungary

Rin Tin Tin is one of the most famous German Shepherd dogs in the world. Almost everyone is familiar with his name. He appeared in a total of twenty-seven films, and people were enthusiastic about him. How did the star dog's career begin?


Rin Tin Tin’s story began on a somber note. On September 15, 1918, American soldier Lee Duncan set out on a reconnaissance mission in a French village named Flirey. The village had been heavily bombed and nearly destroyed. Duncan came across a damaged kennel that housed puppies. The German Shepherd puppies had previously belonged to the German military, who left them behind during the attack. In the kennel, only the mother dog and five puppies survived. All of them were emaciated, mere skin and bones, and severely weakened. The little ones were likely less than a week old, their eyes not yet opened.

Rin Tin Tin.

The rescue

Lee took pity on the abandoned puppies and decided to bring them with him. When the little ones grew stronger, he gave the mother dog to an officer as a gift. He kept a male and a female from the litter, naming them Rin Tin Tin and Nanette, considering them symbols of his luck. The other three German Shepherds were given to fellow soldiers. At the end of the war, Duncan smuggled his beloved dogs back to America to start a new life.

They were named after good luck charms that French children often gave to American soldiers. These charms were called Rintintin and Nénette. Soldiers were told that the figurines symbolized two lovers who successfully survived a bombing attack. However, this story was not true, as the figurines were actually designed before the war in 1913. Contrary to popular belief, Rin Tin Tin was the female, and Nanette was the male.

While Duncan obtained all the necessary paperwork for their return, he entrusted the puppies to a breeder, Mrs. Leo Wanner, who also raised police dogs. Unfortunately, Nanette contracted pneumonia and passed away shortly thereafter. In exchange, Mrs. Leo Wanner provided another female. In honor of the war orphan, the new companion was named Nanette II. The newly formed little family finally arrived at their new home in Los Angeles.

Eugene Pallette, a silent film actor, was a friend of Duncan’s. They spent a lot of time hiking and exploring together. During these outings, the soldier taught Rin Tin Tin many tricks. As the four-legged friend seemed very skilled and intelligent, his owner thought it might be worth showcasing his talents. However, in the first competition, he performed poorly, growling at people and snarling at them. On the way home, he accidentally jumped onto a pile thrown from a newspaper delivery truck, resulting in a broken front leg. His recovery took nine months.

Once fully healed, he entered the next competition and won. The dogs had to jump as high as possible while being filmed. It was at this moment that Duncan realized his beloved could potentially become a film star.

Rin Tin Tin on a film set in 1924.

The dog that saved Warner Bros

The first film success came about due to a wolf’s uncooperative performance. Filming the planned scene with the wild animal proved impossible. However, Duncan insisted that his dog would surely succeed in the role. Indeed, in 1922, the German Shepherd made his debut in The Man from Hell’s River.

The major breakthrough occurred a year later when he starred in the silent film Where the North Begins. It was a tremendous success, with many attributing the film to saving Warner Bros from bankruptcy. Over the years, Rin Tin Tin starred in numerous films, often coming to the studio’s rescue during challenging times. However, in 1929, Warner Bros no longer saw a need for his services, citing that dogs couldn’t speak and marking the end of the silent film era.

Rin Tin Tin with his son Rin Tin Tin Junior.

While building their film careers, the two dogs were not idle. Over the years, Nanette and Rin Tin Tin had 48 puppies. Duncan kept only two of them, gifting the others to celebrities such as Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow.

The Dynasty

The famous dog passed away on August 10, 1932, at his home. Duncan laid him to rest in a small pet cemetery in France, choosing to let him rest in the country of his birth. However, the era of Rin Tin Tin did not end there. It continues to endure to this day.

The grave of Rin Tin Tin.

Rin Tin Tin’s son, Rin Tin Tin Junior, also appeared in films, a total of 14. However, he didn’t seem as talented as his father and passed away in 1941 due to pneumonia.

III. Rin Tin Tin is said to be the grandson, but many argue that they are not directly related and share only distant ancestry. The dog didn’t really resemble its ancestors. Although he appeared in one film, his fate took a different turn afterward. During World War II, the U.S. Army recruited civilian dogs, and since there was no guarantee that the beloved pets would return unharmed, some encouragement was needed. This is where III. Rin Tin Tin came into play. He became the face of the campaign, used to promote and popularize the idea of household pets serving in the military.

Rin Tin Tin III.

The fourth Rin Tin Tin, in 1954, starred in the TV series titled The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin and achieved tremendous success. He became immensely popular, with his image appearing on a wide range of merchandise. Rin Tin Tin once again became the favorite of millions. Lee Duncan passed away in 1960, and the Rin Tin Tin name was never trademarked. Lee’s granddaughter, Daphne Hereford, continued the breeding, and today, the twelfth descendant of the famous German Shepherd travels across America, making appearances at various events. In 2007, a family film titled Rin Tin Tin was released, and there are reportedly plans for another production in the works.

The adventures of Rin Tin Tin shooting.

Rin Tin Tin was among the first four-legged stars in the world. Millions admired him, and few are those who haven’t heard of him. In America, he became a symbol of heroism, courage, loyalty, and strength. Certainly, that few days old war orphan in France could not have foreseen the significant impact he would leave on the world.

dog film famous dogs film German Shepherd History Rin Tin Tin

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