Rin Tin Tin Was Robbed of an Oscar

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 4 2012 7:33 PM

Susan Orlean to the Oscars: Consider Rin Tin Tin

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Susan Orlean has thrown another dog into the Oscar race. After researching her book Rin Tin Tin, a biography of the German Shepherd and Hollywood star, Orlean seems to have validated the long-held legend that Rin Tin Tin was the top vote-getter at the first Academy Awards in 1929, and now she’s out stumping for the canine’s cause.  According to an interview with Orlean did with Deadline Hollywood, Orlean hopes “that the Academy corrects the injustice next month by giving a posthumous Best Actor prize.”

Finally, someone with an eye for fine canine acting. I’ve voiced my disdain for the laughable idea that The Artist’s Uggie deserves some Oscar gold (that attention hound is nothing more than a peddler of cheap tricks), but Rin Tin Tin was the matinee idol that brought dignity to dog thespianism. It’s clear that Orlean appreciates the difference between a true performer like Rin Tin Tin and a mere ham. “We wonder, could an animal understand the idea of acting as opposed to behaving,” Orlean asks:

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I think that training a dog to have a certain behavior is impressive and a credit to the dog’s intelligence and the mastery of training techniques. But if you look at what Rin Tin Tin did, he seemed to understand that he was performing. Look at Clash of the Wolves, as he limps away from his pack to die alone. You watch the scene and can’t believe he didn’t know he was acting in the movie. He is grimacing and limping, he falls to the ground in agony. How would you train a dog to look depressed and act as if he’s resigned to a lonely death? I don’t know how you do that. Somehow, the dog knows he’s supposed to look miserable and contemplating his mortality. What could have been the behavior Lee Duncan taught him to create that appearance?

Indeed, while Jack Russell Terriers are a breed of overactors, German Shepherds carry a proud dramatic tradition. One of the first trailblazers and innovators in the field was Strongheart the Dog (born Etzel von Oeringen), Rin Tin Tin’s forerunner. Strongheart earned acclaim for his performance as the title character in the 1925 adaptation of Jack London’s White Fang, and was duly awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Furthermore, while certain other animal actors (who will remain unnamed) have attempted to make a monkey out of all of us, Orlean’s claims seems to have some factual basis. Though Rin Tin Tin’s claim to the Oscar has often been attributed to Tinseltown tall tales, Orlean, a longtime staff writer at the famously fact-checking  New Yorker, does not equivocate: “Rinty received the most votes for Best Actor.”

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. Email him at Forrest.Wickman@slate.com.