Susan Orlean's "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend" is the story of the iconic canine screen star, whose story began on the killing fields of World War I. Orlean will discuss her book Oct. 28 at the SIFF Cinema (Uptown Theater) on Queen Anne.

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‘Rin Tin Tin: The Life

and the Legend’

by Susan Orlean

Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., $26.99

A staff writer for “The New Yorker” magazine since 1992, Susan Orlean is the author of many excellent books including “The Orchid Thief,” which was made into the award-winning film “Adaptation.” It seems probable her new work, “Rin Tin Tin,” which was almost 10 years in the writing, will prompt another movie. The story of Lee Duncan and the German shepherd pup he rescued during World War I is exactly the sort of boy-and-his-dog saga that made Rinty a film and TV star.

Duncan was born in 1893. His father abandoned him, his sister and their mother, Elizabeth, five years later. “Uneducated, unskilled, and on her own with two young children, estranged from her parents and unaided by other relatives,” Elizabeth left the children at an Oakland, Calif., orphanage in 1898. A national financial panic had led to a depression and Elizabeth was unable to put her family back together until 1901, when they moved to Burbank.

A loner after that, Duncan joined the war effort in 1917 as an artillery mechanic. His unit ended up in France. One day, looking for battlefield mementos, he happened upon a kennel used by Germans for their canine corps. Whimpering drew him to a shepherd hiding with five puppies. He kept two, naming them Nanette and Rin Tin Tin after a pair of doll souvenirs popular with soldiers.

When the war ended in 1919, Duncan found passage for the dogs with him on a troop ship. Nanette died in New York, but Duncan took Rinty to California. There, a couple of lucky breaks changed their lives. By chance, Rinty was filmed jumping an almost 12-foot obstacle at a Los Angeles dog show, and an article in the magazine “Physical Culture” gave Duncan the idea of making money from his hobby, his dog. He decided to write a screenplay for Rinty just as footage of the dog’s amazing leap was being widely shown in newsreels. Duncan and his now-famous dog headed for Hollywood.

Orlean chronicles the pair’s years in silent films. For dog lovers and film historians, the details of these instant hits in which “Rinty always prevailed” will be interesting. The original Rin Tin Tin died in 1932, but his puppies carried on his name as well as his career in radio, then talkies, and after World War II, television and reruns. Throughout, the dog’s starring role always overshadowed his owner, who wanted it that way.

But Duncan long dreamed of filming their true story, their abandonment, their chance encounter, their success. Through two marriages and the birth of a daughter, nothing possessed Duncan’s passions as strongly as his dog.

Inevitably, despite Rinty’s longevity, times and tastes changed. Westerns and wonder dogs slipped in the ratings. German shepherds fell out of favor. Science fiction and special effects flourished. HBO, Showtime, videos and other media competed for our time. Whether or not Orlean’s book results in the movie Duncan never managed to make, it does much to revive the legend of Rin Tin Tin.

Former Seattleite Irene Wanner writes and lives in New Mexico.