Tuesday, 17 March 2015

And the Oscar Goes to... Rin Tin Tin!?

Did you know that a dog almost won the first ever Academy Award for Best Actor?

In 1918, following a victory in the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, an American aerial gunner named Lee Duncan was sent to the small French village of Flirey to ascertain whether it would make a suitable flying field for his unit. There, he found a severely damaged kennel which had once supplied the Imperial German Army with German Shepherd dogs. The only dogs left alive in the kennel were a starving mother with a litter of five newborn puppies. Duncan rescued the dogs and brought them back to his unit. When the puppies were weaned, he gave the mother to an officer, three of the litter to other officers and kept two for himself, naming one of them Rin Tin Tin, after a lucky charm that French children often gave to the American soldiers.

Lee Duncan and Rin Tin Tin during WWI
When Duncan returned home to California after the Armistice of May 1919, he began training Rin Tin Tin to do tricks for hours on end every day, even filming him from time to time using a type of slow-motion camera. In 1921, following a highly profitable appearance of a German Shepherd called Strongheart in the film The Silent Call, Hollywood was desperately looking for new canine stars. Convinced that Rin Tin Tin could be the next Strongheart, Duncan walked the dog up and down Poverty Row, talking to anyone in a position to put his «Rinty» in a film, however modest the role. After a couple of small parts, Rin Tin Tin finally got his big break when Warner Bros. cast him opposite Claire Adams in the film Where the North Begins (1923), based on a story written by Duncan himself. The film was a huge success and made Rin Tin Tin a star. Critics praised his ability to hold the attention of the audience, his «splendid eyes and ears» and his nobility and sense of loyalty.

Rin Tin Tin's popularity continued for 24 more films and it even inspired other studios to create their own dog stars (like RKO did with Ace the Wonder Dog, for example). In August 1932, just a few weeks before turning 14, Rinty died in the arms of Jean Harlow, who lived across the street and allegedly came over and craddled his head on her lap as he died. Harlow, as well as Greta Garbo and food industrialist W. K. Kellog, each owned one of Rin Tin Tin's descendants.

According to Hollywood legend, Rin Tin Tin received the most votes for Best Actor at the first Academy Awards competition in 1929. However, the Academy wished to establish the awards as a serious and important event, and determined that the statuette should be given to a human actor instead. Rin Tin Tin was then removed from the ballot, the votes were cast once more and the award was eventually given to the German actor Emil Jannings for his performances in both Victor Fleming's The Way of All Flesh (1927) and Joseph von Sternberg's The Last Command (1928), the only year that acting Oscars were awarded for multiple films.



  1. I absolutely love Rin Tin Tin's story and you told it splendidly! I actually haven't seen any of his films but I really, really want to (I only recently started to conquer silent films- they've been a huge crutch for me for a long time). Wonderful piece, Cátia :)

    1. Thank you so much. I'm glad you enjoyed it. :)
      I haven't seen any of Rin Tin Tin's films either (or any other silent film, actually), but I love his story too.