The most soulful actor of the silent film era was a German…Shepherd

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A Movietone News film of 1932 featured four scenes, relatively equal in length: 1) Herbert Hoover, in white pants, pledging reconstruction as he accepted the Republican nomination; 2) Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia looking dissolute, smoking a cigarette, and attributing world-wide unemployment to the Treaty of Versailles; 3) Franklin Delano Roosevelt conferring with his running mate, John Garner; 4) footage of canine star Rin-Tin-Tin performing at an orphanage as a voice-over announced the famed actor’s death. Rin-Tin-Tin, of course, was not a politician or royalty. He was a dog.

Born in France, Rin-Tin-Tin was a relatively small German Shepherd. He had expressive dark eyes that mesmerized audiences, making them even more willing to believe that he understood and was involved in his movies’ human stories. Rin-Tin-Tin played the lead in almost all his movies. Critics commented on his ability to compete with human stars. He acted in twenty-eight full-length movies, several shorts, and two twelve-episode serials.

A personal favorite: The Night Cry (1926), in which Rin-Tin-Tin is falsely accused of being a sheep killer (though he does not know that). He limps home after a fall from a cliff, opens the door of his family’s cabin by releasing the latch with his teeth, slinks in, and shuts the door after himself. The family – father, mother, and baby girl – are seated at the dinner table. Expecting the usual love and recognition, Rin-Tin-Tin  goes first to the husband (John Harron), who ignores him. He rears up and puts his paws on Harron’s body in supplication, but it is as if he – Rin-Tin-Tin – doesn’t exist. The wife (June Marlowe), seemingly more conflicted but resolute, also refuses to recognize his presence. With his chin and paws on the table, Rin-Tin-Tin looks piteously from under his eyebrows to the man and then the woman for acknowledgment, but again he receives no response. The baby (Mary Louise Miller) alone seems to know he is there. She pats his head, giving him some relief from his anxiety. It is heart-wrenching.

Critics have noted the power of this scene. Nearly forty years after it was filmed, George N. Fenin and William K. Everson wrote in The Western: From Silents to Cinerama: “All of the later Rin-Tin-Tin films had at least one situation in which he had to emote, to rely entirely on facial expressions. In The Night Cry in a single take, [he] expresses hope, grief, tolerance, and finally joy, when at least one friend is found in the person of the couple’s baby.”

Watching the same scene, my friends and I expressed similar reactions, as we let loose with a spontaneous empathetic “Oohhh” at Rin-Tin-Tin’s bewilderment and sorrow. However, at a later screening, Jt Clough, a dog trainer, pointed out to me that a plate of food out of camera range could well have elicited the same look of anguish and puzzled sadness from Rin-Tin-Tin. This is, of course, conjecture, but any dog owner will instantly recognize its possibility, once reminded. The eyes of a dog begging at the table look yearningly intelligent and deep. That look of supplication can crack the most resolute of us, if we are not on our guard.

While watching the scene again, alone, in a more analytical mood, I noticed for the first time that Rin-Tin-Tin licks his lips at least twice, which would indicate that a plate of food indeed might have been present. Also he looks toward the camera for direction before appealing to the child, then drops to the floor – it is clear he has heard a command. (Fenin and Everson note, correctly, that in his later films, he did not to seem to be obviously reacting to cues.) Moreover, the only expressions I saw on Rin-Tin-Tin’s face in that scene were supplication, hope and joy, not the grief and tolerance Fenin and Everson did.

For further verification of the plate-of-food theory, try setting up a plate-of-food scene with your own dog – if she begs at the table, that is. Is there not a hard-to-resist appeal from her as you ignore her supplications, and is there not joy on her face when you do give in?

Obviously, film made it possible to put dogs in sustained starring roles because of the short takes and off-camera cues from his owner/trainer, Lee Duncan, and inducements (like that plate of food) that had little to do with the supposed onscreen emotions of the actors. When we watch a movie, we tend to forget what happens out of range of the camera and how the movie is put together from separately filmed scenes. So the plate of steak can be placed out of camera range, the scene filmed, the steak eaten, and all the audience sees is a soulful Rin-Tin-Tin in apparent despair. A January 1925  Los Angeles Times article suggested that when Rin-Tin-Tin snarled and leaped to the attack on screen, the off-camera stimulus might have been something other than a villain:  “those marvelously intelligent expressions that the dear old ladies love to remark on the face of Rin-Tin-Tin are brought forth by the sight of – a stuffed cat? Some time the dog is going to find out that the cat is dead and then he will probably stop acting.”

This post is an excerpt from the book from Ann Elwood’s book Rin-Tin-Tin: The Movie Star.


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