At 256 tons with a barrel of 111′ 7″, the “Paris Gun” hurled 38″ shells into the city from a range of 75 miles. If you were in Paris in 1918, you may never have heard of the German “super gun”. You’d have been well acquainted with the damage it caused. You never knew you were under attack until the explosion. The lucky ones were those who lived to see the 4’ deep, 10’-12’ wide crater.
Parisian children made little good luck charms, as “protection” from the Paris gun. They were tiny pairs of handmade dolls, joined together by scraps of yarn. They were said to provide protection for their owners, but only under certain circumstances. You couldn’t make or buy your own, they had to be presented to you. They also had to remain attached, or else the little dolls would lose their protective powers.
These little yarn dolls had names. They were Nénette and Rintintin.
Army Air Service Corporal Lee Duncan was in Paris at this time, with the 135th Aero Squadron. He was aware of the custom, possibly having been given such a talisman himself. In the wake of the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, Corporal Duncan was sent forward to the small village of Flirey, to check out it’s suitability for an airfield. The place was heavily damaged by shellfire, and Duncan came upon the shattered remains of a dog pound. Once, this kennel had provided Alsatians (German Shepherd Dogs) to the Imperial German Army. Now, the only dogs left alive were a starving mother and five nursing puppies, so young that their eyes were still closed.
Corporal Duncan cared for them, selling several once the puppies were weaned. He sold the mother to an officer and three puppies to fellow soldiers, keeping two for himself. Like those little yarn dolls that French children gave to American soldiers, Duncan felt these two puppies were his good luck charms. He called them Nanette and Rin Tin Tin.
Returning home after the war, Duncan placed the dogs with a police dog breeder and trainer in Long Island. Nanette contracted pneumonia and died, the breeder giving Duncan a female puppy, “Nanette II”, to replace her.
Etzel von Oeringen was born on October 1, 1917 in Germany, coming to America after the Great War and becoming a movie star in the ‘20s. Better known as “Strongheart”, Etzel was a German Shepherd Dog, whose appearance in silent films enormously increased the popularity of the breed.
A friend of silent film actor Eugene Pallete, Duncan became convinced that Rin Tin Tin could become the next canine film star. He later wrote, “I was so excited over the motion-picture idea that I found myself thinking of it night and day.”
Walking the dog on “Poverty Row”, 1920s slang for B movie studios, did the trick. Rin Tin Tin got his first film break in 1922, replacing a camera shy wolf in “The Man from Hell’s River”. His first starring role in the 1923 “Where the North begins”, is credited with saving Warner Brothers Studios from bankruptcy.
Between-the-scenes silent film “intertitles” were easily changed from one language to another, and Rin Tin Tin films enjoyed international distribution. In 1927, Berlin movie audiences voted him Most Popular Actor.
There’s a Hollywood legend that may or may not be true, that Rin Tin Tin received the most votes for Best Actor at the 1st Academy Awards in 1929. Wishing to appear oh-so serious and wanting a human actor, the Academy threw out the ballots. German actor Emil Jannings got Best Actor on the 2nd ballot.
Rin Tin Tin appeared in 27 feature length silent films, 4 “talkies”, and countless commercials and short films. Regular programming was interrupted to announce his passing on August 10, 1932, at the age of 13. An hour-long program about his life was broadcast the following day.
Suffering from the Great Depression like so many others, Duncan couldn’t afford a fancy funeral. By this time he couldn’t afford the house he lived in. Duncan sold the house and returned the body of his beloved German Shepherd to the country of his birth, where Rin Tin Tin was buried in the Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques, in the Parisian suburb of Asnières-sur-Seine.
Duncan continued breeding the line, careful to preserve the physical qualities and intelligence of the original, avoiding the less desirable traits that crept into other GSD bloodlines. Rin Tin Tin and Nanette II produced at least 48 puppies. Duncan may have been obsessive about it, at least according to Mrs. Duncan. When she filed for divorce, she named Rin Tin Tin as co-respondent.
Rin Tin Tin was awarded his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960. Lee Duncan passed away later that same year. At some point, Duncan had written a poem, a tribute to the companion animal who was no more. If you’ve ever loved a dog, I need not explain his final stanza.
“…A real unselfish love like yours, old pal,
Is something I shall never know again;
And I must always be a better man,
Because you loved me greatly, Rin Tin Tin”.