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Friday, November 9, 2007

Leader of the Pack (originally published 3/00)

During the Twenties, the heyday of silent movies, the lives of Hollywood movie stars were unimaginably glamorous. In a very real sense, they were the American equivalent of European royalty. They lived in sybaritic splendor, made possible by the enormous salaries they received from the studios, with whom they had exclusive contracts. They were waited on hand and foot, traveling in chauffeured limousines and dining on gourmet fare prepared by their personal chefs. Their equally glamorous love lives became the subject of nationwide press coverage, with adoring fans clamoring for every juicy detail.

This was no less true if the star in question walked on four legs and could occasionally be seen scratching at flea bites in public places. Every detail described above about the life of a silent film star applies to the remarkable career of canine star Rin-Tin-Tin. Discovered as a puppy in a war zone in France during the First World War and brought to Hollywood to be a star, this remarkable German shepherd quickly became Hollywood's hottest four-legged attraction. Warner Brothers signed Rinty to a contract in 1923 as a rival of Strongheart, the canine star of the moment. Not only did Rinty outperform Strongheart at the box office, in the end he gave the top human box office draws a run for their money as well.

Hollywood still has dog stars, of course. The redoubtable Moose, launched by his puckish portrayal of Eddie on "Frasier," seems to have secured a spot as the canine flavor of the month. Just recently he made the move to the big screen, sharing the title role in "My Dog Skip" with his son, Enzo. But no matter how glamorous Moose's life as a Hollywood star may be, you can bet that it isn't a patch on the royal treatment lavished on Rinty in his heyday. If you want to see what all the excitement was about, and why Rinty was affectionately known on the Warners lot as the "mortgage lifter," look for these titles on home video.

"Where the North Begins" (1923). Having been lost in the Alaskan wilderness as a puppy, Rinty has fallen in with a wolf pack and grown up as one of them. His domesticated instincts resurface when he takes up with a young fur trapper. Rinty saves the man's life and a friendship is born. This was the breakthrough role that made Rinty a full fledged star.

"The Lighthouse By the Sea" (1924). When Rinty and his owner, Albert, are rescued from a shipwreck by the lighthouse keeper's beautiful daughter, it is only natural that Albert falls in love with her. As a consequence, Rinty and Albert become entangled in a plot engineered by a group of bootleggers to put the lighthouse out of commission so that they can bring their illegal wares ashore under cover of darkness.

"The Night Cry" (1926). One of the quickest ways for a protagonist to gain our sympathy is by being falsely accused of a crime. In this Western melodrama, Rinty is blamed when sheep on nearby ranches are mysteriously killed. Western justice requires that the offending predator be put to death, but Rinty's owner hides him instead, giving the resourceful dog time to track down the real killer.

"Hills of Kentucky" (1927). As famine takes its toll in the Kentucky backwoods, families are forced to release their pet dogs to fend for themselves in the wilderness. A roving pack of wild dogs is the result. Rinty, naturally, emerges as the pack leader. Known as the "Grey Ghost" among the townsfolk, he becomes an outlaw with a price on his head. Needless to say, our hero actually has a heart of gold, which manifests itself in his affection for a little boy whose lame leg keeps him isolated and friendless.

Before you go out looking for these titles, I should point out that to the best of my knowledge they are presently available on video from only one source. Silent films in general are, after all, somewhat of a specialty item, and silent pictures with canine stars all the more so. Even so, thanks to the efforts of the fine folks at Grapevine Video ( we can still thrill to the exploits of Hollywood's all-time top dog.

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