The Valentine’s Day Intertitle
“Art titles by Victor Vance.”
Half dog! Half wolf! All man!
From CLASH OF THE WOLVES, a 1925 Rin-Tin-Tin feature generously included on the disc MORE TREASURES FROM AMERICAN FILM ARCHIVES 1894-1931. Nestled alongside eye-popping curios like GUS VISSER AND HIS SINGING DUCK (a movie which really lives up to its title) and the beauty of THE FLUTE OF KRISHNA, in which Martha Graham conducts her students in a faux-Indian ballet in glorious two-strip Kodachrome, the dog movie struck me as a particularly attractive item. I shall explain.
I knew little of cinema’s most famous Alsatian (apart from possibly William Wyler) Rin-Tin-Tin — besides that famous and possibly apocryphal story about screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, in a moment of drunken nihilism, deliberately getting himself fired by writing a scene in which Rin-Tin-Tin carries a baby INTO a burning building — until I read Sunnyside by Glen David Gold, which contains a sort of potted history of the Hollywood dog-flick. Gold’s evocation of RTT’s unparalleled gifts as a canine thespian had me positively ulcerating to see the hound in action.
The description in Sunnyside made me imagine a kind of Alsatian Monty Clift, soulful and sensitive, with large, expressive eyes. But the star Rin (his friends call him Rin) most resembles, I find, is Burt Lancaster. An athletic, vigorous performer (he runs up trees, leaps ravines, in locations pre-arranged to show off his precise physical reach, just as Doug Fairbanks had sets built to order measured around his leaping ability), Rin tends to rely on his charismatic grin to convey any and every emotion. He also pants a lot, something I can’t think of any other male star exploiting to this extent, apart from the young Woody Allen.
The many faces of Rin-Tin-Tin:
“I am not an animal!”
“Four score and seven years ago…”
Rin’s human co-star is Charles Farrell (a very remarkable fellow!), or Charlie Farlie, as Fiona calls him. The notably young and slender Chas, as young as the century itself, has one of his very first leading roles here (he played an uncredited bit part in Harold Lloyd’s THE FRESHMAN earlier in ’25), and would make the big time with SEVENTH HEAVEN in just a couple of years.
Director Noel Mason Smith, whatever the talents of his furry protagonist, is compelled to make sophisticated use of the Kuleshov Effect to bring us into the action: he shows Rin, he shows the posse on his trail, and then he shows Rin react, thus giving us unlimited access to the dog’s thought processes. Expanding on this, Smith does some decent work with his human players, using a series of ever-closer close shots on the bad guy when he first espies the dainty heroine, ending on a Leone-esque ECU of the swine’s rheumy eyes, no doubt brimming with lust and villainy. A shame this guy never made it out of B pictures, this is a rather classy, genuinely exciting, sometimes silly but always generous and good-hearted example of the breed.
What a great dog movie! Although I worry slightly about Rin’s stunt doubles, who leap or fall off cliffs and rooftops, are slung out of shot, and scamper about amid the hooves of rampaging horses. Are the Nevada deserts dotted with the unmarked graves of ersatz Rin-Tin-Tins? Something to keep the gangsters company, I guess.