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.

This is my first entry in For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon. Fellow bloggers, join in! Give generously here — this is a fund-raiser. And follow the action here and here.

More Treasures from American Film Archives 1894-1931

29 Responses to “The Valentine’s Day Intertitle”

  1. Great piece, Arthur!

  2. Off-topic but on-target vis-a-vis the cross-blog salute A Midwinter Nitrate Dream

  3. Indeed quite teriffic, Arthur!

  4. Lovely! There’s going to be some fine reading afoot with this blogathon thingy. Look forward to seeing what we all come up with.

  5. I just watched on youtube a Czech television spot on the special effects of Karel Zeman (filmed before he died in the 70’s) and it shows him cutting celluloid in order to get horses to hurdle over a similar void from one cliff to another. I don’t know if I’ll ever be anxious again.

    On a related note, there’s something very off about films with a dog in the lead role. While we like them best of all animals, somehow seeing the story all about them is just relinquishing too much of our power. We’re not totally in the story, because we don’t want be threatened by the prospect of becoming their sidekicks. This is why it makes sense a pig as a main character, or a frog, or a goat is more narratively engaging due to its far-fetched-ness. Dogs, “man’s best friend”s, are ironically much better villains.

  6. Rin Tin Tin he ain’t!

  7. White Dog actually has strong plot elements in common with Clash of the Wolves, since RTT starts out feral and outlawed, and must be domesticated by the hero. But of course it lacks Fuller’s crazy socio-political surtext, which makes all the difference.

    I quite like Lady and the Tramp, so I don’t see any insuperable problem in placing a dog front and centre. It’s probably tougher in a talkie where the humans have an edge over the dog, since they can express their emotions verbally — I’ve never seen a talking picture work with a dog in the lead role unless the dog also spoke.

    It’s certainly true that slightly more unfamiliar or unexpected animals seem to add edge to an animal story, as in Ratatouille etc. Dogs are maybe just too everyday. But the solution would be to come up with a bizarre new angle.

  8. Brilliantly written, David, and a very worthy topic. Thanks, and I look forward to the rest of your output!

  9. Thanks! I have a deadline looming on another writing project so I might not manage to contribute as much as I’d like, but some more pieces will emerge.

  10. Christopher Says:

    LOL!!!..Rinny leaping across the Gorge

  11. Terrific post, Mr. Cairns. Rinty is actually the subject of an unlikely but not uninteresting 2007 movie aimed at children, Finding Rin Tin Tin, which went straight to DVD in the United States. It follows his and Lee Duncan’s adventures in World War I before they came to Hollywood. For the later part of the story, you have to consult Hollywood Cavalcade (1939), loosely based on Darryl Zanuck’s recollections of the silent era, in which our hero is played by Rin Tin Tin Jr.

  12. Waitaminute, Rinty plays Zanuck? Now THAT I’d pay to see.

    RTT is fascinating partly because lots of people have heard of him without having seen any of his films (I know, I was one of them). He was in a class of actor along with William S Hart and Tom Mix for me, more famous than actually seen. I’m quite interested in seeing that kids’ film, and in seeing more of the original’s work. He was a screen natural!

  13. Joe McGrath’s Rinty

  14. It’s funny, I saw some Rinty films as a kid on TV – the local indy station was cheap and usually showed a lot of older films and serials, and they had silent and sound films that they lumped together in no particular order, with the Rintys and other doggie films showing quite often. I was kind of amazed not everyone had seen a Rin Tin Tin film, but I found out later how out of fashion they really were.

  15. I grew up watching the TV series

  16. Christopher Says:

    I used to watch that TV show..funny how an Intro like that can bring back a thousand memories..
    ….Joe Sawyer sure made the rounds in a long career..I’ve long wanted to be let loose in a Store for 5 mins to round up everything I could get my hands on..DVD shops theses days.My strategy?..stake out the store once or twice before the day of the event to learn just where all the good stuff is,so you don’t loose your head and go grabbing any old pig in a poke..

  17. Never managed to find a copy of Digby The Biggest Dog in the World, so this clip was very welcome. Even on YouTube the matte lines are glaring, but the effects are still quite charming.

    I’d like to be let loose in a DVD store for five minutes.

  18. I’m a HUMUNGOUS Joe McGarth fan. The Great McGonagall is his masterpiece ( It’s the Spike Milligan version of Wind From the East.)
    I’m also crazy about The Bliss of Mrs. Blosson and 30 is a Dangerous Age Cyntha

  19. Plus it’s always fun to try and figure out what McGrath directed in the 1967 Casino Royale (so much better than the recent remake I scarcely know where to begin.)

  20. Well, we know he directed Welles stuff, and Welles stuff that was supposed to feature Sellers, but Sellers stopped turning up and then got him fired. I think he did the bit with Sellers doing all those disguises, because he was dismayed that PS didn’t plan on doing any funny voices to go with the disguises.

    Welles recalled the moment McGrath was fired, and how when he walked out, another director (Robert Parrish?) walked in to replace him, having already been lined up for the job.

  21. Frustratingly I just can’t find copies of Blossom or Cynthia anywhere. He needs a retrospective while he’s still with us.

  22. By golly, you’re right. Rinty and Burt Lancaster, separated at birth. Thank you for a good post.

  23. This was charming and makes me determined to revisit Rinty–and Charlie Farrell…….

  24. Borzage’s films are the best (and almost the only) place to see Farrell. The River, Seventh Heaven, and Street Angel are absolutely divine works of romanticism. Somewhat lacking in canine acrobatics, perhaps, but Farrell and Borzage make up for that in other ways.

  25. Well I’ll be doggone. Just took a look at James Wolcott’s blog (he of Vanity Fair magazine) for the first time in a long time and what do I find? The mention of Rin Tin Tin and a link to this very post. You do get around Mr. Cairns (also mentioned were Ferdy and the Siren).

  26. Yes, I was pleased about that! Also, the Siren’s summary of the post on her blog was better than the post itself — “Why Rin Tin Tin is more like Burt Lancaster than Montgomery Clift.”

  27. […] Brothers and Monkey Business. David Cairns of the wonderful blog Shadowplay has a charming entry on Rin Tin Tin. Kendra Bean at the Leigh-Olivier specialty blog, Viv/Larry/Blog, reminds us again why we all love […]

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