Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Rin Tin Tin - The Life and The Legend

By Susan Orlean

What makes a legend?  That question is the subtext of Susan Orlean’s new book Rin Tin Tin – The Life and The Legend.  Legends and myths both require good stories that get better with each telling; but what differentiates a legend is that it is based in fact.  Rin Tin Tin, the orphaned German shepherd puppy rescued from a World War I battlefield who then went on to become a movie star, is a perfect example of a legendary hero.  He was famous in his day and his fame lived on long after his death.  The legend was beginning fade away with the Baby Boom generation and might have disappeared completely had the dog not caught Orlean’s fancy.  In the abstract, this biography of the famous dog is a study of how legends come to be, but it is even more interesting than that.  What happened to Orlean while she was writing the book is that she became part of the legend herself in a way that respects and even enhances the story of Rin Tin Tin, adding yet another dimension to the life of one of Hollywood’s most enduring stars.

Rin Tin Tin, the dog, was a purebred German shepherd whose intelligence and talents were obsessively documented by his owner, Lee Duncan.   However, the “Rin Tin Tin” of television and movie fame was a larger-than-life hero played by not one but by many dogs and who was the subject of fanciful press releases.  Rin Tin Tin is as a much a story of the dog as it is of his owner, his agent, and a handful of other true believers.   Duncan, was an odd young man who had been scarred by a sad and lonely childhood in Los Angeles, California, and never quite learned the social skills necessary to form meaningful human relationships.  Rinty and his littermate, Nanette, gave Duncan a sense of belonging and connection which he did not have with people.  When the war ended, he could not face leaving the dogs behind, so he waged an intense lobbying campaign up and down the military chain of command which ultimately succeeded.  Nanette did not survive the trans-Atlantic crossing, but Rinty did and returned with Duncan to California. The horrors of war had taken a toll on Duncan, who retreated into his own private world with Rinty and Nanette II (also a German Shepherd).  Instead of finding a girl and settling down to family life, Duncan lived in his parents’ home and spent hours every day training the dogs.  Duncan was convinced that Rinty was a genius among canines and set out to prove it.

During the 1920s and ‘30s silent films created legends out of actresses and actors, and Lee Duncan decided that Rinty belonged in the Hollywood pantheon of movie stars.  He created screenplays with the majestic dog as the leading man and, surprisingly after knocking on hundreds of doors, Rinty got a break playing a wolf in the 1922 film, “The Man From Hell’s River”.  Rin Tin Tin starred in more than 20 films across ten years of working and was such a superstar that his name appeared before his human co-stars’ on movie billings.  Perhaps it was because Rinty never came across as phony or overly dramatic.  He was a dog being a dog, on screen and off.  Actors and actresses, on the other hand, had to use outsized gestures and extreme facial expressions in order to communicate without words.  This plus the dichotomy between their real lives and their on-screen personae also made them less appealing than the always faithful, always constant canine.

In the course of researching Rin Tin Tin, Susan Orlean traveled to the French battlefield where Rinty was born, hoping for some kind of epiphany about the dog’s life.  What she came to understand, instead, was that she was losing her ability to be objective about  Rin Tin Tin:  he had stopped being a dog and had become the object of her obsession.  This is the point at which an undisciplined writer becomes irrevocably bogged down.   Another trap that Orlean narrowly avoided was making the book about herself even though she wrote herself into the book by necessity.   Obsessiveness characterized almost everyone in Rinty’s inner circle.  This ability to inspire a passionate following seems to be another hallmark of a legend, and with Orlean, Rinty had one more true believer to keep his story alive.

The story of the legendary dog is also that of Hollywood and the ever-evolving entertainment business.  Before Hollywood became associated with film making, it was largely undeveloped, with a smattering of ranches and orange groves.  By the end of the 1930s, it was a bustling part of Los Angeles, a Mecca for aspiring movie stars, directors, and producers.  The original Rin Tin Tin lived 13 years, but Lee Duncan kept him alive by continually promoting the dog’s pedigreed offspring with limited success.  The canine hero was reincarnated in the 1950s by ABC in “Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” starring Jim Brown and Lee Acker alongside Rin Tin Tin IV (or reasonable facsimile thereof).  The show ran for four years and Duncan, nearing the end of his life, was only marginally involved.  He would have been shut out altogether had it not been for Bert Leonard, an executive with Columbia Pictures whose story is inextricably linked with Duncan’s.  Orlean’s discovery of Leonard’s involvement with Duncan and Rinty is a fine example of investigative journalism.  She had heard the name, Bert Leonard, but had been unable to learn much about him until reading his obituary.  This piece of luck led her to a treasure trove of documents about Rin Tin Tin, “Rin Tin Tin”, Lee Duncan, and others, including plaintiffs and defendants in the tangle of litigation which left Leonard penniless and homeless while he slowly died from cancer. 

According to legend, the original Rinty could clear an 11 foot hurdle and follow Duncan’s complicated voice commands.  Sadly, most of his silent films are lost forever because no one thought to preserve them.  What we know of these films  is what can be pieced together from existing historical records.  As talented as the original Rin Tin Tin was, his progeny were not the stuff of legends, however, and so a number of stand-ins played the part of “Rin Tin Tin” while Lee Duncan, took Rin Tin Tin’s offspring on publicity tours and visits to schools and orphanages.  It was Leonard’s job to work the studio deals and find the sponsors.  He was a man of vision and enthusiasm who was never able to hang onto success due to numerous character weaknesses.  Leonard could easily have taken advantage of Duncan, but protected him and his interest in the Hollywood phenomenon instead, probably to his own detriment. 

After Lee Duncan’s death, ownership of the rights to “Rin Tin Tin” as well as the pedigreed progeny and fan club became the objects of lengthy and expensive lawsuits.  Lee Duncan famously said, “There will always be a Rin Tin Tin.”  Susan Orlean, in writing this book has rekindled interest in “the greatest dog ever”.  If Rin Tin Tin the book is made into a movie, there is an excellent chance that the many-headed litigation monster will reawaken, and the legend will become a myth.

Copyright 2012, Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved

Monday, January 2, 2012

Misquoting Jesus

by Bart D. Ehrman

There isn’t much I remember from junior high school, but one lesson has stayed with me.  In a rare moment of inspiration my Social Studies teacher, Mr. Fox, led the class in an experiment.  First, he sat us all in a circle on the floor.  Then he took one student aside, showed her a short message written on a piece of paper, and told her to whisper it into the ear of the student to her left.  The message travelled around the circle until it arrived at our teacher.  What started as “Tell your mother to go to the store and buy apples, potatoes, and bread” ended up as “Go to Giant and get breakfast”.  This exercise taught us about how messages change with repetition and over time.  Misquoting Jesus is an exploration of this phenomenon with profound implications for the most frequently cited book in the world.

The Bible, including the New and Old Testaments, is the sacred book of Christianity.  Many Christians devote countless hours to Bible study, seeking to understand the Word of God, and quote from their personal copy  as if it were the definitive version.   The Bible as we know it today, however, is quite different from the original texts on which it is based.  Approximately 3,500 years ago, according to tradition, Moses climbed to the summit of Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments -- the Word of God -- chiseled into a large stone tablet.  Archaeologists and historians have concluded that an ancient form of Hebrew is the original language used to record the commandments;  but we cannot know this for certain because the stone tablets no longer exist, if in fact they ever did.

We tend to think of The Bible as a single book, and few of us question its authenticity.  In a court of law, we swear on a Bible to tell the truth, even if we are not Christians.  That it is the single most important written document in western world, possibly the whole world, is a fact that few of us challenge.  And yet, most of us have no idea who wrote it down and when.  In his introduction to Misquoting Jesus author Bart D. Ehrman, a distinguished professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, describes himself as having been a “born again” Christian in his youth who enrolled in Moody Bible Institute after high school in order to give himself over completely to his faith.  At the Moody Bible Institute, Ehrman (like his professors and fellow students) had to sign a contract agreeing that “The Bible is the inerrant word of God.  It contains no mistakes.”  For a long time, Ehrman accepted this as an article of faith until he learned that no original texts for the Old and New Testaments exist and that the oldest known texts were copies (even copies of copies of copies…) made long after the originals were penned onto parchment. 

Dr. Ehrman’s classmates at Moody were not the least bothered by the lack of source documents, but it was a problem he couldn’t rationalize away.  So, Ehrman embarked on a quest to find the sources of the Christian Bible.  Before Moses, people believed in a multitude of gods and performed various rituals and sacrifices in order to win their favor (or avoid disfavor).   Moses and his Ten Commandments changed everything and the first five books of The Bible describe how that came about.   The Hebrew Bible, which was completed hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth, includes the “Pentateuch” (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) which describes God’s evolving relationship and covenants with the Hebrew people, histories of Israel and Judah, and scriptures which were poems and writings by David, King Solomon, and others.  In addition, the Jewish Bible and some Christian Bibles often include a set of books not considered the Word of God, but important writings nonetheless, called “The Apocrypha”. 

It is in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah that the idea of redemption appears.  The first 39 chapters of Isaiah promise doom for any nation which opposes God.  The remaining chapters discuss a Messiah, or redeemer, who would unite the tribes of Israel into a glorious new nation of Godly people.  Christianity as a religion separate from Judaism arose when an extraordinary young man began teaching a way of life and spirituality which eschewed wealth and power in favor of humility, charity, and forgiveness.  Jesus of Nazareth apparently was precocious and charismatic and began attracting attention even as a child.  At the time, the Jews had been waiting for hundreds of years for their messiah and when Jesus began his ministry, some believed that he was The One. 

The Christian Bible began with a reinterpretation of the Old Testament in order to herald the coming of Jesus the savior.  Sometime after Jesus’ death, historians and early Christians began writing about the life, teachings, and crucifixion of Jesus.  By 150 AD, the twenty-seven books which include the Gospels, Acts and Letters of the Apostles, and Revelation had been completed, according to historical records.  In the days before the printing press, copies were made by scribes who often worked off copies which were circulated and further copied.  It is in this way that errors began appearing and multiplying.  Over time, the original parchments were lost or destroyed leaving no way to determine the veracity of texts which still exist.  For someone who had signed a statement that The Bible was the Word of God with no mistakes, this knowledge was a serious problem. 

Finding answers required Ehrman to read ancient manuscripts in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew which meant learning those languages first.  He enrolled at Wheaton College, a highly-regarded evangelical college where he majored in English Literature while studying Greek under the mentorship of Dr. Gerald Hawthorne.  Dr. Hawthorne, himself an evangelical Christian, was not afraid to question his faith and helped Ehrman to understand that pursuing the truth ,and being open to revising one’s beliefs based on knowledge attained through this pursuit , was a way of deepening his connection with God. 

The deeper Ehrman went into his study of ancient manuscripts the more he came to sense how much has been lost not only in transcription but also in translation.  Reading the oldest available versions of the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek gave him a completely different understanding of the Word of God.  In his introduction he asks “If the full meaning of the words of scripture can be grasped only by studying them in Greek (and Hebrew), doesn’t this mean that most Christians, who don’t read ancient languages, will never have complete access to what God wants them to know?” 

Misquoting Jesus makes a compelling case that what we take for granted as the Word of God, is far removed from its origins.  The examples Dr. Ehrman uses to make his case help us understand that The Bible as we think of it was never intended to be a single volume.  It contains books of history, literature, philosophy, law, and religion which were written long ago, and compiled, translated, transcribed, edited, and reinterpreted to serve a variety of purposes.  In short, it is a human creation possibly based on divine inspiration.

So where does that leave The Bible as the sacred book of Christianity?  Dr. Ehrman makes the point that to read the Bible is to change it, in that we interpret the words and phrases based on our unique life experiences and spiritual beliefs.  Some scribes changed manuscripts accidentally, and others deliberately.  Some deliberate changes reflected an individual scribe’s interpretation, and others were  revisions demanded by church officials.  Dr. Ehrman, who went on to study at Princeton University where he earned a master’s and doctorate in Divinity, clearly feels more connected to God now, having questioned the authenticity of The Bible and learned its story, than he did when adhering blindly to his faith.

At 180 pages, Misquoting Jesus is neither tedious nor ponderous.  It is a very thoughtful discussion of the history of the Bible and how all too often it is used to promote a political or philosophical agenda.  It would be fascinating to hear Jesus weigh in on this topic, and to find out what he thinks about how we treat each other.  If he were to reappear unannounced, I wonder if anyone would recognize him. 

Copyright 2011, Teresa Friedlander all rights reserved