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Whatever happened to our Black & White Canine Heroes?

The legendary dogs Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, Ol’ Yeller, Petey of the television show “Our Gang” taught many people over the age 45 how to connect with the creatures around us, including our pets, in a mutually beneficial relationship. These dogs helped form the foundation of our relationships to animals today by showing what we had in common with them; a reflection of American ideals of loyality and justice.

Many pet owners today are unaware of the legacy of Rin-Tin Tin, and the real story behind the twenty-six movies and the television shows on ABC between1954 and 1959. The original Rin Tin Tin was merely a puppy of 5 days-old when a corporal Lee Duncan found him, his mother, and his sister in a bombed out war kennel in France. Duncan named the pups Rin Tin Tin and Nenette after 2 French puppets, and the mother and the remainder of the litter were returned to camp. Unfortunately, only Rin Tin Tin survived the trip back to America with Duncan. But luckily he was spotted by a camera man testing his camera, who watched Rin Tin Tin jump an amazing 11″9′ at a dog show with Duncan. It was then that the star was born.

Duncan knew Rin Tin Tin’s future was in films and continued to tour and promote the dog. Dog and owner then happened upon the set of “Man from Hell’s River”, where the film crew was attempting to film a wolf without success. Duncan convinced the director that Rin Tin Tin could perform the task assigned in a single shot, which he did, and Rin Tin Tin captured America’s heart in a hugely successful film. That film helped rescue the film company, Warner Brothers, from the brink of bankruptcy.

The bloodline of Rin Tin Tin continued through World War 2, when Duncan convinced the US Army to create a military training camp for dogs. Duncan and Rin Tin Tin’s grandson Rin Tin Tin III trained some 5,000 army dogs and handlers, and Rin Tin Tin was an official soldier for the US Army, complete with a tattoo on his leg.

The television show, which the over 45 crowd remembers well, “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” then followed, which included Rin Tin Tin IV and 2 other dogs named “Hey you” and JR.

The bloodline of Rin Tin Tin is now carefully maintained by Miss Daphne Hereford of Texas, considered a “closed program” for the breed of German Shepherds and still directly related to the original Rin Tin Tin found in the suburbs of Paris in World War I.

Many of the generation of the 1940’s considered Rin Tin Tin to embody traits of American ideals.

“Rin Tin Tin was the kind of dog you wanted to have”, said a 5o year old dog owner who watched the TV show. “He was an army dog that followed orders and always came through for you, no matter what.”

American ethics born of a war-torn world characterized many an episode of the television show and the movies about Rin Tin Tin, including discipline, courage, equality, bravery, loyalty, freedom for all and patriotism. For many of us, Rin Tin Tin was the first introduction to something that could become a family pet. Rin Tin Tin truly embodied the ideal dog and our reliance on our pets for their unquestionable character and loyalty.

“Petey” of the movies and television show “Our Gang”, was filmed in over 77 movies of “The Little Rascals”, and as the star of Buster Brown’s dog “Tige”, the “dog-with-the-ring-around-his-eye.” Petey helped the kids from Our Gang succeed in all their comic capers, constantly providing willing help and a humorous winking eye while the characters played jokes on each other. Often escaping the perils of playing hooky or some other predicament unscathed, Petey always provided a permanent, loyal and unconditional friend in all of “Our Gang’s” pursuits.

Petey was truly born with a ring three quarters the way around his eye, which then Hollywood make-up artist Max Factor artistically embellished with hair dye to form a complete circle. Some 10 different dogs are thought to have played the role of Petey starting in 1929 with the signing of a 3-year contract with Hal Roach Studios for $125 a week.

The “line” of Petey’s were basically Staffordshire Terriers, one of which, “Pal”, was AKC Registered.

The 1957 film “Ol’ Yeller” was based on a novel published only a year earlier by Fred Gipson. The title is taken from the name of the fictional Mountain Cur dog who is a main character in the book. The book won the Newbery Honor in 1956. In 1957, Disney released a film adaptation of Old Yeller starring Fess Parker and Dorothy McGuire. The character “Old Yeller” was cast thereafter from 1960-1962 in NBC’s The Outlaws” series.

The Coates family, the main characters of the film besides Ol’ Yeller, consists of the father, mother older son Travis, and younger son Arliss who are settlers in Texas at Salt Licks near Abilene. The father is away on a cattle drive when an “old yeller dog” visits the family uninvited. Travis tries to shoo the dog away, but Arliss immediately takes to it.

Their mother interferes, reasoning that the family could “use a good dog.” Though Travis initially loaths the “rascal”, as he refers to the dog, and tries to get rid of it, Old Yeller eventually proves his worth, saving Travis, Little Arliss and the family on several occasions. Travis grows to love Old Yeller.

The rightful owner of Yeller shows up looking for his dog. And after Arliss throws a fit, the owner recognizes that the family needs and has become attached to Old Yeller, and trades him to Arliss for a home-cooked meal and a horned toad, which he later releases in front of Travis before riding off.

The book ends when Yeller develops rabies after being bitten defending the family from a rabid wolf. To protect his family, Travis tearfully shoots Old Yeller. Talk about a tear jerker!

Old Yeller shows us traditional family values, our interdependence on each other and the development of our pets as a true family member. “Old Yeller” helped introduce the family pet as a irresistibly loveable companion and family member, deserving of only kindness and the best of care.

Finally there is beloved, “Lassie”, perhaps the most familiar of these canine heroes to pet owners today. The fictional collie dog character and stage name for some 14 different dogs, was created by Eruc Knight in a short story expanded to a novel length in “Lassie, Come Home.” The novel was published in 1940 and filmed by MGM in 1943 with a dog named Pal playing Lassie. Six other films of Lassie ensued and Pal’s owner and trainer Rudd Weathermax acquired the Lassie name and trademark from MGM.

With such a powerful name, Lassie was shown at rodeos, fairs and similar events across America during the early 1950’s. In 1954, an Emmy winning television series “Lassie” debuted and ran until 1973.

In the original film “Lassie, Come Home”, Lassie somehow found her way from Ireland to Britain, all in search of her beloved family, and many children of the time identified well with the character.

“Lassie was like me”, said one Edith Kiggen of Manhattan perhaps speaking for many of us when she said, “she got lost and had to find her way home and was always on adventures.”

The television show, however, envisioned Lassie as an inhabitant of the classic weatherbeaten farm in the American Midwest, coupling the dog with the family boys, and then for its following seasons with the juvenile inmates of a home for troubled children. Two Emmy awards were received for this series, and both Lassie and Rin Tin Tin leave a Hollywood Star on the legendary “Hollywood Walk of Fame”, right along with Marilyn Monroe.

Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Old Yeller and Petey were true friends every way, often times when misunderstanding parents, schoolteachers and unforgiving conditions caused true loneliness and a need for a friend. These canine heroes will forever remind us of why we relate to animals on an emotional and dependent basis. In fact, we’d like to be just like them.


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