The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Monday, September 09, 2013

A dog's life, or why bother?

This may or may not be of any importance to you or to anyone else in these trying times, but I do wonder why anyone would want to write a biography of Rin Tin Tin.  For those of you who know nothing of the history of American cinema, and I am sure such people must exist somewhere, Rin Tin Tin was the wonder dog who saved Warner Brothers studios back in the 1920’s. Movies featuring the heroic pooch saving the poor, the innocent, and the leading lady from Indians, outlaws, lecherous bankers and other assorted riff-raff were absolute box office gold during the Jazz Age.  Rin Tin Tin was so popular that in 1927 he got the most votes for Best Actor in the balloting for the first Academy Awards, a result the Academy disavowed because they feared no one would take the award seriously if a dog won it. The Academy polled its membership again, this time stipulating that the members could not vote for Rin Tin Tin, no matter how much money the mutt made, and so it came to pass that the German actor Emil Jannings became the first recipient of the Best Actor Oscar, as well as the first winner not to show up to receive his Oscar, which, just to be historically accurate here, was not called Oscar at the time he won it.  Coming in second to a dog must have ground on Jannings’ sensibilities no end, as did knowing that Rin Tin Tin was even more popular in Berlin than he was. Jannings returned to Germany soon after scoring an undisputed second place win, another victim of the sound revolution in films. Neither Jannings nor Rin Tin Tin spoke English very well, but the American public was more willing to overlook the lack of adequate English language skills in a German Shepherd than they were in a German, so Jannings went home to Germany to star in Nazi propaganda films and Rin Tin Tin went back to making money for the Warner Brothers.

All of which is very interesting, of course, but it still does not explain why anyone would write a biography of a dog. A dog’s life, even a dog as celebrated as Rin Tin Tin, is not particularly interesting, and yes, I can hear all of you dog lovers sharpening your knives out there.  Allow me to ask a question: did Rin Tin Tin even know he was a movie star?  Of course he didn’t—he was a dog, remember?  Whether the dog in question is Rin Tin Tin or Ace the Incredible Wonder Dog or that yipping little mutt next door that pisses in my mother’s geraniums every day, they are still dogs. A dog’s life is easy to understand: you eat, you sleep, you evacuate your bowels, you smell other dogs’ backsides, and on occasion your owner shows you how to do something, and if you do it right, you get a treat. Except for that bit about smelling each other backsides, there’s not much difference between Rin Tin Tin and your average Democratic voter. A dog’s life is not an unhappy one, all told, because it’s just the same old same old every day, which might get monotonous for you and me but doesn’t seem to bother dogs one iota.  

Given the monotony of such an existence, why would you want to read a dog’s biography?  If you are interested in Hollywood history and the scandal that often attaches itself to that history, there’s nothing to beat Flipper’s biography, not by a long shot. The dissolute dolphin was apparently an accomplished orgiast and probably a rapist as well, a common trait amongst his species, apparently, and reading about the lengths the studios were prepared to go to in order to cover up the craven cetacean’s wallowing in the moral gutter at Hollywood and Vine does make you marvel at the extent people will collaborate with squalor if they think they can make a profit from it.  Or you could read the biography of Seabiscuit, the darling of the 1930’s racing world, which is such a story of moral uplift and triumph against long odds that it will bring tears to your eyes and you will want to read the book to your children so that they might profit from the great horse’s example. But Rin Tin Tin? Or any other dog? Frankly, I would prefer to read Flipper’s confessions that he scored with his human co-stars than know that Rin Tin Tin barked on cue on Tuesday, August 6th, 1929, and I think everyone else will probably feel the same way. I could be wrong about that, of course; there’s lots of dog lovers out there, you know.

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