Saturday With Shutter
Lee was born in Hanford, California on October 1, 1892. By all accounts he was a quiet child. “A student of observation”, one writer called him. Especially animals. And Hanford was sheep country. Nestled in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley the population at that time was barely 1,000 people. “It was”, they said, “but a short step from sheep-camp to village“. Where there are sheep there’s sure to be dogs. And above all else Lee loved dogs.
Much about these early days is now lost to time and Lee rarely spoke of it. But what we know for sure is that he and his family were abandoned by their father George in 1897. Not long after, and unable to care for them, Lee and his sister Marjorie were left in an Oakland, CA orphanage by their mother Elizabeth.
After five years, their mother returned for them having remarried, and took the two children to live with her and her new husband on a ranch. With no other children around with which to play besides his sister, Lee did what any other boy would have done. He got a dog.
Lee‘s early life was turbulent at best. From Hanford to Oakland. From family to orphan, one thing remained constant. Dogs. Lee loved the social interaction he found with dogs. He spent much of his youth learning to train them and he was good at it. He would never punish or teach a dog by striking them, “I train them with kindness” he would say, “never the whip”.
But if Lee’s youth was turbulent, then as an adult he would see a world on fire. World War I had been raging in Europe for nearly three years when on April 6, 1917 the US too joined the conflict. Lee, now in his mid 30’s, was working selling guns at the B.H. Dyas Co. sporting goods store in Los Angeles. Six months later on November 1, 1917 Lee joined the Army. After initial training he was assigned as an aerial gunner to the 135th Air Squadron.
At a time when the average age of a US soldier was 24 Lee was ten years or more senior to most of the men in his unit. Lee’s road to war began with a two week voyage by ship through German U-Boat infested waters. Arriving in early 1918 Lee became one of the first 300 soldiers from the 135th to enter the continent of Europe. During his time in France Lee would be wounded once for which he received the Purple Heart.
But it was following the Battle of Saint-Mihiel on September 12-15, 1918, Lee, who was a gunner on a De Havilland DH-4 biplane, that events would unfold that changed Lee’s life forever. Lee was sent forward on foot with others from his battalion after the Germans had retreated, to the small village of Flirey to see if it would make a suitable airfield.
The area had been heavily bombed by aircraft and shelled by artillery. In the ruins Lee and the men found a destroyed German kennel that supplied the enemy army with their Shepherd War Dogs. Lee had been much impressed with what he had seen of these dogs though he knew very little about them. While searching Lee and the other men discovered a half starved mother and her five nursing pups still alive among the collapsed kennels. They guessed the pups could not have been more than five days old as their eyes were not yet open.
The men took the mother and her pups back to camp and cared for them as best they could. Lee took a female he named Nannette and her brother. The German Kennel Master where the mother and her pups had been found survived the battle and was captured by the American Army. Lee went to see him many times to learn more about the breed and how to take care of them. Though the other pups and their mother they called Betty did not survive, Lee took it upon himself to personally care for Nannette and her brother.
The First World war came to an end on November 11, 1918. Nannette and her brother were now about 8 weeks old and like Lee, they too had so far survived the carnage where many others had not. Lee got special permission to take his wards back to America with him on the 15 day voyage by ship to New York.
Having defied the odds and survived so much, Nannette became ill on the voyage home and died before Lee could get her medical attention. Her brother however, the last survivor of a bombed out kennel continued to grow healthy and strong. Lee worked with him every day. Nannette’s brother he found to be very smart. He picked things up quickly and for a dog that had been breed for war, Nannette’s brother was amazingly kind and gentile. Was it the breed, or was it the dog? Lee wasn’t sure but he suspected probably both.
Lee took Nannette’s brother back home with him to Los Angeles where he continued to train him. In 1922 Nannette’s brother wowed a crowd at an unsanctioned Shepherd Dog Club of America event when he easily leapt over an 11 foot 9 inch fence.
But it wasn’t until a year later when Lee saw a film crew making a movie and trying unsuccessfully to shoot a scene with a wolf. Lee insisted that his dog, Nannette’s brother, could do it in one take. Though it took much persuading, and out of the film crews frustration, Nannette’s brother was finally given his chance to prove it. True to his word, Lee took Nannette’s brother through the scene where he did the trick in place of the wolf without error, and in a single take.
The next year, the big break came for Nannette’s brother. The crew had been so impressed with his intelligence and skill that he was cast in the 1923 Warner Brothers silent film “Man From Hells River”.
Movie goers all over the world fell in love with Nannette’s brother and by 1926 he was making more than $6,000 a week. More in fact than most human actors at the time and is credited with saving Warner Brothers whom at the time had been on the verge of bankruptcy.
Between 1922 and 1931 Nannette’s brother would star in more than 24 silent movies and serials. In 1929 he received more votes for the “Best Actor” Oscar than anyone. But the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts decided it would be best if a human should win this award least it not be taken seriously, and his name was dropped from the list of nominees.
After a brief but busy career Nannette’s brother died peacefully on August 10, 1932 in the front yard of his Los Angeles home at the ripe old age of 14. His body was placed in a bronze casket where he was later returned to France, the place of his birth, and buried in the Cimetiere des Chiens, a famous pet cemetery in the Paris suburb of Asnieres-sur-Seine.
But this is not a sad ending to the story it is a happy one. You see, the lineage of Nannette and her brother still survives today and is credited as the longest continuous blood line in the 112 year history of the German Shepherd breed.
It would be the great grand son of Nannette’s brother whom most of us know today. He starred in 5 seasons, 164 episodes of an award winning series for ABC Television as well as numerous other movies, TV shows, and commercials.
Lee is none other than Leland Leroy Duncan. Former orphan, sporting goods store clerk, army corporal, and now legendary dog trainer during the golden age of Hollywood. Never heard of him? That’s not really surprising.
But I’ll bet you know Nannette’s brother. Rescued from a bombed out dog kennel in northern France during one of the worlds worst conflicts, to Hollywood stardom five years later, Nannette’s brother is forever ingrained in the hearts and minds of dog lovers everywhere.
Fondly named after a metal toy that was given to American soldiers by French children for good luck during World War I, Nannette’s brother is none other than the original Rin-Tin- Tin.
And that my friends, is The Tail of a Dog.