Mike Fleming

The Orchid Thief author Susan Orlean has a Hollywood theft to report, and a suggestion how to remedy the injustice. During the exhaustive research that Orlean did for her book Rin Tin Tin: The Life And The Legend, she discovered that the true Best Actor winner in the first Oscars in 1929 was the German Shepherd, not the German silent film actor Emil Jannings, who walked away with the prize. And Orlean thinks it’s high time that the Academy corrects the injustice next month by giving a posthumous Best Actor prize to the biggest four-legged movie star of all time.

Jannings got the Oscar for his work in The Last Command and The Way of the Flesh. He faded into obscurity until Quentin Tarantino gave the actor an inglourious plug when Jannings was depicted as one of the Nazi attendees at the Paris Theatre premiere of the propaganda film Nation’s Pride, in the climax of Inglourious Basterds. There, the fictional Jannings presumably burned to death along with Adolph Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and the rest of the Nazi elite that perished in the blaze. The real Jannings, whose thick German accent made it impossible for him to continue in Hollywood when talkies took over, tarnished his legacy by returning to Germany to make propaganda films for the Third Reich and his close friend Goebbels. That got him banned after WWII and he retired.

Why would the Academy give an award to an animal over a human? Orlean said that during the silent film era, Rin Tin Tin was far more popular than Jannings or just about anyone else onscreen. “That first year that the Oscars were awarded, it seems to have been more a popularity contest than a serious assessment of performance,” Orlean told me. “In terms of popularity, Rin Tin Tin didn’t have a peer, he was a huge star around the world and helped Warner Bros transition from its start as a small studio into a large one. I can’t imagine that Emil Jannings was opening films, but Rin Tin Tin certainly did.”

The Academy stepped in and gave the award to Jannings. After all, what animal performance (outside of Andy Serkis as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes) could really be called acting? While some might question whether Orlean perhaps has tried snorting orchids (as Meryl Streep did in playing Orlean in Adaptation, the Charlie Kaufman-scripted film of her book The Orchid Thief), Orlean makes a case that the subject of her most recent book was emoting. “We wonder, could an animal understand the idea of acting as opposed to behaving,” she said. “I think that training a dog to have a certain behavior is impressive and a credit to the dog’s intelligence and the mastery of training techniques. But if you look at what Rin Tin Tin did, he seemed to understand that he was performing. Look at Clash of the Wolves, as he limps away from his pack to die alone. You watch the scene and can’t believe he didn’t know he was acting in the movie. He is grimacing and limping, he falls to the ground in agony. How would you train a dog to look depressed and act as if he’s resigned to a lonely death? I don’t know how you do that. Somehow, the dog knows he’s supposed to look miserable and contemplating his mortality. What could have been the behavior Lee Duncan taught him to create that appearance?”

If the Academy doesn’t want to give a dog an Oscar, at least, Orlean suggested, it might be high time for Oscar to do a tribute montage to the pet set. After all, it was a year that reportedly saw the death of Tarzan’s 1930s chimp co-star Cheetah, and also some remarkable critter performances that included the horses in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, and Uggie, the scene-stealing pooch in The Artist. Uggie’s relationship with the title character in The Artist even bears a striking resemblance to the kinship between Duncan and Rin Tin Tin: the trainer’s devotion to the dog over his wife was cited in divorce papers filed by Mrs. Duncan.

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