Duncan named them Rin Tin Tin and Nanette after yarn dolls given as good luck charms to soldiers by French children. Nanette unfortunately developed pneumonia and died (and was subsequently replaced by another puppy with the same name), but Rin Tin Tin made it safely to California with Duncan.
Lee Duncan had a hard and lonely childhood, and he got along with animals far better than with people (something I think a lot of us can relate to). He spent several formative years as a child in an orphanage while his mother worked to save up money to be able to retrieve Duncan and his little sister and provide a home for them. They all eventually settled on a remote ranch where Duncan learned he had a knack for training animals, especially dogs.
When Duncan returned to California after the war, he intended to show Rin Tin Tin and eventually sell puppies from breedings with Nanette II. German Shepherds had become wildly popular due to their athleticism and usefulness in the war, and footage of Rin Tin Tin leaping a 12 foot wall at a dog show eventually made it into newsreels. Realizing he had a star in the making, Duncan worked tirelessly to break into the burgeoning movie business with Rin Tin Tin. They eventually scored a part with Warner Brothers, then only a small, struggling studio. But the partnership eventually spawned 23 silent films and made Rin Tin Tin a household name. In his films, Rinty wrestled villains, saved damsels in distress, rescued babies, thwarted bootleggers and claim-jumpers, and outwitted gangsters. Rin Tin Tin was expressive and athletic, and audiences loved him no matter what his role. His popularity made millions for Warner Brothers and was instrumental in turning the studio into the powerhouse it is today.
|Warner Bros., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The advent of "talkies" in the late 1920s mostly ended Rin Tin Tin's acting career, but he still remained popular with fans who flocked to see him at vaudeville shows. When Rinty died in 1932 a month shy of his 14th birthday, he was still such a celebrity that newspapers and radio stations around the country shared the sad news in obituaries and special broadcasts. In the years that followed, Duncan tried to recapture the Rin Tin Tin magic with several of the dog's offspring, but they lacked the intelligence and appeal of the original. Rin Tin Tin III did help keep the name alive during WWII when he and Duncan helped promote the war effort, and they had moderate film success after the war. But Duncan and Rinty's heirs return to fame didn't come until 1953 when one of his old Hollywood friends pitched a new television series aimed at children.
Breyer's model was based on this show, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, a Western for children that aired from October 1954 to May 1959. The TV show, despite the name, bore no resemblance to the life of the real dog. According to Wikipedia, the show centered on an orphan boy, "Rusty. and his dog, Rin Tin Tin (Rinty), [who] are the only survivors of an Indian raid on their wagon train. The boy and his dog are adopted by the 101st Cavalry at Fort Apache, Arizona, where Rusty is commissioned as an honorary corporal. Throughout the series, Rusty and Rinty help the cavalry and the nearby people to establish order in the American West." Duncan, who recognized echoes of his own lonely childhood in the premise of the show, enthusiastically supported it, and he trained Rin Tin Tin IV to be the titular star.
Unfortunately, this latest Rin Tin Tin lacked the charisma and talent of the original, and producers chose a dog named Flame Jr, usually referred to as JR, to be the lead acting dog. Rin Tin Tin IV instead received visitors and fans at Duncan's ranch. The name and legend of Rin Tin Tin had come to encompass more than just one dog.
|Photo via tvguide.com
Though Breyer was slow to cash in on licenses for other Westerns at the time, they did become official licensees for the Rin Tin Tin franchise. This was announced in the December 1955 issue of Toys and Novelties, and production had started earlier that year, meaning toy Rinty's were available for Christmas that year.
|Toys and Novelties, December 1955 issue
Rin Tin Tin was made from 1955 to 1965, and not surprisingly, several variations are known. The most common variations are the "saddle" patterned dogs. They are molded in white or creamy-toned plastic and have a dark saddle down both sides of the barrel and along the topline onto the tail. They usually have a bit of shading around the eyes and on the ridges of the neck ruff. The saddle color ranges from a ruddy brown color to dark chocolate to nearly black. All Rin Tin Tins are glossy or semi-glossy.
|Creamy and white plastic versions
|Non-saddle and saddle versions
|Images from the 1958 and 1963 Breyer dealer catalogs
|L to R: Non-saddle, saddle, and late run variations
|Photo from Worthpoint
|L to R: Non-saddle, saddle, fully painted, and 2 more
|Black and brown variations
|L to R: German Shepherds in black and brown and
a late issue Rin Tin Tin
|German Shepherd on the left, Rinty on the right
Since 1973, Breyer has reissued most of their other large dog molds like Lassie, Jolly Cholly, the Boxer, the Saint Bernard, and even the rare Small Poodle (after its rediscovery). The Rin Tin Tin mold however has been noticeably absent for the last 50 years. So too has the Large Poodle, but we do at least know the fate of that mold. According to Breyer historian Nancy Young, the Large Poodle was discontinued in 1973 as a cost cutting measure at the beginning of the oil crisis. The thick legs are solid plastic and a molding flaw on the left side has a tendency to crack.  It makes sense therefore why this mold has not resurfaced.
What has become of the Rin Tin Tin mold however is a mystery. Collectors have speculated for a number of years that the mold must be damaged or even lost. I had hoped that if it was still usable or at least could be fixed that it would have been released as a special run at the German-themed 2023 BreyerFest, but alas, no such luck.
Given that Breyer still has the molds for the Small Poodle and the In Between Mare, neither of which were officially released until more than 40 years after their original creation, one would think the Rin Tin Tin mold must still be in their warehouse somewhere, too. Perhaps the damage is just too costly to repair? It's a shame if that's the case because I know many collectors besides myself who would love to have this mold in new colors on their shelves.
Lee Duncan used to say that "there will always be a Rin Tin Tin," and while fans have carried on breeding the Rinty line, the dogs are no longer stars of the silver screen nor even a household name. Except to us Breyer nerds who keep his memory alive in plastic form. I hope you have enjoyed this post, and if you're interested in learning more about the life of Lee Duncan and the meanderings of his dogs and fate, I highly recommend Susan Orlean's book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. It offers a fascinating glimpse into the horrors of WWI, the early days of Hollywood, and the baby boom years that were so formative for Breyer.
1) Orlean, Susan. Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2011), 234.
2) Young, Nancy. Breyer Molds and Models: Horses, Riders, and Animals. (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 1999), 325.