Was dog star Rin Tin Tin the first Best Actor Academy Award winner?
Author Susan Orlean, whose book The Orchid Thief became – more or less – director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's all but unwatchable Adaptation (Meryl Streep played Orlean), has another book out, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, published last September.
Today, Deadline's Mike Fleming wrote a piece in which he explains that Orlean “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.”
A quote from Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend found in The Hollywood Reporter reads: “According to Hollywood legend, Rinty received the most votes for best actor. But members of the Academy, anxious to establish the awards were serious and important, decided that giving an Oscar to a dog did not serve that end.”
I haven't read Orlean's book, so I'm hoping all this nonsense was taken out of context. Or that it is merely a lark. Like Orlean's remark to Fleming:
“That first year that the Oscars were awarded, it seems to have been more a popularity contest than a serious assessment of performance. 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.”
Rin Tin Tin opened films the way Gene Autry and Roy Rogers would open films. Those were B movies that were highly profitable because they were made so cheaply. By that I'm not dismissing Rin Tin Tin's popularity; he certainly was popular. But Hollywood's top box office attraction in the mid-to-late 1920s? Ahead of, say, Harold Lloyd or Colleen Moore or Al Jolson? Well, only if you believe that Gene Autry's oaters were as big at the box office as the star vehicles for, say, Clark Gable or Gary Cooper.
I should also note that in the first year of the Academy Awards, there were a mere 250-300 voting members. For the most part, those were Hollywood's elite – people like Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, director Frank Lloyd, and MGM honcho Louis B. Mayer. Each member of the actors' branch could select only one performance in one of two categories, Best Actor and Best Actress. Votes were then tabulated by a Board of Judges and the top three nominees were announced. For the record, they were Emil Jannings for The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command, Richard Barthelmess for The Noose and The Patent Leather Kid, and Charles Chaplin for The Circus.
Chaplin was later removed from consideration and was given an Honorary Award instead. A five-member Central Board of Judges selected the winner: Jannings, who also happened to be the first person to take home – back to Germany – the Academy Award statuette.
The generally accepted story is that Jannings' German accent was going to destroy his Hollywood career, so he decided to return to the Fatherland. There, he remained a star for another 15 years, starring opposite Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel (1930), in addition to several Nazi propaganda films, most notably Ohm Krüger / Uncle Kruger (1941). Following the end of World War II, Jannings was banned from working. He died of cancer in 1950.
Rin Tin Tin continued making movies until 1931. His last effort was The Lightning Warrior. He died on August 10, 1932. Although he surely helped to fatten Warner Bros.' coffers, only someone with absolutely no knowledge of film history would claim that Rin Tin Tin, not The Jazz Singer or Lights of New York, helped to transform Warner Bros. into a truly major Hollywood powerhouse.
I don't know how or when the Rin Tin Tin Academy Award rumors began, but they were obviously intended as mockery of the high-sounding Academy and its rich and famous (and usually perceived as stupid) members. By the way, this ludicrous rumor is now part of Internet lore and can be found on the Rin Tin Tin page of the ever-reliable Wikipedia and in various news reports as well. NPR, for Zeus' sake, should know better than to print the legend.