You could be sure of one thing in family television programs of the fifties and sixties; there was bound to be either puppets or animals, or both. Two long-running shows that were popular in the early boomer days were The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin and Lassie. Both featured a-boy-and-his-dog stories, and both had long histories before making the transition to TV.
Rin Tin Tin
The story of Rin Tin Tin reads like a novel in itself. In 1918, near the end of World War I, an American soldier in France found a dog and a litter of pups in a bombed-out kennel. He took two of the pups back with him to the U.S., but only one would ultimately survive. He had named that male German shepherd Rin Tin Tin, after the puppet that French children gave to American soldiers as a good luck charm.
As the dog grew, the man, Lee Duncan, taught the dog several tricks. Eventually the dog was seen by movie producers and cast as a replacement in a 1922 silent film as a wolf. Rin Tin Tin’s first starring role came a year later, followed by several other silent films, then by talkies. In 1930 a radio show, The Wonder Dog, was launched and ran through 1955. In 1932 the original Rin Tin Tin died, and was replaced on the radio by his son.
The TV series The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, came about in 1954, and ran for five seasons. The role of Rin Tin Tin was played by the direct fourth generation descendant of the original Rin Tin Tin. As in the later movies, the basic storyline had Rin Tin Tin save the day with heroic actions. In the television incarnation, a boy and his dog were found alive by soldiers after an Indian raid. They brought the boy, Rusty, and dog, Rin Tin Tin, to Fort Apache, Arizona. At the outpost they gave Rusty the honorary rank of corporal so the soldiers could legally raise him inside the military complex. It became Rin Tin Tin’s job to help the soldiers establish order in the Old West, fighting Indians and outlaws. Each episode featured the German shepherd displaying acts of courage, determination and loyalty.
Lassie first appeared as a short story by Eric Knight, a British author. Lassie Come Home was published by The Saturday Evening Post in 1938. Set in England during the Depression era, it told the story of a family’s struggle to survive. Forced to sell their dog, the tale follows the struggles of the collie to be reunited with her family. Later, the same story was written into a novel that was made into a 1943 movie starring Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor. More Lassie films followed through 1951. In 1947, a Lassie radio show was broadcast, as Rin Tin Tin had done before him. The show ran for three years.
The TV series, Lassie, began its 19 year run in 1954. For American audiences, the setting was changed to a struggling family on an American farm, and played up the relationship between the boy, Jeff, and his collie, Lassie. Naturally, like Rin Tin Tin, there were several dogs that played the role through the years. Also like Rin Tin Tin, they were all descendants of the original dog, which, in Lassie’s case, was named Pal. The Lassie character was always female, but the dogs portraying Lassie were all male.
The show underwent major changes throughout the years, and the audience played along. The boy character, Jeff, was retired in the fourth season when Timmy took over. Each week Timmy got himself into all sorts of dangerous situations, some with wild animals, that required Lassie to save him. For this reason the show was not without controversy. Some parents complained that it encouraged their children to take unnecessary chances and that ultimately, the character Timmy got little punishment save a mild reprimand for his actions.
As the eleventh season began, Timmy, and the whole idea of the boy and his dog, was dropped. Savvy producers, looking to capitalize on the new ability to broadcast in color, made Lassie a companion to a group of forest rangers. Lassie’s heroic actions were now those of a rescue dog focused on environmental and conservation themes, filmed in living color in spectacular outdoor settings. For a while Lassie was on “her” own, wandering through the wilderness. Occasionally an episode featured nothing but animals, void of any human actors at all.
Timmy was brought back for the final two seasons, though this time he was at a ranch for troubled children. The story had Lassie wandering in one day, when “she” decided to stay. Finally, the show was cancelled in 1971. After two additional years in syndication, the last of the first-run episodes was aired in 1973. A new version of the show appeared in 1989, and ran for two more years. Lassie films were made in 1978, 1994 and 2005. Throughout them all, Timmy never fell into the well.
Like Rin Tin Tin, Lassie was the embodiment of the wholesome family values of the time. Lassie became a symbol and metaphor for the perfect mother of the 50s; nurturing, responsible and caring, always possessing a commitment to family and community while maintaining perfect hair.
As for Mister B, neither show ranked high in the viewing habits of his family. Lassie seemed far too sanitized and formulaic for his refined young boomer taste. Nonetheless, the family sometimes watched the show because Mister B’s sister liked to see the dog. In later years, she got a collie of her own; it’s possible that the show influenced her decision. The family sometimes watched The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin when it went into reruns. Mister B’s brother seemed to enjoy the Western milieu. Overall, Mister B preferred the German shepherd to the collie, but could take or leave either TV show. Mister B did not see any of the movies.
How about you, boomers? In the battle of the heroic canines, which show did you prefer?