Monday, October 13, 2008
This versatile actor has shared the screen with the likes of Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, William Powell, Myrna Loy, and a big leopard. For a brief period in the thirties he was the toast of Hollywood, invited to all the best premieres and earning $200 a week. He possessed great comedic timing and was often able to steal the scenes right out from his counterparts. And of course, he was a dog.
Asta the dog was given the name "Skippy" at birth, but due to his casting as "Asta" in the "Thin Man" series, the little wire-haired terrier became known by both names. While his exact date of birth and death are lost to the ages, we do know quite a bit about the brief but fantastic film career of the single greatest dog actor of his generation.
His first appearance was in 1934 as "Asta," the dog of detective-and-wife-team Nick and Norah Charles in "The Thin Man." In the best character actor fashion, he showed a great ability to steal the scenes from his principals, executing some truly impressive work. Just check out his entrance to the film, here at 3:13:
This work is all the more remarkable when you consider the rigorous shooting schedule; "The Thin Man" was shot in just two weeks, which meant that the crew would not have time to wait for Asta to execute his tricks. Like his human co-stars he needed to hit his marks the first time. Ironically, the lovable dog who inspired a boom in the breeding of wire-haired terriers, was not able to fraternize with his co-stars. William Powell and Myrna Loy were both told not to make friends with Asta, as it would hurt his concentration.
Much of this credit can go towards his owner and trainers, Henry East and Gale Henry East. Today many animal experts will train different animals for different tasks; for instance, there was one Benji good at closeups, one good at running, one good at catching, that sort of thing. But Asta did it all with no doubles, reportedly even "playing" with a declawed-but-still-dangerous leopard in "Bringing Up Baby."
With the enormous success of "The Thin Man," Asta was signed on for the sequels (although there are rumors that in the last two films, "The Thin Man Goes Home" and "Song of the Thin Man," he had been replaced by his own son). Credits in other films, including "Lottery Lover" and "Sea Racketeers" would follow, but Asta had his next biggest triumph in Leo McCarey's 1937 romp "The Awful Truth."
Cast as "Mr. Smith," the dog whom Irene Dunne and Cary Grant both want custody of after their divorce, Asta once again rises to the challenge, performing a brilliantly timed duet with Cary Grant at the piano (below at 3:25 min). Asta was always the professional, not breaking character even when Grant slipped and called him "Skippy" on film, suggesting that the dog still answered best to his true name.
Having established a clear rapport with Grant, Asta joined the cast of Howard Hawk's "Bringing Up Baby" as George, the mischievous pup who steals Cary Grant's intercostal clavicle and buries it in the yard. George has more screen time here than anyone other than Grant & Hepburn, and he handled it like the pro he was. He even got the band back together with Cary Grant for another sing-along:
After an appearance in "Topper Takes a Trip" (1939), Asta returned to the "Thin Man" series. It's possible that he made more appearances in other films, but most credits don't mention the little dog so it's hard to know. As as dogs sadly don't live forever, it's uncertain where the true Asta left off and his doubles took over.
Nonetheless, Asta has my vote for most talented screen canine. Also, he is adorable. See below at 8:10 min, where it appears that the little guy has been cuckolded by his "wife." Case closed.
-The Thin Man
-After the Thin Man
-The Awful Truth
-Bringing Up Baby