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Asta: The Thin Man's Dog

In a film career that spanned nearly 60 years and more than 130 films, Myrna Loy played many parts, but her greatest fame came from her role as Nora Charles in the series of six Thin Man movies made between 1934 and 1947. She starred opposite William Powell as Nick Charles, the martini-swilling, wisecracking detective loosely based on a character by Dashiell Hammett, and a little dog named Skippy, whom millions of movie fans came to know as Asta.  

One not-so-secret ingredient in the success of the light-hearted series, besides the obvious chemistry of the two human stars, was their willingness to share the screen with Asta, a Wirehaired Fox Terrier who perfectly complemented the tipsy detective and his spunky high-society wife. Though a high-society dog himself, Asta was masterful at finding dead bodies or sniffing out guns in drainpipes, but prone to hide under a bed or table with his paws over his eyes when things got rough. These unlikely crime fighters made up an unforgettable trio. “Not one day in my life passes,” Loy wrote many years later in her autobiography, “without someone asking about Bill (William Powell) or Asta.”  

Before Lassie’s debut on the silver screen in 1943, Asta was the top dog at MGM. Owned by Hollywood’s legendary animal trainer, Henry East, he was born into the business. Like many in Hollywood, Skippy adopted a stage name, in his case from the first Thin Man movie, which was made in 1934. Born in Van Nuys, Calif., Skippy made his first appearance in a Three Stooges picture as a pup of six months.

In The Thin Man, Asta makes his grand entrance at the same time Myrna Loy makes her own, not-so-grand entrance. As the little rascal desperately pulls his leading lady—who’s struggling with a giant pile of Christmas boxes—she falls flat on her face in front of the camera. When asked to take the dog outside, Nick assures the waiter, “It’s all right. It’s my dog. And uh, my wife.” To which Nora replies, “Well, you might have mentioned me first on the billing.”  

By the end of the film, Asta had earned his spot on the marquee. The audience loved the inscrutable but loveable terrier, and his popularity spawned a national craze for his breed. When the first Thin Man sequel was announced in 1936, the New York Times noted that the dog detective was no bit player. “Asta, the dog that fought with William Powell and Myrna Loy for top honors in The Thin Man,” the Times noted, “will compete again with the two in Metro’s After The Thin Man.” True to the Times’ prediction, when the second film appeared, Asta not only received major billing, but the film opened on his wagging tail, and introduced a subplot concerning Asta’s strained relationship with “Mrs. Asta,” whom Asta believed was having a romance with the dog next door.  

Skippy was trained by the best in the business: brothers Frank and Rudd Weatherwax and their assistant Frank Inn, whose Studio Dog Training School went on to train many of the biggest dogs in Hollywood, including Toto, Daisy from the “Blondie” series, Old Yeller, Benji and many generations of Lassies. Skippy lived on a special vegetable mash, was sure to get 12 hours of beauty sleep a night, and retreated to his own dressing room when not working so as not to be distracted by the attention of fellow cast members and crew. He always did his own stunts, and was particularly adept at hide-and-seek.  

Myrna Loy said she never really became friends with Skippy (he actually nipped her once on the set) but he was a wonderful dog. One of the secrets of his motivation was a little rubber mouse named Oslo. “He did everything for a little squeaky mouse,” Loy said. “I’d squeak the mouse and put it in my pocket, and then Asta would do whatever he was supposed to do.” One squeak sent him into “ transports of delight.”

Skippy’s film career lasted through 10 years; nine pictures; and screen time with greats such as Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Irene Dunne. The last Thin Man movie, Song of the Thin Man, made in 1947, starred his son, “Asta II,” whom Powell was said to have called “Half Asta.” But no one could replace the original, a four-footed amateur detective who helped Nick and Nora put the bite on crime.

 

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 30: Spring 2005
Gay Salisbury, co-author of The Cruelest Miles, The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic , divides her time between New York and Alaska. The Cruelest Miles

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