Skippy: Asta from The Thin Man
But Skippy had a head start. He was born into show biz.
While some canine stars are discovered when they are older, this funny, good-tempered little Wire-Haired Fox Terrier, was born into a dog training family. Actress Gale Henry and her husband, Henry East, had started a side business training dogs in the 1920s.
Gale was a comedic actress in silent films, and Henry East ran special effects and props for MGM Studios. At that time, if a dog was in a scene, he was generally in the background and considered a prop. Henry East began learning the art of selecting good screen dogs. During this time, Gale was in a silent film that called for a dog to lie motionless for a long period of time. Most dogs couldn’t remain still for long enough, so the film was set aside.
Gale and Henry were determined there was a way to train a dog to do the scene. After they adopted a mixed breed named Buddy and had a chance to get to know him, they judged they had their dog. Buddy was able to do the scene…the film was completed… and the Easts became well-known and highly sought-after for their animal training skills.
With East’s growing reputation, young people wanted to work for him and learn. Frank and Rudd Weatherwax assisted at East Kennels before going on to open their own school; they were best known for Lassie, but the Weatherwax family continues in the business even today. Frank Inn was another young man Henry East hired. Inn went on to be owner and trainer of Benji.
Birth of Skippy
In 1931 Skippy was born at the East Kennels, so Henry East was able to begin training when the puppy was a just a few months old. He appeared in several films while still very young, but he was a background player in those early days.
When it came to The Thin Man, Skippy caught a break in casting. As written by Dashiell Hammett in his novel of that name, the dog in The Thin Man was to be played by a male Schnauzer, but director Woody Van Dyke was looking for a magical spark among the human stars and their canine sidekick. To him, something clearly clicked with the stars he was casting—he saw that William Powell and Myrna Loy were well complemented by Skippy who was masterful at finding dead bodies and sniffing out and retrieving hidden guns, but he was so well trained that when things were getting “rough” East could get him to go under a bed or a table and put his paws over his eyes. Everyone had to love him with his antics.
A very popular scene in the first Thin Man movie involved Asta dragging Nora into a restaurant because he was so eager to greet Nick. From there Nick tries to convince the headwaiter that Asta should be permitted to stay in the restaurant because he is “trained.” There follows a scene with Nick ordering a standing Asta to lie down; the dog remains standing. The detective then tells Asta, who is still standing, to stand and Asta sits… Skippy was perfect as the foil and audiences loved him.
Skippy received star billing for his second Thin Man film, After the Thin Man. (The billing was as “Asta,” as his professional name was officially changed at that time.) In this film, they added a subplot about Asta. The storyline was that Asta was consumed with jealousy when he thought Mrs. Asta was seeing a neighbor dog on the sly.
Skippy, A Star
Skippy was a high-priced star, earning $250 per week at a time when most dogs were being paid about $3.50 per day. According to The Bark magazine, Skippy also received star treatment. He was fed a vegetarian diet, always given time for a 12-hour night, and had his own dressing room so that he could rest when not in a scene.
The third “Thin Man” movie was not ready to go as quickly as everyone hoped, so Skippy was cast in some other great films. In 1937, he appeared in The Awful Truth, where he was the subject of a custody dispute between Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. The following year he played Katharine Hepburn’s dog in Bringing Up Baby (1938). That same year he was also in Topper Takes a Trip.
Robert Grayson, in Films of the Golden Age, also shares a great story about the importance of animal training at that time. Grayson makes the point that the technology for special effects that could add to the magic of a film did yet exist. What viewers saw on screen had to actually happen and be filmed.
In Bringing Up Baby, Skippy needed to learn to leer. To teach him, Henry East placed the dog in front of a mirror and then East used his fingers to curl Skippy’s lips back into position, saying the word “leer” each time he did so. Soon Skippy was leering on command. Today when critics write about these films, Skippy’s expressions are often mentioned.
But the best story of all came via a testament from owner Gale Henry East who was describing Skippy great personality and sense of humor. She concluded with: “Treat a dog kindly and he’ll do anything in the world for you.” Clearly that was Skippy.
Skippy’s film career lasted through at least 10 years and nine pictures. Because the Easts never released a retirement date or a date of death, it is not certain what film was Skippy’s last. Some film historians think that Skippy was in at least one more Thin Man movie with Asta Jr., helping with the stunts.