He was one of those film stars who always play themselves in movies. But a certain lack of depth in his acting could not hold back 1930s film star Asta, whose cheeky grin and skill for acrobatic feats had him snatching the limelight from many of his famous co-stars. He particularly over-shadowed co-star Cary Grant in Bringing up Baby, the film in which Katherine Hepburn unexpectedly finds herself in charge of a leopard named Baby. He also appeared witht he Hollywood legend in The Awful Truth as Mr Smith, the subject of a custody dispute between Grant and Irene Dunne. Oh and if by any chance you haven’t guessed yet, Asta was a dog.
In fact Asta was a small fox terrier (said to have inspired the makers of modern silent move The Artist to include a very similar looking terrier in their tribute to early movies) born around 1931 or 1932. Born Skippy and trained by Henry East and Gale Henry (Gale was also a comedienne and film star before becoming a dog trainer) he became famous for his roles in The Thin Man series. So popular, in fact, that he was permanently renamed Asta after the dog in the movie.Asta fans still argue over the correct name to call their doggy hero and purists prefer to use Skippy as Asta ‘s ‘real’ name.
Asta was often more popular than his co-stars, a fact that benefited his trainers. When Asta signed a film contract it was with the condition he be paid $250 a week. He was worth the money, Asta knew both verbal and hand signals and was content to repeat scenes when someone’s dodgy acting (never his own!) interferred with filming. Gale Henry said of Asta in 1938, he was so clever that he knew to ‘act’. For instance, if he was required to drink water in a scene, on the first take he would really consume water, but if the scene had to be repeated and he was no longer thirsty, he would just pretend to drink. Anyone who owns a dog will admit that is pretty clever. Asta also had a strong sense of humour which is just as well when dealing with the vagaries of Hollywood.
Asta was at his height in the 1930s, he appeared in three Thin Man films helping the main characters of Nora and Nick Charles solve crimes (though with a distinctive yellow streak in his desire to tangle with dangerous criminals!). However Asta was retired in 1939, apparently at his peak. It is not clear why he retired, if his birth date is correct then he would only have been seven or eight, which in terrier terms is fairly young. But perhaps Asta was feeling the pressures of fame and his workload was too much. In any case from 1940 Asta was played by related lookalike dogs.
Over 70 years since his birth Asta is still remembered as one of the finest doggy actors in film history, in part because of his sense of humour and intelligence. Even today people name their dogs after Asta (or Skippy if you are a purist) and, for better or worse, he sealed the popularity of the fox terrier. So if you have a quiet weekened coming up why not spoil yourself with some classic Hollywood comedy and watch The Thin Man series to witness a true movie legend in action?