Posted by David Kalat on February 15, 2014
Later this week, TCM is running a programming block to pay tribute to all of the 1937 Best Supporting Actor Nominees. Which is one of those gloriously random, weirdly specific programming decisions that makes TCM such a delightful destination for obsessive compulsives. The channel will run Leo McCarey’s screwball classic The Awful Truth, in honor of Ralph Bellamy’s Best Supporting Actor nod. And that’s all fine and well and good—Bellamy is excellent in his “Right Wrong Man” role—but if you really want to celebrate the best supporting performance in this film, you need to be looking at Asta the Dog.
Or to be pedantic—Skippy the Dog. Like all good movie stars, he was born with one name and became a screen icon under another. Norma Jeane Mortenson became Marilyn Monroe, and Skippy the Dog became Asta. According to online legend, Cary Grant got mixed up and calls the dog “Skippy” during The Awful Truth—but I’m not so sure. The scene in question finds Grant and his ex-wife Irene Dunne battling in court for custody of their dog Mr. Smith, and the judge asks each of them to call to the dog. Whichever one the dog picks, wins. Grant proceeds to unleash a barrage of variations on “Mr. Smith,” including “Smithy” and “Schmitty,” all while Dunne is calling out her own variations. I can see how this could sound like “Skippy” but I don’t think any mistake was made (if I missed it, though, I bet the comments thread will set me straight).
But the important thing about this scene isn’t the dog’s name, but his role as the child substitute in their family. This is in fact the role Asta was typecast in.
And let’s be clear on this—Asta was an icon of screwball comedy with an absolutely impressive CV. In addition to The Awful Truth he’s in Topper Takes a Trip with Roland Young and Constance Bennett, Bringing Up Baby with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, The Thin Man and After the Thin Man with William Powell and Myrna Loy, and The Big Broadcast of 1936 with Burns and Allen, Bing Crosby, and others. And that’s just a sampling of his career.
Is career a funny word to use when talking about a dog? We’re talking about an individual who was professionally trained specifically to work in films (he was taught to respond to hand signals so he could be cued in his scenes without disrupting the dialog).
He had his own fan base: He was one of several animals profiled by the 1936 book Dog Stars of Hollywood, not to mention his own puffball promo piece in The American Magazine in 1938, “A Dog’s Life in Hollywood.” He even has a fan site on the web today.
And he was paid—handsomely, even. $200 a week in the 1930s (plus another $60 for his trainer) was an order of magnitude above what other dog actors got at the time—which shows what an asset he was in and of himself, because why else pay Asta $200 a week when there are plenty of identical looking dogs available at a fraction of the cost?
And there were plenty of identical looking dogs to choose from—Asta’s over-enthusiastic fans went so gaga for wire fox terriers that the breed spiraled into a tragic overbreeding situation. Despite this, however, Asta-alikes only started appearing on screen when the real one retired in 1939, at the age of 8.
And you wanna know something? The first time I saw Another Thin Man, I just knew that wasn’t the same dog. He was billed as “Asta,” and sure looked like him, but there was just something off, something missing. And this is coming from someone who’s never had a dog, and who routinely misidentifies actors (sorry, Rufus Sewell). If even a schmo like me can tell the real Asta from his copycats (copydogs?), then you know you’re talking about an exceptional dog.
Hollywood has had many animal stars, and there were enough canine actors in the 1930s to justify an entire book. But out of this pack, there was just one Asta.
Asta had the distinction of appearing in two films considered part of the curious sub-genre of “remarriage comedies,” which put him in the same league as other “remarriage” mainstays like Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy.
We talked last week about the Comedies of Remarriage, but as a quick refresher I’ll list a bunch of these things as examples of the form: The Awful Truth, of course, as well as The Philadelphia Story, Palm Beach Story, His Girl Friday, That Uncertain Feeling, My Favorite Wife, Mr. and Mrs. Smith… films about married couples who break up, experiment with other romantic partners, and then get back together.
There’s a whole book about this cycle, by Stanley Cavell (who coined the term), that argues that these films promoted a new conception of marriage as something built on mutual love, rather than religious or economic standards. The thing is, while this is true, it also happens to be true of screwball comedies as a whole—the entire genre was predicated on a woman facing two possible life partners, one of whom was the ideal mate in objective terms, the other a total wild card. But the so-called “ideal” mate turns out to be dry and uninspiring, while the rogue is a locus of passion. As it happened, Ralph Bellamy earned his Oscar nomination in The Awful Truth for playing the rejected “ideal” mate—one of a number of similar performances he provided during this era.
Ralph Bellamy and the other Right Wrong Men of his ilk only looked good on paper—financially secure, decent, from solid loving families, earnest, respectful, from the right social class. All the boxes were ticked. By contrast, Cary Grant specialized in playing the rogues—misbehaved men who utterly failed to tick any of the boxes, but who were nevertheless clearly the (Wrong) Right Man.
But, as I said, this was the default mode for screwball. What “remarriage” added to the mix was sexuality—in films like The Awful Truth, we have a married, sexually active and experienced couple, who try out alternative partnering arrangements, and then reunite. In other words, a thinly veiled metaphor for adultery, designed to pass the censors.
Remember, though, these are comedies. Frothy, light-hearted things—and they evolved out of silent slapstick, to boot, so they aren’t intended to bear any heavy emotional weight. So, these films needed something to take the sting out of their adulterous themes. If Irene Dunne and Cary Grant are going to sleep around and then decide that, having sampled the alternatives, they really were happier together, that’s a potentially explosive and emotionally fraught premise. There’s real risk at the heart of that.
So, the couple has a tether to a normal domestic life—a reminder of what’s at stake, a totem of the happy home they need to resurrect. Not a child—a child could be traumatized by these shenanigans. Audiences would object to watching Irene Dunne go swanning around in her fancy ball gowns, neglecting her kid. But a dog is like a child, without being too much like a child. Asta, as Mr. Smith, is the child stand-in—they even have a custody battle over him—but there’s no fear that the romantic adventures of the divorcees will damage him any.
In fact, Asta plays this same faux-baby role in most of his screwball comedies. He’s the domestic anchor that roots the stars in something recognizable as a family, freeing them to act even more ridiculous and immature during the middle reels.
Which brings me back to Another Thin Man, the film where I spotted the low-calorie Asta substitute. This was the third film in the franchise, and by this point the filmmakers figured having William Powell and Myrna Loy drink their way through an absurdly over-complicated murder mystery wasn’t enough, so they added a baby to the mix—Nick Charles Jr. Of course the real Asta had to retire here—putting a real baby into the film by definition forced Asta out.
You can’t have Asta playing alongside a child because it’s like casting Claudette Colbert and Irene Dunne in the same film—they end up playing too much the character and unbalancing the film.
And so in 1939, Asta stepped down. His owners and trainers, Henry East and Gale Henry, took him into retirement to enjoy his sunset years, ceding the stage to his knock-offs. Henry and Gale (or do I mean East and Henry? I get confused) kept on training dog actors—they were responsible for most of Hollywood’s canine stars—but they never had another hit like Asta. He was a unique combination of talent, charisma, and cultural zeitgeist that all came together in just the right way.
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