William Powell is to dialogue as Fred Astaire is to dance. His delivery is so droll and insinuating, so knowing and innocent at the same time, that it hardly matters what he’s saying.... Powell plays the character with a lyrical alcoholic slur that waxes and wanes but never topples either way into inebriation or sobriety. The drinks are the lubricant for dialogue of elegant wit and wicked timing, used by a character who is decadent on the surface but fundamentally brave and brilliant. After Nick and Nora face down an armed intruder in their apartment one night, they read about it in the morning papers. “I was shot twice in the Tribune,” Nick observes. “I read you were shot five times in the tabloids,” says Nora. “It’s not true,” says Nick. “He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.”
(Read Ebert’s delightful full review of The Thin Man here.)
The six Thin Man films are based on the Dashiell Hammett novella (the last he wrote) called The Thin Man, but the movie of the same name follows the book only in bare-bones plot. Whereas Hammett’s work is more of the hard-boiled school of detective stories, the film is light-hearted and full of comedy, and one barely notices that there’s even a murder mystery going on underneath all the beautiful sets and costumes and witty dialogue.
One of the best decisions director W.S. Van Dyke made was to change Hammett’s dog, Asta, from the schnauzer of the book to a wire fox terrier. The fox terrier in question was named Skippy, who in addition to starring in the first two Thin Man movies, also had roles in The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, and Topper Takes a Trip.
Asta was an immediate hit, and publicity shots from the Thin Man movies invariably show him alongside Nick and Nora:
The reason for his popularity was no doubt the very terrier-ness of him. Terriers are cute, playful and very, very smart. Which translates to being scamps and rascals—perfect for a film star. Here’s a description from the Wikipedia entry about Jack Russell Terriers:
[They] tend to be extremely intelligent, athletic, fearless, and vocal dogs. It is not uncommon for these dogs to become moody or destructive if not properly stimulated and exercised, as they have a tendency to bore easily and will often create their own fun when left alone to entertain themselves.... They have a tremendous amount of energy for their size... [and] may seem never to tire and will still be energetic after their owner has called it a day.
One of my favorite Asta scenes from the Thin Man movies is in the second of the series, After the Thin Man. Someone has thrown through Nick and Nora’s window a rock, which has a piece of paper tied around it. Before they can retrieve it, however, Asta picks the rock up and starts playing keep-away. As Nick chases him around the living room, Asta—much more agile than his human pursuer—gleefully darts away, thoroughly enjoying the game. (Click here to see a montage of Asta scenes, with the clue-stealing bit starting at 2:44.)
When they finally retrieve the now-sodden clue—much of it now missing—Nora chastises Asta, saying something like: “Bad dog; you ate the clue!”
The reason I love this scene so very much is that it perfectly captures the personality and behavior of all the terriers I know. They absolutely adore being chased, especially if they have something in their mouth at the time. Here’s an excerpt from a website called “How to Keep a Jack Russell Happy”:
Play fetch. Terriers love this game. Their favorite part of it, though, is the part where you chase them for the toy. Do not make this a habit, or they will learn not to come to you when you want them to.
I know this to be true because our Jack Russell Terrier mix Ziggy can play this game all day long. Here’s a 12-second film of her at the beach:
This well-known love of keep-away on the part of terriers no doubt inspired the clue-stealing scene in After the Thin Man, as well as a similar scene with the same dog—Skippy—in Bringing Up Baby, when he runs off with a dinosaur bone and is chased by Cary Grant.
Maybe we should put Ziggy in the movies.
our Sieglinde striking a heroic pose
[photo: Doug Peterson]