Thorne Smith (1892 - 1934) was once one of America's best-known comic authors. His reputation is still strong, but the number of people who know of him has dwindled. He belonged to another age, and his works are out of step with modern sensibilities, but why should that stop anyone?
Smith worked in advertising, but made his leap into literature towards the end of the First World War. While serving in the Navy, he became editor of The Broadside, a magazine for Naval Reserve personnel. His humorous stories were collected in two books, but it wasn't until 1924 that he gave up his day job and devoted himself to writing. Even then he did not work exclusively on his novels. James Thurber, in his book The Years With Ross, tells of Smith's brief and unproductive stint on the staff of The New Yorker. Smith also tried his hand at Hollywood, as seemingly every other writer did, without success.
Smith's forté was the comic novel; he wrote little else. At his peak he was popular and successful enough to publish several books per year. He was still in his prime when he died. His most famous book, Topper, is remembered by many because of its adaptation for film and television; the rest of his oeuvre is undeservedly obscure.
A Thorne Smith novel is made up of variations on a few basic ideas: his stock company of characters and situations, if you will. They are:
Smith's heroes are men adrift in the world. Usually tall and thin - attenuated is a favourite word - and unhappily married, the hero is pulled, quite against his will, into a new and more confusing situation. He is, incongruously, madly desired by the heroine, and sometimes other women as well. He is never in control of events. In the end a Smith hero is usually better off, and certainly wiser, than before. Decorum and reputation may have fallen by the wayside but sometimes they must be cast off in order to enjoy life. That is the overall moral of Smith's comedies.
Women in Smith's books often get short shrift, with one important exception. Wives are usually adulterous, critical and the least desirable women in his books. The heroine is always the most attractive, intelligent and resourceful. She is also intensely attracted to the hero, and lets nothing stand in her way. Never promiscuous, but ready and eager for a roll in the hay with the hero - more eager than the hero, always - she is an unstoppable force of nature. Other, less virtuous women may compete with her, but they don't stand a chance.
It is clear that Smith plays comic turns with a standard male fantasy: the befuddled man desired by the voluptuous but monogamous woman. However, that isn't the fantasy we mean. There is magic in Smith's books. Little russet men work spells, alternative worlds exist, ghosts appear. Ordinary life is something to be avoided, a bad situation escaped by unusual means.
Perhaps sex isn't the right term. There is very little sex in Smith's books. There is a tremendous amount of talk about sex, or talk that dances around the edges of sex. The double entendre is run through every variation imaginable. Times were different, more repressed, in those days. In Hollywood, the Hays Office began clamping down on immorality in movies; it was not until 1933 that the Honorable John M Woolsey wrote his famous opinion that allowed James Joyce's Ulysses to be published in the United States. But Smith would not have benefited from being more explicit. Rather, it is the way people approach sex that occupies his time. Real smut would have spoiled his work completely.
It is hard to describe how much Smith's characters drink. Most of his books were written during Prohibition in the United States. While the trouble getting booze gets a token mention, it is rarely anything more than tokenism. One might almost take it as another element of fantasy.
It is hard to imagine Smith succeeding today; there is something a bit quaint about his reticence toward sex, and something unwholesome about his character's love of alcohol. However, they do combine to help form a distinctive comic gift. No one else has approached the world quite as Smith did. The greatest humorists always speak with unique voices, and Thorne Smith's voice is certainly unique.
This entry will not go into much detail here; why spoil whatever surprises await?
Biltmore Oswald (1918) - The first of two volumes of material Smith wrote for The Broadside.
Out O' Luck (1919) - The second volume of the misadventures of Oswald, the hapless Naval man.
Haunts and Bypaths (1919) - Smith's only book of poetry.
The Stray Lamb (1924) - Mr Lamb's life becomes much more interesting when he starts changing into various animals. This book really sets the standard for Thorne Smith comedy.
Topper (1926) - Smith's most famous, thanks to its adaptation for movies and television. Cosmo Topper's best friends are dead, but that doesn't stop them from living the good life. Or is that the good afterlife?
Dream's End (1927) - One of two serious novels Smith wrote. It was not well received and may never have been reprinted in English.
The Night Life of the Gods (1931) - Hunter Hawk is befriended by a pair of rather magical people and brings a group of statues of Greek Gods to life. Adapted for the movies in 1935 - see below.
Turnabout (1931) - A husband and wife find their souls switched into one another's bodies.
Lazy Bear Lane (1931) - A children's book.
Topper Takes a Trip (1932) - More adventures with Cosmo Topper.
Did She Fall? (1932) - A mystery novel, rather better received than Smith's previous effort at serious fiction. Dashiell Hammett wrote, 'At times the book approaches something akin to literature.'
The Bishop's Jaegers (1932) - Have you ever wanted to read a novel about underwear? Smith takes a group of disparate types in disparate undergarments and explores the possibilities. Also includes a duck named Havelock Ellis.
Rain in the Doorway (1933) - Arguably the most outlandish of Smith's novels. A typical Smith hero is literally dragged through a doorway into a surreal alternative world where sex and crime and drink seem to be never-ending.
Skin and Bones (1933) - Quintus Bland turns into a skeleton at inopportune moments. There are very few opportune moments to turn into a skeleton, so he really can't be blamed.
The Glorious Pool (1934) - Smith discovers the Fountain of Youth. What took him so long?
The Passionate Witch (1941) - Left unfinished at Smith's death, this book was completed by Norman Matson. It was made into a film under the title I Married a Witch - see below.
Thorne Smith was very popular with the reading public. To Hollywood, he presented a bit of a problem. There was no way a film could approach the amount of sex and drinking that a good Smith novel contains. It's not surprising that Topper, being one of Smith's milder works, should be the most faithfully adapted.
The Night Life of the Gods (1935) - A heavily bowdlerized version of the novel. Sadly, the film is unavailable and is thought to be completely lost.
Topper (1937) - A fine film that comes closest to capturing Smith on screen.
Topper Takes a Trip (1937) - An adequate sequel to Topper.
Topper Returns (1941) - The last of the Topper films. Roland Young was very good as Topper. When the series came to television, Leo G Carroll was also well cast as the star. A Topper television movie was made in 1979, with the hope of a new series, but was unsuccessful.
I Married A Witch (1942) - An adaptation of Smith's last, unfinished novel. The title gives the plot away. The popular television series Bewitched is thought to have been inspired by this film.