Thorne Smith

Born - Mar 27, 1891   |   Died - Jun 20, 1934   |   Genres - Comedy, Fantasy

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Biography by Bruce Eder

Thorne Smith is an author whose ideas and stories have shown little sign of waning in popularity, even 70 years after his death. Known in his time as one of the finest humor writers of his era, he created three of the most enduringly popular figures in fantasy literature, in the form of Cosmo Topper and the ghosts George and Marion Kerby, in the 1926 novel Topper; additionally, his posthumously published novel I Married a Witch was part of the basis for the perennially popular television series Bewitched. Born James Thorne Smith, Jr. in 1891 at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, MD, he was the son of Commodore James Thorne Smith, a career navy officer. He attended school in Virginia and Pennsylvania, and studied for two years at Dartmouth College. Rather than continuing on to graduation, however, he joined a New York advertising agency after finishing his sophomore year and began spending time in the literary and artistic community that was coalescing in Greenwich Village in the opening decades of the 20th century. Smith served in World War I as an enlisted man, rising to boatswain's mate. He also edited the navy newspaper Broadside, for which he created the humorous character Biltmore Oswald, an accident-prone would-be sailor whose misfortunes proved so popular, that Smith was compelled to assemble them into a book-length work, Biltmore Oswald: The Diary of a Hapless Recruit (1918). This was so successful that the following year Smith published Out 'o Luck: Biltmore Oswald Very Much at Sea. In 1919, his war service behind him, Smith returned to civilian life and the advertising business; he published Haunts and By-Paths (credited as J. Thorne Smith), a collection of poetry, that same year. Smith married in 1921, and by the mid-'20s he had two daughters. In 1926, he published Topper: An Improbable Adventure, which told the story of staid middle-aged banker Cosmo Topper and his encounter with two fun-loving ghosts, George and Marion Kerby. Killed in a car accident while on a reckless jaunt, the Kerbys have never done anything terrible in their lives, except for never having done anything for anyone else. Before they can leave the earth, their task is to do something good for someone -- in this case, mousy, browbeaten banker and husband Cosmo Topper, whom they teach how to stand up for himself and also how to get some fun out of life. The book was an instant bestseller and eventually saw millions of copies in print, establishing Smith as both the leading fantasist and humorous novelist of the 1920s. Topper, in particular, was a counteractive to the dominant mood of repression abroad in the politics of the land. This was the era of Prohibition, and of an administration in Washington that saw no need to restrain business activities or prominent, even grotesque, displays of wealth. Topper hinted (though Smith should have flatly denied any purpose so serious as this) that there was more to life than making money, that fun had a place in life, and that, in the midst of having fun in life, people had some responsibility to each other to see that everyone had a chance to enjoy life. Smith's next few novels were eagerly taken up by the public, who were delighted by the humor of his work as well as the wild imagination that he displayed, which occasionally carried Smith over into areas of remarkable ribaldry (for the time). The most notable of these books was Night Life of the Gods (1931), which depicted the chaos that results when the Olympian gods of Greek mythology are brought to life in early '30s Manhattan, free to indulge their considerable lusts at will. The book was brought to the screen in 1935 at Universal under its own title by director Lowell Sherman. He went into seemingly even more outrageous territory later in 1931 with Turnabout, a fantasy novel about a married couple who exchange bodies and see life from the other side, culminating with the husband's pregnancy. He brought Cosmo Topper back for another adventure in 1932, in Topper Takes a Trip, and in 1933 he went to Hollywood to join the script department at MGM. Smith seemed to have nothing but an extraordinary future ahead of him, with Hollywood open to him, publishers eager to publish anything with his name on it, and readers eager to buy any book he wrote. And then, in mid-1934, he went on a vacation to Sarasota, FL, with his family and suffered a fatal heart attack. At the time of his death, Smith left behind a pair of unfinished manuscripts, which were later completed by Norman Matson. The more famous of the two, I Married a Witch, was published in 1941 and brought to the screen a year later, starring Fredric March and Veronica Lake. Interestingly, that book's somewhat libidinous nature paralleled the work on-stage during the same period of playwright Noël Coward, who was enjoying one of the biggest hits of his career with Blithe Spirit, a comedy that essentially asked the rather Thorne Smith-like question, "Is there sex after death?" In 1943 came Bats in the Belfry, the sequel to I Married a Witch. Smith was still so well known, that the publication of these two books was treated as a major popular literary event. In the years immediately following Smith's death, film adaptations of his work began showing up. Night Life of the Gods (1935) at Universal was the first, but the real coup was scored by producer Hal Roach, who brought Topper and two sequels (Topper Takes a Trip and a third story, Topper Returns, which was adapted from Smith's characters by Gordon Douglas and Jonathan Latimer) to the big screen. Topper (1937) was one of the most enduring comedies and popular fantasies of the 1930s, featuring three delightful central performances by Cary Grant, Constance Bennett, and Roland Young; it remains one of the most beloved comedies of the decade. Subsequent film adaptations of Smith's work, including a film of Turnabout, were less well-received critically, but were very popular. The 1950s saw the production of the television series Topper, starring Leo G. Carroll, Anne Jeffreys, and Robert Sterling (real-life husband and wife), which has been among the most popular and oft-rerun series of that decade, right into the 21st century. There was also an attempt to revive the property in the 1970s as a made-for-television movie starring Kate Jackson and Andrew Stevens. The most successful manifestation of Smith's work after the 1950s, however, was an unofficial one. In 1964, producer Sol Saks created the series Bewitched, one of a group of "gimmick" comedies of the period, which also included female androids (My Living Doll), and genies (I Dream of Jeannie), and unsold series involving spirits trying to do good deeds for people (shades of Topper!), not to mention the genetically dubious notion of "twin cousins" (The Patty Duke Show). Bewitched concerned a modern-day businessman who marries a woman who turns out to be a witch. Even Saks later admitted that part of the inspiration came from I Married a Witch, and the similarities eventually led to yet a further reprint of the original novel. Smith's work was still getting reprinted periodically in paperback into the 1970s, and Topper has continued to add significantly to its sales totals over the decades. For his part, the author described himself wryly as "one of America's greatest realists," calling his books "as blindly unreasonable as nature" on the original dust-jacket for Night Life of the Gods. "Like life itself my stories have no point and get absolutely nowhere. And like life they are a little mad and purposeless. Quite casually I wander into my plot, poke around with my characters for a while, then amble off, leaving no moral proved and no reader improved."