James Thorne Smith, Jr. was born on March 27, 1892 at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. His father, Commodore James Thorne Smith was supervisor of the Port of New York during the First World War. His mother Florence (Rundle) Thorne Smith was the granddaughter of coffee grower Don Jose Maxwell, the namesake for Maxwell House Coffee. Following their mother's death in 1896, he and his older brother Skyring were left in the care of various aunts in Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina while the Commodore was serving aboard the U.S.S. Yosemite in the Spanish-American War.
He attended boarding school at the Locust Dale Academy in Virginia. Unhappy there, he transferred to St. Luke's School in Wayne, Pennsylvania but was apparently no happier there. An average student he took no interest in any classes other than English and was apparently a disciplinary problem, Reportedly, he came close to being expelled but hung on and graduated in 1910 at the age of 18. That fall he matriculated at Dartmouth, where he maintained an active social life -- joining Psi Upsilon Fraternity and running for the cross country track team. He dropped out of Dartmouth in June of 1912.
After leaving college, he took a job in a New York advertising agency where he wrote advertising copy for Dr. Lyon's Tooth Powder®. While writing copy he often used the name T. Horn Smith -- perhaps to distinguish himself from his prominent father.
During World War I, Thorne Smith joined the U.S. Navy. It has been suggested that he welcomed the excuse to get out of the advertising industry. He joined the staff of the Naval Reservist journal, The Broadside, soon rising to the position of editor. This gave him an opportunity to finally publish some of his poetry. During this time he also wrote a series of stories about a hapless young seaman named Biltmore Oswald, who may be seen as the original model for such later characters as Sad Sack and Beetle Bailey. In 1918, he compiled those stories into a book he published under the title Biltmore Oswald: The Diary of a Hapless Recruit. A year later, he published a sequel, Out O' Luck: Biltmore Oswald Very Much at Sea.
Following his discharge from the Navy in 1919, he reluctantly returned to the advertising business as a copywriter. While writing copy paid the bills, Smith continued to write poetry and occasional short stories in his free time. He was among the millions of Americans stricken by the great Spanish Flu epidemic of 1919 and took months to recover. Once he had recovered, he relocated to the Greenwich Village Inn, at that time the home of many literary personalities, including John Reed and Sinclair Lewis.
During his period at the Inn he submitted his poems to several newspapers and magazines including The Smart Set. It was something of a coup to be published in The Smart Set, which was one of the leading literary magazines of the period. This, in turn, led to the publication of his first volume of poetry, Haunts & By-Paths. Unfortunately, Haunts & By-Paths did not sell well and the reviewers were unimpressed. Later, he would write that he wished he could have it back "for purposes of destruction."
During this time, he met and fell in love with a fellow Greenwich Village resident named Celia Sullivan, who he called his "Mona Lisa". Her parents were unhappy about her having a relationship with a man they felt had little or no prospects. Rejecting her parents' choice of a suitable husband, Celia eloped to Rye, New York with Thorne in the Fall of 1919. The couple set up housekeeping in an apartment on Jones Street in Greenwich Village.
When his father, the Commodore, passed away in 1920, he was the sole beneficiary of his father's estate. Smith gave the family house in New Rochelle to his brother Skyling who had a family, while he and Celia used some of the money from the estate to take a vacation in the South of France. On their return, they purchased a summer home in Free Acres, New Jersey, a community with a growing reputation as a Greenwich Village type creative center outside the city.
The remainder of the inheritance didn't last them long and Smith was compelled to return to writing ad copy in order to make a living. This situation depressed Smith, which in turn led to heavy drinking. They had two daughters that time and he wrote a children's book, Lazy Bear Lane (1931), which he dedicated to them.
In 1925, he lost his job and remained unemployed for the next six months. Unemployed, with his poetry not selling and the royalties from Biltmore Oswald and Out 'O Luck shrinking, he decided to write a novel. The result was a serious literary novel titled Dreams End. It has been described as a gothic romance. The protagonist of the story (who resembles the author in a variety of ways) is an adverting executive who gets sick of the business and becomes a poet. Smith had difficulty, however, in finding a publisher interested in it, and when it was finally published in 1927 it received mixed reviews and had few sales. He reluctantly went back to work in the advertising business and moved his family out of Greenwich Village with a similar reluctance. His drinking appeared to worsen during this unhappy period.
During this time he began working on a short story inspired by his observation of a dog romping through a field of tall grass. All he could see was the dog's tail moving frantically from place to place -- a tail without a dog - which became a central image in the story which included a ghost dog. He decided to expand the story into a novel, intruding his fun-loving ghosts and their dog into the dull life of a middle-aged, henpecked banker who he gave the name Cosmo Topper. The result became Thorne Smith's biggest success, Topper (1926), which established the pattern of Smith's successful novels, mixing lighthearted fantasy with lots of drinking and sexual innuendo. In 1932 he published a sequel, Topper Takes a Trip, in which Topper reunites with the ghosts for further screwball adventures.
Famed comedy film-maker Hal Roach filmed Topper in 1937 with Roland Young as Cosmo Topper, Billie Burke as Mrs. Topper, and Cary Grant and Constance Bennett as the "jovial ghosts" George and Marion Kerby. The film was a smash success and earned Roland Young an Academy Award nomination. The same excellent cast, with the exception of Cary Grant, was reunited in 1939 for a film adaptation of Topper Takes a Trip, which I have never had a chance to see but would like to. Two years later, Roland Young and Billie Burke reprised their roles as the Toppers in the highly entertaining mystery comedy, Topper Returns (1941). I have seen that one and found it quite entertaining.
Topper was adapted into a TV series, beginning in 1953, with Leo G. Carroll as Cosmo Topper, and Robert Sterling and Anne Jeffreys as the ghosts. Several of the early episodes were written by a young Stephen Sondheim. This show was my introduction to Topper and the humor of Thorne Smith. I still picture Leo G. Carroll in the role when I reread Topper.
The Stray Lamb (1929) was another comic fantasy about a mild-mannered banker T. Lawrence Lamb. Lamb is an alcoholic with an unfaithful wife whose encounter with a "russet man" in the woods results in his being mysteriously transformed into a series of different animals. Each transformation allows him to experience a new viewpoint on the world and gain perspective on the human condition. Along the way, as expected in a Thorne Smith novel, there is a lot of drunken lawlessness and talk about sex. A courtroom scene involving the characters and an exasperated judge provides a climax to the tipsy action - another trope found in a number of Smith's novels.
Did She Fall? (1930) combines Smith's comedic style with a murder mystery plot that was reportedly admired by Dashiell Hammett. When I learned that Thorne Smith had written a mystery novel I was eager to read Did She Fall? but found it quite disappointing. In my opinion, it did not succeed as either a comedy or a mystery. Perhaps, some day I will reread it and I hope I will judge it differently on the second try - that has happened before with novels given a second reading or movies given a second viewing.
In The Night Life of the Gods eccentric inventor Hunter Hawk invents a device that can turn living flesh into stone and back again. Then he meets a drunken leprechaun named Ludwig Turner, who introduces him to "a holy howling hell of a daughter" as Ludwig describes her. Ludwigs daughter it seems is the gorgeous millennia-old Greek demigoddess, Megaera, who has the power to turn statues to flesh. After a few preliminary adventures, they head for New York City where they visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and bring the statues of Mercury, Bacchus, Venus, Diana, Hebe, Apollo and Perseus to life. The lusty and drunken (of course) deities create havoc in Prohibition era New York City. In 1935, The Night Life of the Gods was fimed starring Alan Mowbray.
Turnabout (1931) is the story of Tim and Sally Willows, a married couple who are always arguing over their childish jealousies Their constant bickering motivates a small ancient Egyptian idol they have in their bedroom to play a trick on them by switching their bodies. Tim finds life as a woman to be very challenging, while Sally discovers that her husband's life is no bed of roses either. Matters take a turn for the worse for Tim when Sally gets him pregnant and he faces the unexpected prospect of giving birth. Drunkenness and sexual innuendo play their usual large roles in the story. It has some absolutely hilarious scenes, such as the one in which Tim, trapped in his wife's body, teaches a lesson to Sally's boyfriend. Turnabout was made into a movie by Hal Roach in 1940 starring Carol Landis and John Hubbard as the bickering couple and giving Adolphe Menjou top billing for his supporting role as the husband's boss. It also had a short run as a TV series in 1979.
It has often been claimed that Turnabout served as the inspiration for numerous other movies with a plot device of minds switched between bodies, from Freaky Friday (1972) to Young Frankenstein (1974) but that credit would seem to more accurately go to Vice Versa (1882) by F. Anstey (Thomas Anstey Guthrie). Anstey also seems to have provided some of the inspiration for Thorne Smith's theme of a vivified statue of a Greek goddess with his The Tinted Venus (1885) which was adapted as the Broadway musical One Touch of Venus in 1943 and then filmed in 1948.
The Bishop's Jaegers (1932) is a rarity among Smith's comic novels in that it contains no supernatural element. It is the story of Peter Van Dyke who is the unmotivated and depressed heir to a vast coffee fortune. His secretary, Miss Josephine Duval, decides that she should save him from his bland existence by morally ruining him. This leads to a scandal involving a nude Van Dyke, Miss Duval, and an unfortunate burglar trapped together in a coat closet. Subsequently they find themselves, along with Episcopal Bishop Waller and former nude model Aspirin Liz, on the Staten Island Ferry lost in a dense fog. When the ferry captain finally finds land, it turns out to be a nudist colony. Everyone on the ferry is required to disrobe with the exception of the Bishop. Out of respect for his holiness, the Bishop is allowed to keep his jaegers on - jaegers, it seems, are a type of long underwear. When the nudists decide to get dressed in order to hold an orgy, things really get wild but never actually pornographic. The moral ruination of Peter Van Dyke is accomplished.
In Rain in the Doorway (1933) Hector Owen seeks shelter from the rain in a doorway, stumbles through the revolving door, and finds himself in a department store that seems to be something of a madhouse ran by the patients. Before he can flee the premises he discovers that he has become one of the owners of the store. This leads to the usual highly intoxicated cavorting and ends in a signature courtroom scene.
Skin and Bones (1933) was the first Thorne Smith novel I ever read. Smith's style has often been accused of being adolescent humor and it certainly appealed to me as an adolescent - I found the novel hilarious. In it, another invention has unanticipated and fantastic results. In this case it is a photographer's invention of film that will allow him to take X-rays with an ordinary camera. A freak dark room accident exposes him to his chemical concoction rendering him a walking, talking X-ray. Both he and his dog appear to be living skeletons, which inevitably (in a Thorne Smith novel) leads to an assortment of drunken hijinks and a good deal of talk about sex.
Around Christmas of that year Skin and Bones was presented as a live radio dramatization. The broadcast was transmitted on a local New York City radio station. Following the performance, producer Robert Hayden Jones interviewed Thorne Smith on the air.
The next of his novels to be published was also the next I read -- The Glorious Pool (1934). The story begins with the aging Rex Pebble and Spray Summers celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the seduction that made him an adulterer and her that a statue with magic powers (sound familiar?) has imbued the water in their swimming pool with the powers of the fountain of youth. Abandoning their clothes along with the infirmities of age, they strike out on a night of reckless merrymaking. In this they are joined by various others, including their drunken Japanese houseboy, Nakashima, and the equally drunken crew of a fire truck.
Smith died of a heart attack while vacationing in Florida. His last novel The Passionate Witch (1941) was left unfinished at the time of his sudden death and was finished by Norman Matson. It told the story of a mild-mannered millionaire whose one great eccentricity is his love of playing fireman as a volunteer for his local fire department. His life is turned upside down (after the fashion of Smith protagonists) when he rescues a woman from a burning building. The surprisingly unharmed woman turns out to be a witch and he winds up married to her with disastrous effects for his composure, sanity, and sobriety. The novel was promptly turned into a movie in 1942 under the title I Married a Witch and went on to inspire such other pop culture expressions as the movie Bell, Book and Candle and the TV show Bewitched. Norman Matson wrote a less successful sequel, Bats in the Belfry (1942), which I have never read.