Topper, Turnabout, TCM, and ... Thorne Smith

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Mom," I said when I was 10 or thereabouts, "what's 'ribald' mean?" Because I had just pulled from the bookcase a Pocket Book edition of Topper - and the cover told me it was "a ribald adventure" by Thorne Smith. However she explained it (and I don't recall: ah, the challenges of parenthood), I read the book and was delighted - and went in pursuit of other novels by Smith. We had a few: Topper Takes a Trip, Turnabout, The Stray Lamb, and Rain in the Doorway, as I recall. Eventually, thanks to perseverance and used book stores, I added to the collection: The Glorious Pool, The Bishop's Jaegers, Did She Fall?, The Passionate Witch, Skin and Bones, and The Night Life of the Gods. They were deliciously "naughty" (and I didn't understand all the implications of all the "naughtiness," I think it only fair to point out here), and at some point I even made a list of how many times I'd read each one so's not to favor one over another in the course of many re-readings. Two of the novels (The Bishop's Jaegers and Did She Fall?) were not fantasies. Each of the rest had a supernatural gimmick. Topper involved ghosts. The Stray Lamb involved being turned into animals. The Night Life of the Gods featured an invention that turned people to stone and brought statues to life. And so on.

So when Glen Weldon on National Public Radio's Pop Culture Happy Hour discussed the upcoming film The Change-Up, he went on to suggest that "body-swapping comedies" were a genre and rattled off references to a number of films in that genre without even going back to Disney's two versions of Freaky Friday. And that discussion suddenly reminded me of Turnabout - and made me wonder whether Smith had, indeed, created a genre in 1931 (with a sort of subgenre in The Stray Lamb in 1929 - with who knows how many resultant Disney projects in that grouping). I think Smith did - and that, in turn, led me to grab a copy of Topper again to revisit his fiction to see whether I liked his writing as much now as I had decades ago. I did. At random from the set-up of Topper:

Mr. Topper and his neighbors were quietly proud of his street, and had born their assessments as a tolerant father bears the extras of an extravagant son at college. One could bring one's friends from the city to this street and let it speak for itself, which one seldom did. Sewerage, real estate and the cost of building were subjects far too fascinating to be left to the imagination, so the visitors from the city heard all about these things, and were not amused.

At any rate, my guess is that few today have read many of Smith's works - and the film adaptations some of them achieved hardly conveyed all that could have been translated from his novels. But, on the trail of the Turnabout genre, I discovered that January is apparently Turner Classic Movies' month to celebrate Thorne Smith movies (or, as Peter Sanderson commented, maybe it's just that TCM is paying tribute to Hal Roach). In any case, I've had that channel tuned so as to watch (January 23) I Married a Witch (based, albeit with changed ending, on The Passionate Witch), (January 25) Topper, and (January 26) Turnabout, Topper Takes a Trip, and Topper Returns. And, with Turnabout, I may be watching the beginning of a genre.


MaleKim January 26, 2011 at 5:36 AM  

First, I agree with what you said, Maggie, about Thorne Smith. I wish his works were on audio, which I can handle easier than reading these days. But I did a search recently on iTunes, and all I got in return was "Topper." (And, if you do a search on eBay of the author, you'll mostly get results for Courtney Thorne-Smith.) Also, I have to mention that Disney has actually done THREE versions of "Freaky Friday." There was a made-for-TV version that starred Shelley Long as the mother.

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