Monday, February 7, 2011

My Debt to Thorne Smith

I recently spent some enjoyable time watching a film based on a memorable character created by humorist Thorne Smith.

The film is “Topper,” produced by Hal Roach in 1937, directed by Norman Z. McLeod, and starring Cary Grant, Constance Bennett, Roland Young and Billie Burke. In addition to a superb cast and lots of laughs the film, nominated for two Oscars, features some wonderful music by Hoagy Carmichael. Topper is a staid and hen-pecked banker whose life is turned topsy-turvy by a fun-loving ghost couple, George and Marion Kerby.

The film reminded me of the debt I owe Smith, though his books and this film were produced before I was born. In fact, the film reminded me how many writers have been influenced by him—some probably even unaware of that influence.

Though most younger readers won’t even recognize the name, Thorne Smith influenced several generations of writers, particularly in the fields of science fiction and fantasy, and his ideas have been liberally lifted and reused in books as well as radio, television and film scripts.

I was introduced to Smith with the advent of the television series which had its debut in 1953 on CBS and starring Leo G. Carroll in the starring role. This led me to his books, which I discovered to have more depth and color than permissible on 1950s TV. Enamored of the theme, I was inspired to write a novella (my first long work) with a character I called Herkimer. Of course it was derivative and terrible. But it inspired me to keep trying and do better.

Would that have happened without Smith? Probably. But I still think I owe him a word of thanks for providing some incentive.

A native of Annapolis, Md., James Thorne Smith Jr. began his literary career as a poet, wrote a serious novel which failed, penned a mystery (“Did She Fall?) which was praised by Dashiell Hammett, and finally found his niche in humor. “Topper,” his best-selling work, inspired a film series, two sequels and a television series. Despite this success, high-living and poor money managing skills forced Smith to work in advertising to support his family. For a more complete biography and information on his career I direct you to the excellent tribute site,


  1. I havent heard of this chap but thank you for ressurecting him. He must have been a very good writer. You mean Dashiell Hammett had a sense of humour? (LOL).

  2. I haven't heard of the writer but now I want to do more research. Often these writers that stay in the background are so influential.

  3. Thanks so much for this bio. I adore the film Topper--one of my top movies of all time--but didn't know anything about Smith. I'm going to go check him out.