Saturday, September 05, 2009


There is nothing more delectable than good humor writing, whether it is in the novels of P. G. Wodehouse or the comic fantasies of Thorne Smith.

But right now it is Thorne Smith here: it's a regular Topper marathon. Smith's 1926 best-seller, a comedy familiar to most of us through the Cary Grant movie, is a hilarious, whimsical ghost story - a purely American classic.

Cosmo Topper, a discontented, dull, middle-aged banker, begins to live when he buys a flashy used car: it happens to be the vehicle in which the flamboyant, glamorous, bathtub-gin-swilling George and Marion Kerby crashed into a tree. Topper defies the superstitious idea that the car will bring bad luck, learns to drive, and encounters the ghosts of the Kerbys. They're wild "lower-plane" ghosts who encourage him to drink, dance, drive fast, and defy his stuffy wife. They especially enjoy making mischief when they are not “materialized” - George terrifies three farmers when he invisibly changes the tire (while Topper sits in the woods, and has to pretend it is some kind of sleight-of-hand); Marion and George persuade Topper to sit in the middle while they drive recklessly (and the car seems to have no driver); drink at a deserted inn and then make a scene at a drugstore, so that Topper is arrested for fighting. and Marion accidentally frightens a store full of people when she is found in a dressing room half-materialized, trying on a pair of knickers.

In this hysterical scene, Marion insists on Topper's ordering her a chocolate soda.

“He procured two straws, plunged them viciously into the soda, then held the glass behind his paper. the liquid immediately began to descend in the glass. From the rapidity of the descent Mr. Topper decided that George Kerby had bought his wife very few sodas during her earthly existence.

“‘Now dig out the ice cream with the spoon,’ she whispered. ‘Pretend to be eating it. I’ll nibble it off.”

“‘This is going to be pretty,’ murmured Mr. Topper with as much sarcasm as can be packed into a murmur. ‘You’ll have to do better than nibble. You’ll fairly have to snap it off.’”

“The nibbling or snapping operation required the use of both Topper’s hands and forced him to abandon the protection of the paper.... The spoon flew to his avid mouth, but, just before his lips concealed their prize, the ice cream mysteriously vanished. It must be said in favor of Marion Kerby that she met the demands of the occasion.... When the ice cream had run its course Mr. Topper resumed his paper and waited, with a knowledge bred of experience, for the dregs of the soda to be drawn. He had little time to wait. Hollow, expiring, gurgling sounds loudly proclaimed the welcome ending of the soda.”

All these escapades get Topper into trouble - the soda jerk thinks he did a magic trick and demands to know how he did it. But the mischief is also his salvation. He learns to enjoy life.

Smith was a friend of James Thurber, and, according to Wikipedia, sold millions of books in the 1930s. I can see why. On to Topper Takes a Trip next.


Ellen said...

Dear Kathy,

First thank you for the comment on my Reveries blog. I responded to you there :).

When I saw this one, I smiled. I just loved the two Topper movies, and now I know that Roland Young played Mr Bennet in that (awful because too cheery) 1940 P&P and also Chris Kringle in the Xmas on 34th Street movie too.

I have read about the books but not the books themselves. Alas I no longer remember the details of the movies and you have to do that to be able to tell the difference.

From the pieces you quote it seems the book offers a chance to male readers to return to innocent boyhood -- the movie as I recall (very vaguely) didn't play as much on the star's sexuality as one might expect and perhaps this reflects the book. I offer the idea (from my blog associating) it's a boys' book for men :)


P.S. Girls can read boys' books and vice versa of course.

Mad Housewife said...

What really strikes me is the amount of hard drinking. We wouldn't have all that drinking and driving in a novel today! The Kerbys, the ghosts, look after Topper during the drinking scenes. But Topper is not the only one! In a town where he is arrested, the judge asks the policeman if he had smelled whisky on Topper's breath, and the policeman replied that it had never occurred to him because everybody smelled of whisky that time of day.

Danielle said...

I found this book at a library sale a year or so ago. I wonder which book pile it resides in. It sounds like fun--I know it's not very PC but sometimes novels like this can be very amusing (as long as you don't go out and do what the characters do!).

Mad Housewife said...

I enjoyed it. It's very silly. I believe it was published as a humor classic in a short-lived Modern Library humor series a few years ago.