FILM; A Fanciful, Haunting Tale of Influence


October 19, 1997, NY TIMES Sunday Section: Arts and Leisure Desk

IMAGINE THAT SOMEWHERE IN heaven there is a bar, a luminous, fashionable place with a sparkling clientele and an endless supply of the best cocktails. Membership is limited, though; its doors are open only to a few. This is the bar where dead authors go to brag about their earthly legacies. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald are there, bickering and boozing but safe in the knowledge that they are immortalized as literature's golden couple. P. G. Wodehouse orders a stiff Scotch and gazes down upon a world where his name is well known and his works well respected. Somebody buys James Thurber a drink because, after all, he has had his face on a postage stamp.

But there's one writer there whose name is almost forgotten here on earth. Most of his books are out of print, and old copies gather dust in the public libraries. Yet he is one of America's most significant humorous writers; despite the fact that he died in the mid-1930's, he has had an influence that has manifested itself over the years in films like ''Heaven Can Wait,'' ''Cocoon'' and ''Beetlejuice'' and television comedies like ''Bewitched,'' ''I Dream of Jeannie,'' ''Sabrina, the Teen-Age Witch'' and ''Teen Angel.'' His name is Thorne Smith, and in his novel ''Topper,'' which was adapted in the celebrated film of the same name, he created the modern American ghost.

James Thorne Smith Jr., a shy, blond, slightly stooped man with a fondness for gin and fountain pens, was born in Annapolis, Md., in 1892. His father, James Thorne Smith Sr., was supervisor of the Port of New York during World War I. Young Smith was educated at St. Luke's School in Wayne, Pa., and Dartmouth College, then went to work in advertising in New York. He enlisted in the Navy in 1917, and while editing the service paper Broadside during the war, he created his first comic character, a sailor named Biltmore Oswald.

When he returned to civilian life and advertising, a career in which he was moderately successful and enormously miserable, he published these episodes as ''Biltmore Oswald: The Diary of a Hapless Recruit.'' This book of stories was Smith's first success, and he followed it with a sequel and a volume of poetry.

His first novel, ''Dream's End,'' a serious work, was rejected by publishers, but soon afterward ''Topper'' was accepted and became a success. It was 1926, and Smith was 34.

The plot of ''Topper'' is simple. After a fatal car crash, a rich and frivolous couple, George and Marion Kerby (played by Cary Grant and Constance Bennett in the 1937 film), realize they've done nothing of any worth in their lives. To put this right they decide to haunt Cosmo Topper (Roland Young), a mild-mannered bank manager, to free him from ''the summer of suburban Sundays'' that is his life. Marion, furthermore, reasons that she is now free to dally with Topper, because her wedding vow required faithfulness only until ''death do us part.'' Theirs is a thoroughly sophisticated haunting. They wear evening dress, visit nightclubs and bring life into Topper's deathly dull days.

After ''Topper,'' Smith wrote nine novels in eight years. In each, the supernatural overturns mundane life: a witch returns to New York State centuries after having been burned at the stake and marries an unwitting businessman; a scientist discovers how to bring statues to life and goes on a nocturnal drinking spree with the Greek gods of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In all Smith's works, alcohol is harmless, romance is magical, and sex is innocently wicked.

''Criticism regularly overlooked Thorne Smith . . . though he had a distinctive talent and an engaging wit,'' Carl Van Doren wrote in ''The American Novel'' in 1940. But in the 30's, Smith had his passionate advocates. Writing in The Philadelphia Public-Ledger, the critic Harry Emerson Wildes remarked: ''When I come to be dictator I'm going to have all books burned but Thorne Smith's and Wodehouse's. Then we'll rebuild civilization anew with them as a basis and we'll have utopia.''

In many ways, Smith's was the perfect literary life. As a young man he spent time at a hotel near New Haven where he and another guest, Dorothy Rothschild, were regarded as the resident wits (Miss Rothschild later gained literary immortality under her married name, Parker). He eloped with Cecelia Sullivan in 1919, and together they struggled against poverty in Greenwich Village.

AFTER THE SUCCESS OF ''Topper,'' an advance from the Cosmopolitan Book Corporation enabled Smith to leave advertising in 1928, and he and Cecelia went for several months to the French Riviera, where they lived next door to the exiled Caliph of Turkey and his eight wives. Later, Smith's growing popularity caught the eye of Hollywood, and MGM hired him to write dialogue. Meanwhile, increasing book sales brought in money he sorely needed during the Depression.

Despite this, he was dissatisfied. After the success of ''Topper,'' ''Dream's End'' was published, and the reviews were scathing. One critic called it ''a wallow of fevered flapdoodle.'' Smith still wanted to write a good serious novel, but his confidence was battered.

''There's plenty of room in the world for a decent-spirited drunkard,'' remarked one of Smith's characters. ''Sobriety is good for certain persons only.'' Sadly, his own drinking was less amusing and damaged his health, already weakened by pleurisy. One afternoon in Sarasota, Fla., his wife tried to wake him from a nap and discovered his heart had stopped. It was the first day of summer 1934; he was 42.

To the ingredients of an intriguing literary life can be added early death: Smith enjoyed few of the real rewards of his labor. He had been dead for three years, for example, when Grant brought his breezy urbanity to the movie ''Topper'' and helped make it Smith's most influential story, one that initiated a film genre that now includes works as different as ''The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,'' ''Heaven Can Wait,'' ''Always,'' ''Beetlejuice,'' ''Ghost'' and the forthcoming film ''A Life Less Ordinary,'' whose angels are of a haunting variety. In ''The Filmgoer's Companion,'' Leslie Halliwell writes of ''Topper,'' ''Hal Roach produced this mixture of slapstick, sophistication and supernatural from Thorne Smith's novel and started a new trend in Hollywood comedy.''

In 1953, ''Topper,'' with its contrast between the supernatural and the suburban, also put its mark on the new medium of television, becoming its first fantasy sitcom. Another Smith novel left a similar trail. In 1942, ''The Passionate Witch'' was adapted as the Veronica Lake film ''I Married a Witch,'' which led, in 1964, to the television show ''Bewitched.''

LIKE STUBBORN THOUGH unpredictable phantoms, Smith's works keep materializing before a new public and then vanishing again. A few years ago, rumor had it that Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts would star in a remake of ''Topper'' (there was a television movie in 1979). Then plans to mount a stage version swirled for a while. A new television-series adaptation was abandoned after a dismal pilot. And only last week, word from the West Coast was that a major feature feature remake was finally in the offing.

Why the continuing, albeit occasional, fascination with Smith? Joseph Blotner is now known as the biographer of literary luminaries like William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren, but in 1951, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Smith. In ''Thorne Smith: A Study in Popular Fiction,'' Mr. Blotner argued that Smith's books were popular because, instead of presenting the American dream of rags to riches, an idea hit hard by the Depression, he dealt with ''laughing hedonism, physical enjoyment, freedom from care and the rejection of responsibilities.'' (Mr. Blotner estimated that by the early 50's Smith's global sales exceeded 20 million copies.)

Now the tissue-thin pages of that dissertation are fragile, but after a lifetime studying literature Mr. Blotner still thinks of Smith as ''a man of unique abilities who deserves a place in American fiction, even if it is not in the first or second rank.''

Perhaps Thorne Smith will enjoy a new vogue. Perhaps, like one of his characters, he simply belongs to ''a vanished era when people talked and played and loved with effortless enjoyment.''

But should the ghosts of Thurber and Smith meet and spend an hour in idle banter, Thurber might buy Smith an admiring drink. His name may have faded like a spirit in sunlight, but he created the modern American ghost. A ghost with style and wit. A ghost that haunts us still.