Thorne Smith’s Turnabout
By Jeff Baker
The slumber of (this) happily married couple was troubled that night by strangely realistic dreams…Tim got the impression that his body was being critically inspected. Sally later admitted that she had experienced the same feeling. And through all those dreams and dim imaginings the figure of Mr. Ram was inextricably woven… ——from “Turnabout,” by Thorne Smith
LGBT writers, that is, writers who deal with LGBT characters and themes find themselves addressing issues of gender roles and gender identities frequently. Almost a century ago, a very heterosexual writer wrote a comic novel which had married couple Tim and Sally Willows examine gender with the unwanted assistance of a statue which turned out to be a minor Egyptian god. “Turnabout,” published in 1931 kept up the spirit of the author’s previous novels which blended supernatural hi-jinks with the bathtub gin era of the Prohibition 20s.
First, a word about the author: Thorne Smith (James Thorne Smith, Jnr.) began writing before World War I (when he was a lover of the future Dorothy Parker!) and after serving in the Navy during the war began publishing novels which set the templates for later fantasy sitcoms like “Bewitched.” Smith’s big success, “Topper” about a stuffy banker and a couple of fun-loving ghosts was his biggest success. Movies and T.V. shows were based on Smith’s books, but he was not around for most of it; he died in 1934 in his early 40s. But back to “Turnabout.”
Unlike many of Smith’s novels, there is juicy action in the chapters before the magic begins; Tim and Sally host a party at their spacious home where a guest passes out (bathtub gin, remember?) and is mistaken for a murder victim. Indeed it is in chapter V (“The Malicious Magic of Mr. Ram,” which I imagine is pronounced “Rahm,”) before Tim and Sally wake up to find themselves switched; he is in her body and she is in his! The couple had been complaining that their own lives were not what they wanted and that the other had it better. The magical switch gives them the chance to see literally how the other half lives, as they spend most of the rest of the book as each other.
This, several decades before “Freaky Friday.”
“Turnabout” is an old-fashioned book, some would say politically incorrect in some places. Some of Smith’s female characters in his novels come off as unappealing cardboard caricatures, but “Turnabout” shows that Smith understood men and women very well. It is also riotously funny in some places! (I cite Chapter VIII; “How Not to Behave at a Church Supper.”) It is periodically re-issued in paperback and not too hard to find in used shops, libraries or online, and like most of Smith’s work is on Kindle. All highly recommended for aspiring writers of comic or serious fantasy, who should study the genre’s earlier examples.
And Thorne Smith has not been forgotten. “Turnabout” was a short-lived sitcom in 1979 (starring Sharon Gless no less!) And the final episode of the original “Star Trek,” in which Kirk and an unstable woman trade places was called “Turnabout Intruder.”
Jeff Baker first read Thorne Smith as a teenager in Wichita, Kansas. He blogs about reading and writing sci-fi, fantasy and horror around the thirteenth of every month. He has been published in Lambda Literary, among other places. He watches Thorne Smith-inspired sitcoms with his husband Darryl, and can be reached or read at https://authorjeffbaker.com/ or on Facebook as Jeff Baker, Authorhttps://www.facebook.com/Jeff-Baker-Author-176267409096907/.