Review: 'Jonathan', by Russell O’Neil
The spirit of Thorne Smith lives! Or it did in 1959, when this novel was published. Transformation was never so funny, or so inebriated, as when they wrote it.
There were no moral implications in Arthur Green’s watering the Scotch; it was purely an executive maneuver. A less efficient administrator might simply have apologized for having forgotten to stock his trailer with whiskey, but Arthur knew that his particular victims would then merrily have forgiven him and produced their own. If they were to drink, as they surely were, it was obviously better to have them do so from his unproofed stock than from their own authentic supply. (p. 1)
Arthur is the Hollywood producer of a Western being filmed on location somewhere in the Mexican desert. In the production company are Arthur, the harried producer; George McKaye, the matter-of-fact director; Jonathan Cartwright, the reluctant scriptwriter and Carol Holloway, his loyal secretary; Max, the practical horse wrangler; Bruce Gentry, the egotistical cowboy star; Melissa Drummond, the self-centered leading lady; and Beverly Dawn, a ditzy starlet. And Lightning, Gentry’s noble steed, who is in reality Gladiola, a well-trained but dimwitted and oversexed mare.
Jonathan, a heavy drinker and practical joker, is only at the production in the desert because his contract forces him to be there for on-the-spot rewrites. Jonathan loathes being away from “civilization” (the largest metropolises where alcohol is readily available), so he brought a large supply with him. He also loathes the vain Gentry, who takes advantage of his stardom as much as he can. Jonathan has been trying unsuccessfully to get Arthur Green to film one of his non-Western screenplays for three years. Jonathan seldom travels anywhere without Carol, his super-efficient secretary who is his pal in his binges, keeps him from getting fired, and has a crush on him.
NYC, Appleton-Century-Crofts, March 1959, 214 pages, $3.75. Based on an idea by Ann Noyes Guettel. Frontispiece by Doug Anderson.
In the evening of their first day on location, Jonathan and Carol go off to a remote Mexican cantina that she knows about and get thoroughly drunk. Jonathan manages to unwittingly insult Rosalita, an ancient bruja with genuine sorcerous powers. The next morning, back at the movie camp, Jonathan wakes up as a brown stallion.
He manages to convince Carol of his true identity before anyone else learns what has happened to him, and she hides him in with the company’s other horses. She also covers for his absence with an excuse nobody can object to; he has been called back to Hollywood by the IRS to answer questions about his taxes. While waiting for the spell to wear off, Jonathan and Carol secretly work on the rewrites at night – Jonathan “dictates” by nodding yes or no (he considers writing in the dirt with his hoof beneath him) – which Carol passes off as having been phoned from Hollywood. But she can’t think of any reason during the day for keeping Jonathan from being sent out with the other horses for movie work.
And Jonathan (remember, he’s a practical joker) gets the idea that, as a horse, he is ideally placed to create all kinds of mischief on the set.
They were, of course, already interested in Jonathan, but when he pranced ostentatiously over to the gate, opened it and started toward them, they were rigidly attentive. He continued to prance until he had reached them. He stopped and bowed very low to Melissa; coyly nuzzled Carol’s ear; nodded casually to George and Max; flicked his tail in Arthur’s face and returned through the gate, closing it as he did so. He walked inside a few steps and turned to face them serenely. They were speechless.
Finally, George said, ‘You see … Arthur. I told you he was … unusual.’
Almost in terror. Arthur said, ‘Max … where did you get that horse?’
‘I’ve never seen him before in my life,’ Max answered.
‘I suppose you mean,’ Arthur said, ‘that he just dropped in to say hello.’
‘Mr. Green, I picked every horse in that corral. I know all their names and all their ages. I have never seen that horse before. Unless …’
‘Unless what?’ Arthur snapped.
Staring at Jonathan, Max said, ‘Unless he’s … yes, it is. That’s the horse who was … dancing with Gladiola.’
Jonathan then began a series of rhythmic prancings and posings in the finest circus tradition, humming to himself all the while. (pgs. 68-69)
When Gladiola becomes “indisposed” as a result of Jonathan’s horseplay (the pun is irresistible), Jonathan is smugly sure that he has ruined the shoot. Instead, since he has shown himself to be such an intelligent horse, the filmmakers decide to use him to impersonate the hero’s horse.
‘Anyway,’ Carol said, desperately, ‘you can’t make that horse look like Gladiola.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ Arthur said. ‘When we finish with him, even Bruce wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.’
‘Then Bruce is slipping,’ Carol said. ‘Arthur, that horse is a stallion. Gladiola is a mare. What would people say?’
‘Anybody who goes to see a western and notices the sex of the horses in the picture is a menace to society,’ Arthur told her. (p. 71)
After first desperately resisting the notion of “… traipsing around all over Mexico with two hundred pounds of Bruce Gentry on [his] back” (pgs. 71-72), Jonathan takes solace in the realization that it will be an ideal opportunity to humiliate Gentry. The resulting hijinks fill the rest of the novel with increasingly unnatural equine action, combined with incredulous but witty wordplay from the human victims of Jonathan’s humor. Much fun will be had by the reader.
Who was Russell O’Neil? According to a New York Times obituary on December 21, 1991, he was a novelist and playwright who was born on March 26, 1927. It names four of his novels published between 1961 and 1971, not including Jonathan; none sound like comedies or fantasies. He wrote a horror-suspense novel, Venom, in 1979. The Los Angeles Public Library has five novels by Russell O’Neil; Jonathan is the earliest, and the others are either suspense thrillers or novels set in the live-theater community. I can find out nothing more about him. Is this even the same Russell O’Neil who wrote Jonathan?
In any case, Jonathan is an extremely funny transformation fantasy that is undeservedly forgotten today, and is well worth hunting down.
About the authorFred Patten — read stories — contact (login required)
a retired former librarian from North Hollywood, California, interested in general anthropomorphics
I do know one thing, when I see that cover art I think:
"Kage gazing with agitation at horse who attempts to covet his wine."
Inspired by the ancient Roman classic The Golden Ass?
I doubt it. The two plots are nothing alike. If "Jonathan" has any inspiration, it is likely to have been Thorne Smith's "The Stray Lamb". Every post-190 A.D. story about a man being turned into an equine cannot be traced back to "The Golden Ass".
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