If Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees had to choose how to spend her afterlife, frolicking in nightclubs with Cary Grant would definitely be high on the list.
Marion: Whyncha stop being a mummy for a few minutes and come to life?
Of course, there's nothing wrong with being a mummy if you had any fun getting
that way, but—
Thorne Smith is a name one hardly ever hears these days, and that's a shame. In the 1920s and early '30s, he was the popular author of a genre-defining series of novels in which mortal men broke out of their humdrum lives to embark on comic-erotic, supernaturally tinged adventures in the company of an exciting woman (or women). The most popular of these, Topper, was filmed in 1937, three years after Smith's death. (Smith's novel The Passionate Witch also became the basis for a classic film comedy, I Married a Witch (1942), and later the TV series Bewitched.)
The template Smith created in Topper and other novels dovetailed beautifully with that definitive '30s film genre, the screwball comedy, since it too frequently featured a madcap heroine who helped her stodgy romantic interest break out of his rut. The combination of Smith's novels (he also penned a sequel to Topper) and the screwball conventions—together with the comic expertise of producer Hal Roach—was such a success that the 1937 Topper was followed by two film sequels, the later of which, Topper Returns, is included in this two-movie set from Artisan.
Facts of the Case
Life couldn't be more different for the Toppers and the Kerbys. While George and Marion Kerby (Cary Grant, Bringing Up Baby, and Constance Bennett, What Price Hollywood?) stay out all night at glamorous parties and nightclubs, middle-aged banker Cosmo Topper (Roland Young, The Philadelphia Story) lives according to a rigid schedule enforced by his prim wife (Billie Burke, Dinner at Eight). Even though Topper is beginning to feel restless and chafe at his boring, staid existence, it takes a tragedy to make him break out of his shell: the sudden death of the Kerbys in a car accident.
Fortunately for Topper, however, the Kerbys are still around—in the form of ghosts. Just as frivolous and fun-loving as they were in life, the Kerbys find that they seem to be earthbound, and Marion seizes upon the idea of doing a good deed to launch them into paradise. Their good deed, she decides, will be Topper: a complete lifestyle makeover. And with the Kerbys' assistance, soon the mild-mannered bank president is learning to loosen up: drinking, dancing, getting involved in scandals, and shaking up his life in a big way. When George begins to frown on Marion's experiment, however, and when Topper's marriage begins to founder, it may take more than ghostly intervention to set things right.
In Topper Returns (1941), Young's Topper is joined by a new spirit: Joan Blondell (Stand-In). Blondell plays Gail Richards, the wisecracking friend of beautiful heiress Ann Carrington (Carole Landis, Four Jills in a Jeep), who has come to the spooky old family mansion to be reunited with her invalid father and claim the fortune her mother left her. A series of mysterious "accidents" suggests that someone doesn't want Ann to survive long enough to inherit her fortune, but it's Gail who falls victim to the killer. With the reluctant assistance of Topper and his even more reluctant chauffeur (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, The Jack Benny Program), and despite the interference of a bumbling policeman and the anxious Mrs. Topper (Billie Burke), she sets about trying to unmask her own killer and save Ann's life.
The film version of Smith's Topper, like the novel it's based on, is a felicitous mingling of elements. In one sense it's very much a screwball comedy, as I noted, about the liberation of a repressed protagonist; yet it's equally a comedy about a midlife crisis. We can see from the time we meet Topper that he's beginning to get restless and fed up with being treated like a naughty child by his wife; her attitude toward him is that of an exasperated but affectionate nanny toward a willful six-year-old. His butler (Alan Mowbray, My Man Godfrey) bosses him, and he spends all day dictating boring letters to other bankers and presiding at soporific board meetings. No wonder Topper is already eager to break out in a new direction when the Kerbys' death galvanizes him with a new desire to make the most of his own life before it's too late.
Although Topper tones down the raciest features of Smith's novel, it remains remarkably faithful to it. Smith's scene in which the invisible Marion creates a sensation by wearing nothing but a pair of lacy step-ins appears in the film, as does the pivotal plot development in which Topper's transformation takes off when he purchases the late Kerbys' sexy automobile. (This car, dubbed a "painted Jezebel" by the disapproving Mrs. Topper, is surely one of the most luscious vehicles ever to appear in a film. One can definitely understand how it would change a man's life.) To its comedic and risqué elements the screen adaptation also adds a more heartwarming tone; we genuinely care about Topper's silly little wife and don't want to see her lose her husband, even though he seems to be having a much better time without her. The screen writers (who included Eric Hatch, whose novel My Man Godfrey had also become a classic screwball film) do an excellent job of retaining the most engaging parts of Smith's novel while giving the film a more tender emotional core.
Among the other elements that make Topper so successful, the cast is one of the greatest. Who but Cary Grant and Constance Bennett could embody the glamorous, high-spirited Kerbys so well? Bennett charmingly brings to life (or afterlife) that quintessential '30s combination of elegant sophistication and sass, and Grant displays an infectious, boyish energy. As Topper, Roland Young is completely endearing. From the hint of sulkiness with which he confronts his breakfast egg to the nimble little dance steps he executes under the influence of champagne, he shows us the inner rascal trying to break through the pressures of respectability. In one bravura sequence in which the inebriated Topper is being half carried by the invisible ghosts, Young navigates precariously down a flight of stairs and through a hotel lobby in a brilliant piece of physical comedy. As Mrs. Topper, Billie Burke shows off her unmatched talent for quivery vocalizing and tremulous anxiety. We're also treated to a hefty roster of familiar faces in supporting roles, from Hedda Hopper and Hoagy Carmichael to bullfrog-voiced Eugene Pallette (The Lady Eve) as a confused hotel detective and a pre-Blondie Arthur Lake as a hapless elevator boy.
The remarkable special effects also deserve noting. The invisibility effects are particularly impressive, and they also show great variety as well as skill in execution. In one scene a vase of flowers levitates, and while it is still in motion, Marion materializes around it. In another elegant visual sequence, Marion dematerializes right after she's taken a puff from a cigarette, and we see the cigarette come gently to rest in an ashtray, as smoke exhales from an invisible mouth. In Topper Returns, Gail tops this effect by invisibly producing smoke rings. The later film also includes an effect by which the invisible Gail makes footprints on a snowy path, and there's a beautiful sequence where she ascends into a cloudy night sky.
In general, however, Topper Returns doesn't maintain the standard of its parent film. One of the main problems is that the character of Topper is sidelined during much of the film; his involvement in the action at all is based on the flimsiest of pretexts, and his role is mainly that of a straight man and investigator, whereas others carry the comedy. The cast is thus cluttered up with a great many "comic" characters: Mrs. Topper's wisecracking maid, a dumb cop who is prone to pronouncements like "whoever stole that witness, put her back!" and even a seal who gives Eddie Anderson a hard time. Mrs. Topper's character has undergone a transformation, not for the better: from being primly respectable, she is now a ditz, pure and simple, with some of the most idiotic dialogue in the film. Joan Blondell, usually so reliable in comedic roles, overacts in her early scenes. The screenplay lacks the deft wit of the first film and falls back on topical in-jokes (the funniest of which is Anderson's line about Jack Benny). The niftiest thing about this film is the "haunted" mansion set, which has lots of secret passages and trap doors, plus a lavish bedroom set that must have required hundreds of yards of chiffon.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's such a pleasure to see Topper come to DVD that I hate to find fault with it, but the truth is that this release leaves much to be desired. The primary disappointment is the audiovisual presentation. The picture displays minor but persistent quivering, which I became accustomed to after a relatively short while, but which is annoying nevertheless. The image itself is clear, with only minor speckling, and displays an attractive range of greyscale tones. This release looks far better than the VHS release I have viewed, but the movement of the image is still annoying. Audio is a similarly mixed bag: Dialogue emerges clearly, as do the brief musical numbers, but in the original 1.0 mono track there is a constant background of white noise. There are no pops or crackles, but this gentle hushing sound never goes away. The restored 2.0 mono track greatly diminishes the hiss, but at the expense of damping down the highs. Topper Returns doesn't have the image quiver visible in the earlier film, but its image is generally on the hazy side, although the grayscale range has depth and richness. The 1.0 mono audio track, fortunately, doesn't have the problem with hiss that Topper does, although the 2.0 track has the same muting effect on the highs.
To be frank, I'm also baffled by the selection of the second film on the disc. Why doesn't Artisan include the first Topper sequel, 1939's Topper Takes a Trip? Not only does its plot pick up directly from the first film, but it also features the return of Constance Bennett (though not Cary Grant, presumably because by this time he was becoming a much bigger star). Although I'm always delighted when studios release these older movies in double-feature editions, to leap from the first to the third film in the series seems downright eccentric—or indicative, perhaps, of ignorance on the part of those who designed the disc, who may have assumed from its title that Topper Returns was the first or only sequel.
Finally, although it's a minor point, the disc packaging would have benefited from better planning. The cover two-shot of Grant and Bennett is lovely, but its mistiness (which I suppose is meant to evoke ghostliness) may convince those unfamiliar with the films that they are sentimental dramas. The small print that gives the vital statistics of the two films on the back cover is practically unreadable. The case insert that constitutes the only extra does provide welcome chapter listings, but the "trivia notes," brief as they are, seem to be padded (they inform us that Topper "has great old big band music").
The release of two of the Topper movies gives me hope that some day the entire trilogy will see DVD release, along with the 1950s spinoff TV series featuring Leo G. Carroll. In the meantime, it's a delight to get reacquainted with the fun-loving Kerbys and with the roguish Topper. Despite the drawbacks to this release, Topper is a film that classic comedy lovers will enjoy having in their collections, and that makes this set a worthwhile purchase.
Artisan is issued a stern warning from the bench to put more thought into their future classic film releases. However, Topper and his companions are free to go—until the next nightclub brawl, at any rate.
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• DVD Case Insert with Trivia Notes
Scales of Justice, Topper Returns
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Distinguishing Marks, Topper Returns
• DVD Case Insert with Trivia Notes
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