Before Cary Grant became an icon of screwball comedy, he starred in this different and influential entry within the screwball genre, Topper. It was 1937, one year before his brilliant, hilarious turns in Bringing Up Baby (the gold standard to which all romantic comedies should genuflect) and Holiday (one of film's most romantically life-affirming comedies) both opposite Katharine Hepburn.
In Topper he wasn't the full-fledged star yet (receiving second billing to Constance Bennett) but stole the show with his devil-may-care unflappability. Only Grant (and the less-talked about Bennett) could pull off a couple who aren't terribly concerned that they die and become ghosts within the first 20 minutes of the film. Instead, the party-going duo decide a good deed's in store—perhaps then they'll enter the Pearly Gates. In the depression riddled 1930's, that meant un-stuffing a stuffed shirt. Life's tough enough already, why not have some fun?
Even though fun is exactly how they crashed they're car in the first place. Playing the fun loving and tres glamorous rich couple, George and Marion Kerby, the film opens with the famous shot of George driving his car with his feet. Dancing till dawn at clubs that range from chic deco to Hawaiian theme (complete with slide entry) to a closed Italian restaurant with jivey piano player, the couple's life is one glimmering, elegantly drunk distraction.
This lifestyle differs wildly from that of Cosmo Topper (Roland Young), an unhappy, forcibly uptight middle-aged banker who's wife (Billie Burke—Glenda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz) plans his every move. How long his shower, when to dress, what time to eat his morning egg, how to run to a train—nothing he does is beyond scrutiny.
Droll Topper is president of the bank where George works. George, who's slept only a few moments in his car before lumbering to the job, sits at a board meeting distracted with questions like: "It can't be done…. Writing your name upside down and backwards without stopping." Meanwhile, Marion saunters into the bank in last- night's gown (a shimmering, slinky silver number) to prod at Topper. For the idle rich, what else can she do but toy with a seemingly helpless old square?
When The Kerby's die in the car crash and become ghosts they go after Topper. Not to scare him, but to help him. The film then turns into Topper's story of liberation. Amazingly, the effects in Topper hold up beautifully and we see some charming sequences of The Kerby's (in transparent or invisible form) being pesky, but cheery poltergeists. They, at first, make Topper appear wilder, which, in turn makes him more attractive to his friends (hence, shattering the respectable notions his wife's straight-jacketed him) then Topper himself lets go.
Directed by Norman Z. McLeod, the film showcases some cute tricks and a deft comic timing in simply, allowing Grant to do his thing. And though Grant is fantastic, Young is touching and often, physically hilarious as the repressed Topper. Deservedly he received an Academy Award nomination for his performance.
With the success of Topper the studio's decided a sequel was in order, and like many sequels, Topper Returns (1941) is no match for the original. Interestingly, for this DVD, Topper Returns wasn't the first sequel—that would be Topper Takes a Trip (1939) sans Grant but re-teaming Bennett with Young. In the third film, directed by Roy Del Ruth, Young again appears as Topper. This time around its vivacious Gail Richards (Joan Blondell) as the ghost who goads Topper into finding the murderer who stabbed her to death.
This takes us through the creepy Carrington Mansion where Gail's friend Ann Carrington (famous Hollywood starlet suicide causality Carole Landis) is staying along with Mrs. Topper (Burke again) and Topper's chauffeur, played by Eddie "Rochester" Anderson who's left mugging the scared Negro act. Losing the breeziness and classy insouciance of Topper (as well as Grant, who, smartly, bowed out of the ensuing films) little of Topper Returns is charming. Death's not so funny without Cary Grant.
Artisan presents Topper/Topper Returns in Full Screen Standard (1.33:1). The transfer isn't pristine with some grain and a less-than-crisp picture. The black and white of the first film is softer than the second film (which is stylistically correct --Topper Returns looks cheaper). When you look at the Criterion Edition of one of the greatest screwballs, My Man Godfrey, you can see that a better transfer is possible. And Topper deserved one.
The audio comes in English Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (with your choice of original restored Dolby monaural audio). The sound is markedly improved over VHS versions but some static remains. But this is an old print so, it's an acceptable mix. Again, however, one wishes a little more effort had gone into restoring every aspect of both pictures.
No extras. Just some Topper trivia in the disc's insert. Since this is a relatively inexpensive disc, few extras are expected. But obviously, something would be nice.
Topper is not only worth note as a big push for Cary Grant's screwball career, but also the beginning of a rash of wacky ghost/supernatural comedies in the 1940's. The Invisible Woman is an inferior example but Rene Claire's I Married a Witch is a delight. And though Topper's not the best in the screwball genre, its still a charming, entertaining and elegant comedy that every Cary Grant fan should watch. Topper Returns is a disappointment but we've seen worse. At least its not Ghost.
Read More Kim Morgan at her blog Sunset Gun