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.