Dying is a lot of fun in the Topper films, a trio of light-hearted comedies kicking off in 1937 with Topper, which starred Constance Bennett, Cary Grant and Roland Young, then continued in 1938 with Topper Takes a Trip and bowed out in 1941 with Topper Returns.
From the star names you might expect Cary Grant to be playing Topper but in fact it’s Roland Young, a specialist at fuddy-duddy roles, as the banker whose painfully ordered domestic existence is skittled by the arrival in his life of two ghosts – played by Grant and Bennett.
They play the Kerbys, a fun-loving, hard-partying, vair vair rich couple clearly inspired by The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora Charles who crash their fabulously fast car (it’s a Buick Century Bohman and Schwartz and very covetable) on the way home from a meeting with Topper, die instantly and then return in spirit form to blight his life.
It’s a strange relationship. Topper has always had a bit of a middle-aged pash for the flighty Mrs K, who spends the entire film prick-teasing Topper mercilessly while her super-handsome husband makes increasingly loud harrumphs from stage right.
You might ask what Cary Grant is doing in this at all. He wasn’t yet quite a star is the answer and he’d grabbed the role because it was going. What his character is doing in it is more of a puzzler. George Kerby doesn’t do very much in terms of plot/storyline, but Cary Grant’s big screen presence overshadows Young to such an extent that director Norman McLeod literally starts to fade him out of scenes when at all possible – these Kerby ghosts only have so much ectoplasm and so need to conserve it by rendering themselves invisible now and again (a handy plot get-out).
At home, meanwhile, Topper begins to rebel against his social-climbing, purse-lipped wife’s attempts to dragoon him into being the dutiful and precisely metered and monitored husband/breadwinner. Known here only as Mrs Topper but whose first name turns out to be Clara, she’s the fall guy in this plot, and is played by Billie Burke in another of the silly/prim character roles that sustained a long career.
It’s a film full of physical comedy, pratfalls, people pretending to be drunk and so on, but most of the humour comes from the interaction between Topper and the often invisible and bumptious Kerbys, the rudimentary Hollywood special effects standing up pretty well after all these decades.
If you’re looking for darker meat, there’s also social satire of a half-hearted sort in the shape of the striving Mrs T and her yen to be accepted by high society.
Young is a light farceur of the old school and is excellent as Topper. Bennett is good, bright and breezy in that 1930s Hollywood Blonde way perfected by Carol Lombard. There are also funny side characters played by Arthur Lake as an elevator “boy” regularly finding himself on the wrong side of some supernatural shenanigans and the reliable bulldog Eugene Pallette plays a hotel detective determined to nip any sexual nonsense in the bud after Topper breaks free of his conditioning and decides to live a little.
You can find a reasonably passable (at a pinch) version of the film on YouTube but an added advantage to forking out a few groats for a decent version is that you can often see the “invisible” fishing line used to pull off the various stunts involving objects moving at some ghostly command. There is something not quite right with the grain, as if the algorithmic restoration (it can’t be a human who did it) wasn’t quite right, but it’s a good, bright and sharp image otherwise.
As said, two sequels followed, and mopped up the public’s appetite for ghostly screwball comedy first identified by 1935’s The Ghost Goes West, which Topper obviously has in its sights.
Yeh, not bad. Though you might feel the urge to follow it up with a quick replay of one of the Thin Man movies.
Topper, as part of the three-movie Topper Collection – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2023