New to Blu: The Topper Trilogy (1937-1941) - Reviewed

Supernatural comedy remains a mainstay in American film thanks to renewed interest in the subgenre through the 1980s with the overwhelming commercial success of films like Ghostbusters and Beetlejuice as well as the kindred cult followings of Evil Dead II, Army of Darkness, House and The Witches of Eastwick.  Arguably the first time the film industry took notice of the notion of funny ghosts or goofy poltergeists as screwball comedy arrived in the 1930s with René Clair’s British film The Ghost Goes West before the genre made its initial stateside appearance with the beloved Hal Roach film series The Topper Trilogy

Loosely based on Thorne Smith’s 1926 novel The Jovial Ghosts, the Topper film series zero in on the misadventures and silly antics experienced by a prim and proper middle-aged banker named Cosmo Topper (Roland Young in his only Oscar nominated role) when his daily routine is upset by the arrival of ghostly hauntings.  While most horror films or horror comedy films rely on a tightrope walk between the funny and frightening, the Topper series represents something of an outlier when the notion of ghosts and goblins were treated as slapstick comedy. 

Initially released in 1937, Topper became a career boosting hit for all involved, spawning two sequels with Topper Takes a Trip a year later and concluded by Topper Returns in 1941.  Garnering a spot in the AFI Top 100 Funniest American Movies, Topper eventually engendered a 1953 television series, a 1979 television remake and a 1989 sitcom called Nearly Departed, manifesting itself throughout the twentieth century in varied entertainments.  With all three of the original Hal Roach feature film comedies released on blu-ray for the very first time by VCI Entertainment, the Movie Sleuth goes back in time to take a good look at this seminal and still influential supernatural comedy film series.

Topper (1937)

Spoiled rich and reckless yet happy-go-lucky couple George (Cary Grant) and Marion (Constance Bennett) Kerby are living the high life, spending night after night out clubbing and drinking when they aren’t driving their snazzy automobile to and from their milquetoast banker/friend Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) trapped in a dull marriage to his socialite wife Clara (Billie Burke).  On the way home from the bank, the intoxicated duo inadvertently crashes their car and die, awakening as transparent spirits left to wander the Earth neither in Heaven or Hell due to their lack of performing good deeds.  Eager to cross over into the next world, the Kerbys seize the do-gooding opportunity to inject some life back into their soppy banker friend replete with boozing, partying and all manner of silly hauntings and increasingly goofy antics. 

An extended mixture of physical slapstick and screwball comedy of manners, Topper benefits from My Man Godfrey screenwriter Eric Hatch who co-wrote the film with Jack Jevne and Eddie Moran and brilliantly funny technical direction from Norman Z. McLeod.  While working from Thorne Smith’s novel, the film is decidedly tamer than the source upon which it was based and leaves ample room for the visual effects department to unveil all sorts of onscreen trickery including but not limited to objects moving around by themselves or, in one bravura special effect, reset Topper’s hairline.  Mostly the film works exceedingly well thanks to the vibrant personalities of Cary Grant and Constance Bennett as the adventurous carefree go-getting Kerbys, providing a stark contrast to the uptight and puny Topper played brilliantly by Roland Young. 

Opening in the summer of 1937, Topper proved to be both a hit with audiences and an integral springboard for producer Hal Roach to branch out from the typical short-film fare into feature length projects.  Like many of the Roach offerings of the mid-1930s, Topper is heavy on physical acting, notably from Roland Young who received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  Listed in the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Laughs, some of the most amusing sequences in the film combine still striking visual effects of poltergeist activity coupled with Roland Young’s performance with seemingly invisible forces dragging him kicking and screaming from place to place.  Seen today, while some of the scenes tend to play out a bit longer than modern audiences would like, Topper remains a lighthearted supernatural romantic comedy of errors, friendship and ample room for riotous laughter.


Topper Takes a Trip (1938)

Reuniting Roland Young, Constance Bennett and Billie Burke with director Normal Z. McLeod of the first Topper film, the inevitable sequel to the smash hit Hal Roach produced supernatural comedy finds itself loosely following the trajectory of Thorne Smith’s novel Topper Takes a Trip while also being somewhat of a victim of circumstance. 

Originally written by Smith with George and Marion Kerby in mind and a somewhat sinister plan to murder Cosmo Topper while on a trip to the Riviera with his wife so they can be a trio of ghosts together, actor Cary Grant bailed on the sequel and the plot was revised to accommodate his absence.  Swapping out the actor with a ghost dog as Marion Kerby’s new partner in crime, the revised story this time around finds Cosmo Topper in the midst of a bitter divorce from his wife Clara and Marion Kerby still left behind on Earth seizes the opportunity to try and bring the Toppers back together.  Meanwhile a new potential, well-to-do French suitor seeks to win the heart of Topper’s wife, but not if the ever mischievous spirit of Marion Kerby can help it.

Deviating from the source almost entirely by swapping out one of the Kerbys for a deceased house pet, aside from changing the setting with some newfound gags involving language barriers and differences in cultural customs, Topper Takes a Trip bears the distinction of serving up more of the same with better special effects sequences but somewhat redundant gags.  While the international setting and open beach shorelines provide ample room for sight gags involving a beach ball with a mind of its own as well as a risqué joke involving a baron who mysteriously loses his swim trunks, Topper Takes a Trip while utilizing all the same people sans one crucial cast member feels a bit like déjà vu with fewer laughs than what came previously. 

Topper Takes a Trip also commits one of my least favorite artistic sins involving repurposing entire sequences from the first film into it, a technique that’s passable in some instances and grating in others.  Still a lighthearted romp with Academy Award nominated special effects by Roy Seawright, the film still proved to be a success with audiences though the impression one comes away with is that it is half the movie that Topper was.  While the original was dialogue heavy and played off of the personalities of all three characters, gutting one out and tossing in more visual effects sight gags doesn’t necessarily amount to more comedy. 

Where it works well involves the mistaken identities, being in the wrong place at the wrong time and many of the other varying predicaments the hapless Topper finds himself caught up in.  And of course setting the story in France allowed ample room for ethnic stereotypes and a comedy of errors involving language barriers and miscommunication.  That said, being a fan of the first film made this frankly hasty sequel to be a little redundant and I couldn’t help but grow a little restless at the same jokes being peddled yet again.


Topper Returns (1941)

Who would have suspected the one which had the least to do with the source of Thorne Smith’s first two novels in the Topper film series without the Kerbys or the director of the first two features would in fact be the most fun and entertaining entry in the series?  Ditching what came before almost entirely save for the lovably feeble Cosmo and Clara Topper with Roland Young and Billie Burke reprising their roles for one last time, Topper Returns like the Hal Roach produced Laurel & Hardy comedy The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case is a parody of whodunit murder-mysteries replete with The Old Dark House tropes and sight gags including secret rooms and a living room char that can drop you into a subterranean basement. 

Opening on a new set of characters in an old dark mansion, young woman Gail Richards (Joan Blondell) is murdered in her bedroom by a cloaked assailant ala The Bat Whispers and promptly seeks out the help of the meek Cosmo Topper to track down her killer.  As with the usual antics of the Topper series, Cosmo Topper inadvertently sets himself up as the prime suspect and it becomes a screwball race against time to clear his own name and find the killer before more bodies fall.  Clearly a send up of whodunit haunted house chillers and murder mysteries of the time, Topper Returns by changing the setting and ultimately the premise provides a fresh spin on the characters we’re familiar with by placing them in an unfamiliar premise. 

Where the first two films were ostensibly romantic comedies involving ghosts wanting to do good to earn a ticket to Heaven, Topper Returns ropes the hapless hero into an unfinished business ghost story with more than a few surprises up its sleeve.  Some of the funniest scenes don’t even involve Roland Young or Billie Burke but rather, Topper’s chauffeur played by Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson (Gone with the Wind).  Playing a bemused and often frightened character which would become the actor’s trademark seen again years later in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, it was inarguably the most welcome addition the Topper film series had seen yet.

Replacing McLeod with future Ziegfeld Follies director Roy Del Ruth and working from a screenplay by Jonathan Latimer, Topper Returns is admittedly a somewhat mixed bag plotwise as the prior films depended on Topper’s affiliation with the Kerbys.  Here, it’s a new random character unknown to Topper who seeks to avenge her own death rather than add some light into Topper’s life and why she picks him as her ally other than to have another Topper film is a bit fuzzy. 

That said, one hardly cares as the laughs and sight gags come tumbling out and the film builds up towards a thrilling and frequently funny climax with greater speed and energy than the first two films.  It’s a tough call to make on this one since the story and picture itself are somewhat weaker on paper but the end results are a lot more entertaining and swift.  One of the rare cases where objectively speaking it’s a weaker film than the one which started it all and yet it proved to be the most exciting and fun of the three.


- Andrew Kotwicki