Topper (1937)

I watched this movie more or less on the spur of the moment. To start with I didn’t know anything about it, and assumed it would be realistic, like most 1930s movies I’ve seen.  So I was surprised to discover that in fact it is a comic fantasy, based on a novel by Thorne Smith, who also wrote the book which inspired hit TV series Bewitched.

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The plot revolves around a rich, carefree  young couple, George (Cary Grant) and Marion (Constance Bennett), who die in a car crash. They find themselves marooned on earth as ghosts, until they can do a good deed to ensure their entrance into heaven. They decide to help a friend, strait-laced banker Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) to enjoy life and stop being so stuffy – but a lot of their ideas turn out to be the sort of help he could do without.

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Cary Grant and Constance Bennett

Directed by Norman Z McLeod, who also made some Marx Brothers classics and other hit 1930s comedies, the movie has plenty of charm and inspired silliness. But, for me, the best part is actually the first half-hour or so, before the plot takes its twist into the supernatural. In this part of the film we see plenty of George and Marion leading their heedless, drunken lifestyle – the funniest sequence probably being where George reels into the bank to attend a partners’ meeting. Grant is deliciously dry and deadpan in this scene. These opening scenes also feature a great musical sequence in a club where George and Marion don’t want to go home and pester the pianist, an unbilled Hoagy Carmichael, to continue singing the jazzy number Old Man Moon.

A lobby card showing a scene where the two ghosts get Cosmo drunk

However, when George and Marion are killed in a drunken car crash,  and there’s a glimpse of their lifeless bodies, I found it hard to swallow just how quickly they get used to being ghosts. Within a minute or so they accept that they are dead and are cheerily discussing how to get into heaven. OK, this is a comedy and can’t afford to treat death with any great realism, but I do think there’s something lacking – some sense of poignancy, which is worked into most other movie fantasies I’ve seen featuring ghosts. The special effects are wonderful, with the couple fading away and back into scenes seamlessly, and there is plenty of great visual  humour, like a scene where an invisible George repairs a car as bewildered passers-by wonder whether they are going mad. But the queasy feeling remains, and seems to have been felt by some reviewers at the time.

The other problem after this point in the movie is simply that there isn’t enough of Cary Grant. His character, George, disappears completely for long periods, as the ghostly Marion starts to have a teasing sort-of but-not-quite affair with Topper, disrupting his working life and his marriage to the domineering Clara (Billie Burke). Roland Young, who is really the lead in this movie even if he only gets third billing, is excellent as the mild-mannered Topper – but I do think some of his scenes drag and get a bit samey when Grant isn’t present to add his dry comments.

The movie was followed by two sequels and a hit TV series, and Steve Martin is supposed to be taking the role of Topper in a remake, mooted for 2010.topperposter

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6 thoughts on “Topper (1937)

  1. Ellen Moody

    Topper. This was a movie which repeated (it seems to me from memory) endlessly on Channel 9 in NYC. This was a local NYC channel which ran syndicated programs. It was here I watched most of the classic movies I’ve watched.

    I was young and remember being charmed. Probably you’re right and the majority of the movie is silly and even queasy — about a young woman chasing an older man. It was however something of a hit because there was a sequel and I doubt Cary Grant got into it at all. Maybe we should remember this is the era of Shirley Temple who was also a semi-sexualized figure outside of the supposed young to middle-aged norms.

    The opening still of Grant and Bennett as superrich in an extravagant car asleep tells so much. The depression was ravaging people and they were willing to pay money to watch such images.

    Ellen

  2. John Greco

    Ellen – Your mentioning of Channel 9 in NYC brings back memories. You may be thinking of “Million Dollar Movie” which used to show the same movie all week long, twice a day during the week and three times on the weekend. I know that many of these movies were from the RKO library that, I believe, they licensed for TV. Remember seeing “King Kong”, “Mighty Joe Young”, “Top Hat” and many other RKO films. However, they did show plenty of other non-RKO films also. I can remember seeing “Two Women”, “King Creole”, “Loving You”, and the “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” The “Million Dollar Movie” was like having you own repertory theater in your home.

    “Topper” does get silly however, it has some humorous spots and Grant is always a treat to watch. I have not seen too much of Constance Bennett’s work though, coincidently I recently watched a pre-code film called “What Price, Hollywood” with Bennett in the leading role and she is wonderful. I plan to write about this film on my blog. Of the other two Topper films, the second “Topper takes a Trip” is probably the worst. The last of the trilogy is “Topper Returns” and of the three, this is my favorite. Still silly at times however, it is redeemed by some good performances by Carol Landis, and especially by Joan Blondell who is one of my favorites. This fact may make me bias toward the last film but Blondell always seems to light up the screen.

  3. judyge Post author

    Ellen,I’m interested that you remember this movie being played endlessly on TV when you were young. I don’t remember ever seeing it before, and actually came across it just because the main TCM website was offering a full download of the movie free of charge – though sadly this offer now seems to have disappeared! I was charmed too, especially by Cary Grant – even though I did find some of it silly. The aspect I found slightly disquieting wasn’t the younger woman going after the somewhat older man (this is played for laughs so much that it didn’t really worry me) but the way that the tragedy of the couple’s death is never really even touched on. However, since this is such a light comedy, it’s hard to see how they could do that without changing the tone completely.

    John, I’m quite tempted to see the second sequel because I like Blondell too, after seeing a lot of her work with Cagney. We didn’t have so many American movies on TV when I was young because I’m in the UK – but I’m catching up now. I look forward to reading your review of ‘What Price, Hollywood.” Judy

  4. Ellen Moody

    Dear Judy,

    As I told John on his blog, yes, I’m remembering a program called “Million Dollar Movie,” which would play the same movie twice a day on weekdays and three times a day on weekends. I watched it for what seems like years in my memory, only it could not have been that long as I was so young (aged 9 through 11 and again in early teen years). The two movies I remember loving best were _Yankee Doody Dandy_ with James Cagney (I never tired of it) and _The Hunchback of Notre Dame_ where I found Maureen O’Hara breath-takingly beautiful. Most of my knowledge of early movies comes from watching this program.

    I saw more than one Topper movie and would like to say for sure I can remember Topper Returns, but I can’t recall distinctly enough. While ghost stories seem to me a serious genre in literature (Andrew Sullivan’s _Elegant Nightmares_ and Julia Briggs’s _Night Visitors_ are the books to read), in movies there is a trivialization. My hunch is film-makers are afraid to move into an area which touches on religious beliefs in the supernatural and awaken the uncanny in a subversive way. There’s a tendency to be jejeune (like presenting characters in heaven after they die in musicals). So even if logically and probably in some deep sense (like all languages are at some level the same so this is metaphysical) the opening sequence about the couple dying gives rise to the ghost story, the film-makers didn’t dare themselves bring out the connection.

    Ellen

  5. Judy Post author

    Thanks for this, Vincent – very interesting. I’m impressed by how good the special effects were so early in the history of movies. The scene where the chairs move around with nobody in sight especially sticks in my mind.

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