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.
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.
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.
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.