Topaze (Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, 1933)

I’m always saying that I plan to write more shorter postings, but now I’m really going to do it, as I’m so busy these days that it’s a choice between writing short postings or not updating this blog at all. Anyway, I will hopefully put a good selection of pictures with each posting, and over the next week or two I’m planning to concentrate on John Barrymore. As I’ve said before, although Barrymore is best-known for his silent films, I have seen more of his talkies and these tend to appeal to me because of his beautiful speaking voice – however, I do want to see more of his silents too.

Topaze is a rather obscure but entertaining comedy-drama from RKO (sadly not on DVD, though it did come out on Laserdisc – but at time of posting it can be found online at YT), adapted from a French play by Marcel Pagnol, which sees Barrymore cast wildly against type. He plays Professor Auguste Topaze, a timid, down-at-heel teacher in a boys’ school who is also a brilliant scientist – and who gets caught up in a scam to sell tap water as a health-giving mineral water. For most of the film his  face is concealed by facial hair, and that famous profile is hardly glimpsed, though he does get a chance to look handsome briefly in the final scenes. I think he does a great job of playing a part which at first sounds like a surprising role for him – and it is interesting to see him if anything slightly underplaying rather than hamming it up. The other main star is Myrna Loy, as Coco, the sensible young mistress of a crooked baron played by Reginald Mason.

This 72-minute film is very much made up of two halves, with the first half concentrating more on drama than comedy, including long scenes of Barrymore struggling to control the class which seem almost to be played in real time, betraying the film’s stage origins. In the second half the action speeds up with satirical comedy about the workings of business and the advertising of the bogus mineral water. I’ve come across several films which seem to work in this way, establishing a realistic setting of someone in a job early on before plunging into a more complicated and exciting plot later on.

The film was made by the little-known director Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, a French army veteran from World War One who was actually an uncredited co-director with William A Wellman on Wings. I don’t know which scenes d’Arrast directed. He was also Charlie Chaplin’s assistant on The Gold Rush – so he certainly had a good movie background. He only directed seven movies, because according to the mini-biography of him at the imdb he fell out with the studios over his refusal to speed up filming, and went home to France – later ending up as a professional gambler in Monte Carlo.

Professor Topaze in the laboratory

Anyway, despite having  a little-known director, Topaze does have some  famous names involved. The script was co- written by Ben Hecht and produced by David O Selznick, a figure who is increasingly fascinating me at the moment as I notice how many of my favourite 1930s films he was involved with.

There is a lot of pre-Code content, most obviously the first scene, which is a domestic scene between an apparently happily married couple, Coco (Loy) and Baron Philippe de la Tour-la Tour (Mason) – until the baron breaks the mood by announcing that he must go home to his wife!   Jobyna Howland has a lot of fun as the baroness, an over-the-top character who carries around a snarling chihuahua clutched to her bosom.

She and her husband have a spoilt son, the grandly-named Charlemagne, who terrorises Professor Topaze in the classroom and encourages his fellow-pupils to gang up on the teacher. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel Jackie Searl, the youngster cast as the boy, was really equal to the role – though, of course, the teenager has a thankless task in trying to hold his own against even an underplaying Barrymore! The classroom scenes in all honesty do drag after a while, but seem painfully accurate – and there is a truly heartbreaking moment where Topaze has been fired and has to go back into the classroom to tell the boys he is going, trying to stop his voice from shaking as he does so.

Myrna Loy and Reginald Mason as Coco and the Baron

The mood changes in the rest of the film, which has more of a French farce feel to it, as the plot has an increasing number of twists and turns, satirising the marketing and advertising of the worthless water. The professor at first fails to understand what is happening as he allows himself to be used as the face of “sparkling Topaze” – but eventually is seduced by the promise of easy money, and the character he is playing becomes unrecognisable from the impossibly idealistic teacher of the early scenes.

I don’t think Myrna Loy has all that much scope in this film, but she does bring a warmth to the character of Coco – and this is a movie definitely worth tracking down by her fans, as well as Barrymore’s. The print at YT seemed reasonably watchable, but this is yet another movie that I’d like to see get a  DVD release.

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10 thoughts on “Topaze (Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, 1933)

  1. Like you, I can’t say I’ve seen too many of John Barrymore’s silent films, mostly his talkies, but I also love his speaking voice! Just last night actually, I was screening one of my favorite films, “Midnight,” for some of my friends. It’s a hysterical screwball comedy with Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, and John Barrymore. Barrymore is so funny in this one and can steal a scene with just raising an eyebrow. Speaking of great voices, Ameche also has one of the finer one’s heard in Hollywood.

    I haven’t seen Topaze but it has been on my list, especially because of Myrna Loy as costar.

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    • Hi Robby, I saw ‘Midnight’ for the first time just in the last two or three week,s and must agree with you that it is great – I also like Claudette Colbert and think she and Barrymore work very well together. As you say, he can still steal any scene he wants to, even by that late stage of his career where he was physically shaky, and he has a mischievous quality in that film too. I haven’t seen much Ameche and wasn’t so keen on him in ‘Midnight’, but will watch out for him. Myrna Loy is good in ‘Topaze’ but I don’t think she really gets a chance to show what she can do, except in one or two scenes. Thanks for commenting!

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  2. “The mood changes in the rest of the film, which has more of a French farce feel to it, as the plot has an increasing number of twists and turns, satirising the marketing and advertising of the worthless water….”

    I found this to be true as well Judy, and I onced ownd the laserdisc of the film. When DVDs took hold I did some trading off of my LDs, and now see this title in fetching about $100 on e bay. But any title that is yet to come to DVD brings these numbers. I agree that Barrymore has his greatest years during the silent era, but that the talkies allowed one to delight in his great voice. Most interesting anecdote anout d’Arrest, who moved from the movies to a spot on the black-jack tables in Monte Carlo! Ha! And this piece isn’t short at all Judy, it’s just right!

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    • Wow, Sam, I’m impressed that you had the laserdisc of this, but I think you did the right thing in getting shot of some of them, as I would guess that as soon as any title is released on DVD/Blu-ray the market for the laserdisc of that same title is bound to plummet!

      I know you are also a great John Barrymore fan – it’s a shame that some of his movies are still so obscure, as with this one, but there have been quite a few released on DVD, so let’s hope that continues. I actually meant to make this piece shorter, but I find it hard to be as concise as I really should be to get more postings written. Thanks very much, Sam!

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  3. Pingback: Tribeca Film Festival Monday Morning Diary (April 18) « Wonders in the Dark

  4. I’m fortunate that I caught Topaze on TCM and recorded it. For another d’Arrast to see, you must find Laughter. For that one, I’ve only seen a rather poor tape copy.

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    • Thanks for the tip and glad you were able to see ‘Topaze’ too. I believe ‘Laughter’ is currently at YT, along with some other early Fredric March films, so I will hope to see it there – I’m also interested to see more of Nancy Carroll after enjoying her performance in Wellman’s ‘Dangerous Paradise’.

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  5. Judy, just a warning re: Laughter. What’s on YT is no better visually than what I saw. I suppose sometimes we do have to settle for less just to see the film at all. Either that, or be prepared to do similar to the old Deadheads and travel from film convention to film convention.

    I liked Nancy Carroll much better when they stopped trying to turn her into a singer. Even so, I really did like Follow Thru.

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    • Thanks for the warning – I did just try watching the start of it but it kept sticking, so I will try again. I can see the picture quality is pretty bad, but I’d still like to see it if possible. I have only seen the one Nancy Carroll film so far, so haven’t come across her as a singer as yet.

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  6. Pingback: Topaze (1933) Review, with John Barrymore and Myrna Loy – Pre-Code.Com

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