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.
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.
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.