In the 1930s, Hal Roach’s success as an independent producer of short movie comedies was threatened by events completely beyond his control. His “Lot of Fun” had cranked out one- and two-reelers since 1915 and introduced the ticket-buying public to such popular film comedians as Harold Lloyd, Charley Chase, and Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy. Mack Sennett, the major domo of Hollywood’s premier laugh factory, Keystone, acknowledged that Roach was his only true rival in the mirthmaking business.
But with the arrival of The Great Depression, movie attendance started to dip due to the shrinkage of disposable income. Motion picture studios had to rely on other means to keep audiences in the seats, which they did by stepping up production of “B” pictures (economically-produced films that accompanied the main feature as a sort of “two-for-one” deal) and phasing out the traditional theatre program in which features were accompanied by cartoons, newsreels…and short subjects. The short subject was Hal Roach’s bread-and-butter, and if he wanted to stay in business he needed to branch out into features. Hal had success launching his big stars, Laurel & Hardy, into releases like Sons of the Desert (1933) and Way Out West (1937) …but only tepid results with other players on the payroll like Charley Chase (Kelly the Second ) and Patsy Kelly & Lyda Roberti (Nobody’s Baby ).
Roach’s acquisition of a mildly risqué novel published in 1926—Thorne Smith’s The Jovial Ghosts—was released as a feature film in 1937, one that would make him a serious player in Hollywood (the fact that the movie was released by MGM certainly didn’t hurt, either). The finished product was known as Topper (renamed after the novel’s protagonist), and became such a critical and commercial success that it made star Cary Grant a screwball comedy icon in films that followed like The Awful Truth (1937) and Bringing Up Baby (1938). (Grant shrewdly chose to ask for a percentage deal in addition to his $50,000 fee…which paid off handsomely when the film became a box office hit.) Topper also provided a boost to top billed Constance Bennett’s career—Bennett was often dismissed as a mere “clotheshorse” by critics—to the point where she agreed to star in another Roach production, Merrily We Live (1938), with supporting Topper players Billie Burke and Alan Mowbray. As for the third-billed Roland Young, he would appear in two follow-ups produced in the wake of Topper: Topper Takes a Trip (1938—with Bennett…but Grant appears only in flashback footage) and Topper Returns (1941).
Happy-go-lucky socialite couple George and Marion Kerby (Grant, Bennett) are happy-go-lucky for a reason: they’re filthy with money, and party like it’s 1939. (Seriously—the Kerbys would compel Nick and Nora Charles to make an early evening of it.) After leaving an important meeting at the bank where their friend Cosmo Topper (Young) is president (George is the top stockholder), the couple has an automobile accident on a country road that results in their deaths. However, their afterlife existence is in limbo: they haven’t done anything truly horrible to wind up in H-E-double-hockey-sticks…but they haven’t done anything to gain entrance to the Pearly Gates, either.
George and Marion, in ghostly form, decide their good deed will be performed for their pal Cosmo; Topper is a decent sort despite being a bit of a stuffed shirt, but that’s mostly due to Mrs. (Clara) Topper (Burke), the sort of social-climbing wife who’s mapped out her husband’s life to the nth degree—deciding when and what he’ll eat, what to wear, etc. The ghostly Kerbys help “Toppy” loosen up a bit with a series of drunken antics that results in Cosmo’s arrest…and rather than besmirch his respectable reputation, it makes Cosmo more interesting in the eyes of his wife’s social circle. Marion’s belief that she’s no longer married to George (well—they’re dead, remember) convinces her to cut loose with Topper in a hotel; more wacky escapades ensue and eventually (after a near-death experience for Cosmo) Mr. and Mrs. Topper are reconciled…and the Kerbys on their way to Heaven.
For those of you not in the pipeline, Kit Parker Films/The Sprocket Vault are back together with VCI (who says marriage counseling doesn’t work?) and they have a slew of upcoming releases in the works spotlighting properties from the Hal Roach Studios including an October 31 release of a 3-disc set with all three films in the Topper series (according to a flier I received from ClassicFlix). Suffice it to say, I was positively gobsmacked to receive a Blu-ray screener from The Vault of the original Topper, only because I still think it’s the best of the bunch (though I do have a soft spot for Topper Returns because Eddie “Rochester” Anderson is in the cast). I’ve reviewed both Topper and Topper Takes a Trip on the blog in the past, and while Topper doesn’t quite hold the same fascination for me as it did when I saw it as a kid, it’s still a solid favorite among classic film fans—the crackling chemistry between Grant and Bennett is great fun (Cary was sorely missed in Trip), and some of the physical comedy performed by Young (particularly when he’s arm-in-arm with the “ghosts”) is hysterical. (I’d be willing to wager that Steve Martin was influenced by Roland Young when Martin did similar shtick in 1984’s All of Me.) Young’s sidesplitting performance garnered him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, with a second Oscar nom going to Elmer Raguse for Best Sound Recording.
Topper also boasts a charming supporting cast: Burke would go on to play Young’s screen wife in the subsequent Topper films (as well as The Young in Heart [1938—a delightful movie I watched for the first time a week ago] and Dulcy ), and the two make a wonderful team. Alan Mowbray is deadpan perfection as the Toppers’ butler (“Bless our happy home”), Eugene Pallette gets chuckles as a gravel-voiced hotel dick, and Arthur “Dagwood” Lake most amusing as a luckless schmo who encounters Topper and his spirit friends first as an elevator operator…and then a hotel bellboy. (Other familiar faces in Topper include Hedda Hopper, Virginia Sale, Theodore von Eltz, Doodles Weaver, Si Jenks, Ward Bond, Irving Bacon, Anita Garvin, and ubiquitous “dress extra” Bess Flowers.)
The Blu-ray presentation of this classic comedy is first-rate, and my delight with it might have to do with the fact that the Topper Blu does not include the colorized version (it was the first feature film to undergo this indignation in 1985)—the upcoming DVD collection will include both color and monochromatic versions of all three entries in the Topper “trilogy.” (I even alluded to this in my 2009 review: “Whatever my opinion of the two movies is now, I thank the Movie Gods I didn’t have to watch these colorized.”) I think a round of drinks should be bought for Kit and The Sprocket Vault crew for obtaining the rights to these entertaining classics (an e-mail I received recently touts upcoming releases of Charley Chase shorts, Captain Fury , and a “Forgotten Comedies” set with The Housekeeper’s Daughter , Turnabout , and Road Show ) because not only do they keep stepping up to the plate…they keep hitting them out of the park on behalf of movie nuts like you and me.