Topper (1937)
Topper (1937)

Genre: Screwball Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 37 min.

Release Date: July 16th, 1937 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Norman Z. McLeod Actors: Cary Grant, Constance Bennett, Roland Young, Billie Burke, Alan Mowbray, Eugene Pallette, Arthur Lake, Hedda Hopper, Virginia Sale

 


 

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ajority stockholders George (Cary Grant) and Marion Kerby (Constance Bennett) gayly drive at night (George using his feet to steer) to Wall Street for an early morning annual board meeting with “old man” Cosmo Topper (Roland Young), the president of his bank. But the night is young, allowing the chipper couple to stop by a ritzy nightclub for an evening of drinks and dancing. After a grand time, hopping from joint to joint (one of which sees them sliding into a Hawaiian soiree via a metal chute from the upstairs doorway), exhausting every establishment in the city (concluding with a drunken rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Old Man Moon”), they pile back into their automobile (somewhat impossibly) to finish their journey.

As the morning approaches, the Kerbys pull up to the National Security Bank to sleep off their fuzzy minds for a few hours before the institution opens. Meanwhile, Cosmo and his wife Clara (Billie Burke) have their usual breakfast, elegantly prepared in their colossal castle of a home. Young in his heart, but stifled by the oppressing dignity, propriety, and poise expected of him, Cosmo feels as if he’s aging too rapidly, stuck in overbearing routines during which his every minute is preplanned for him, down to the ingredients in his meals. As a perfect contrast to Topper’s stuffy, overly efficient, strictly organized life, George is carefree, whimsical, air-headed, and irresponsible. And Marion is delightfully flirtatious and optimistic. They act as if friends, but it’s difficult to imagine them occupying the same social circles.

“Why don’t you stop being a mummy for a few minutes and come to life?” On the way into the countryside, George recklessly speeds around sharp corners, resulting in a disastrous crash. When they awake, they discover they’re transparent; not acting entirely surprised enough (though their lives were approached with a distinct lack of sincerity), they realize that they’re now spirits or ghosts. The crash was clearly fatal (unexpectedly, it’s sober daredevilry and not inebriated negligence that undoes the Kerbys).

This setup is a creative recipe for a classic comedy, generating a schtick for lively phantoms to aid in making over Topper’s diminishing youthfulness. As shadows of their former selves, trapped in a purgatory of sorts, the Kerbys plot to do a good deed, idealistically believing it as a path to heaven. The process humorously involves coaching Topper in the ways of breezy jauntiness – to live life to the fullest, and with an appreciation for adventuresomeness – though they’re unconcerned with his appearance as a crazy person, interacting from time to time with nothingness (the Kerbys have limited ectoplasm to use for earthly visibility).

“Maybe I’ve needed a drink all these years and haven’t noticed.” Despite the originality behind the premise, there’s a slowness to the introduction of the supernatural elements, as well as with Topper’s reception and recognition of his newfound ghostly tutors. The various lessons – from sipping champagne to singing and dancing to engaging in a hearty brawl – don’t possess the typical breakneck speed of other screwball comedies of the era, causing many of the gags to run overlong until they lose steam entirely. Nevertheless, a few of Young’s sequences of physical comedy, in which he mimes being dragged around like a marionette by unseen puppeteers, pose a smartly-designed hilarity.

Cosmo’s life and reputation take an anticipated downturn (winding up in trouble with the law and, by extension, on the wrong side of his wife [the marital discord is far from funny]) before reversing course for a positive outcome (his unforeseen, headline-making controversies inspire a wealth of associates to accept him as one of their own wild, audacious brethren). But even as his social prospects grow more buoyant and devil-may-care, the slowness from before once again overtakes the peppiness. The concept is ripe for nonstop laughs, but the pacing is so faulty that the film rarely succeeds in capturing the splendid outrageousness of Grant’s following projects, “The Awful Truth” and “Bringing Up Baby,” just a couple of years later. Even supporting comic regulars Eugene Pallette (as a goofy, grumbling hotel detective) and Alan Mowbray (as a prim butler) can’t save “Topper” from its pitifully lethargic construction. Nevertheless, the film’s popularity led to two theatrical sequels (“Topper Takes a Trip” [1938] and “Topper Returns” [1941]) as well as a ‘50s television series.

– Mike Massie

  • 3/10