Monday, January 28, 2013

Topper (1937)

Director: Norman Z. McLeod


If good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell, what happens to those that do neither good nor bad? That is the subject matter of the Hal Roach screwball comedy Topper. In the summer of 1937 this smaller “A” picture would hit theaters and run wild at the box office with its humor of deceased couple haunting a friend. The picture would prove to be a classic comedy in coming decades, aid the expansion of its producer’s studio, widen the careers of its stars, and be one of the most financially successful films of the year.

Topper is a screwball comedy of a recently deceased couple who haunts an old friend in hope to improve his dull life. The Kerbys, George (Cary Grant) and Marion (Constance Bennett), are a rich and somewhat flighty couple who die in an auto accident, but find themselves going to neither heaven or hell. Determined their limbo state is due to their lack of good deeds they decide to help a friend at the bank  George was on the board of named Cosmo Topper (Roland Young), who is stuck in a strictly controlled lifestyle of no frills, believing  this good deed will be their key to heaven. The Kerbys get Topper into all sorts of trouble, shocking his social elite wife Clara (Billie Burke), nearly ending their marriage, but in the end Clara believes she must change her strict ways to help allure Topper back into a far more thrilling relationship. Topper and Clara are reunited as a livelier couple, while George and Marion depart for heaven after their good deed.

It is an off the wall story with many suggestively risqué moments meant to flirt with audiences, and with the help of that and the humorous writing Topper was the hit comedy in the summer of 1937. The dark side of the story being about death and entry into heaven can be a bit of a gruesome idea, but it is very well covered up by the shear silliness of George and Marion as they play around in attempt to help Topper have a more interesting and fun lifestyle. More than just a comedy, Topper titillates audiences with it sexual undertones that audiences viewing movies under the production code would find refreshingly appealing.

Directed by veteran filmmaker of other great comedies such at Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and It’s a Gift, Norman Z. McLeod brings the perfect balance to this supernatural comedy. Special effects and camera trickery would be used to convince audiences to think that George and Marion were invisible beings at times, manipulating the surrounding, and much like the Universal horror film The Invisible Man, Topper accomplishes the effects well, especially with the opticals of George and/or Marion disappearing or reappearing. What McLeod does best it manage the comedic timing of the actors, making the characters as funny as possible.

When the property to the story was first bought producer Hal Roach planned from the beginning to bring aboard Cary Grant, but also planned to star Jean Harlow and W.C. Fields respectfully as Marion and Topper. Harlow would fall very ill, forcing her to turn the role down. Shortly after doing so Harlow would sadly pass away from her illness. Fields promptly refused the role of the title character. To fill the roles was an actress more known latterly for her fashions then her acting, Constance Bennett, and successful character actor Roland Young. All three actors were not at the top of their careers, and were looking for a boost, receiving it in Topper.

Up to this point Cary Grant had being trying to build on his career, which had seemed to have stalled shortly after his push by the success of his Mae West films. Struggling to find ground at Paramount, Gant signed with Columbia at the beginning of 1937, but here was loaned out to Hal Roach, but only did so with much convincing from Roach, including a hefty bonus plus a percentage of the profits. The hit film of 1937 would pay Grant very well, propelling him to work on a comedy later in the year, The Awful Truth, which would send the actor into the realm of being a major name actor for the remainder of his career.

Constance Bennett at this time was known for getting around, marrying playboy millionaires, and looking elegant in dresses more than for the acting she had done on screen in the past. Her good looks and the writing for the feature would make the role a success for her. The part of Marion would be meant for an attractive woman that does titillating things while invisible. Besides showing off a little extra leg (and knees) there were scenes where the invisible Marion tries on lingerie and even takes a shower, alluding to an invisible, nude Marion that is in the shower. Despite being unseen at these points, these moments are meant to make men envision the unseen, which surely helped some of the box office numbers.

Aside from the Kerbys there is the title character of Topper himself. Though W.C. Fields turned down the part, you can see how the character could have been played by the mumbling and rotund comedian. Roland Young does make the role of Topper believable as a banker very much regimented by his own wife, played by Billie Burke. Young could play stern, but at moments be made to look two inches tale as he is berated by his wife. The success of Topper would bring Young more work in supporting role in comedies. In fact Young would be nominated for best supporting actor for his work in this comedy, marking perhaps his critical peak.

Relying heavily on what is unseen in the picture, the film was nominated for best sound recording at the Academy Awards. The two nominations would give a small boost for the smaller comedy producer in Hal Roach.

Topper would be the hit of the summertime movies in 1937, bring sizable profits to Hal Roach. Future years brought two sequels to this original film, Topper Takes a Trip (1939) and Topper Returns (1941). Of the headlining stars in this picture only Constance Bennett would return in the first sequel, while Young reprised the role as Topper in both features. Several short lived television series would be inspired by Topper, none gaining much traction with a wide following.

Audiences through time would adore the screwball nature of this comedy. In 1985 Topper would be would receive the notable footmark in history of being the first black and white feature film to be “colorized” in the short lived era where studios re-envisioned classic films with the new depth of full color. AFI in 2000 would name the motion picture #60 on their list of top American comedies of all time. As seen with the future success of its stars, the award considerations, sequels, and re-envisionings of the story, Topper is an influential comedy in cinema.

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