Monday, September 27, 2010
Notes on my Favorite Films (Year By Year) Topper (1937)
Freewheeling couple George and Marion Kerby really like to mix it up. Life is a never ending party for the Kerby’s as they burn the candle at both ends on a nightly and daily basis, but the party ends when they are killed in a auto-accident…or does it? Proving not even death can stop their madcap ways; the Kirby’s come back as two prankster ghosts who set their sites on an uptight president of bank, that they held stock in, named Cosmo Topper.
Topper, scripted by Jack Jevne, Eric Hatch and Eddie Moran from a novel by Thorne Smith, is the hilarious and chaotic supernatural tale from underrated comic director Norman Z. McLeod. Originally released in 1937 to immediate critical and popular success, Topper can still stake a claim as being one of the flat out funniest and most purely entertaining works of the American depression era. It’s also one of the best ghost stories and it’s no wonder that the material has been visited so many times in the decades since it first played to packed houses across the country.
Like the characters he celebrated in many of his works, novelist Thorne Smith was a heavy drinking free-spirit and lover of life who tragically passed away just a couple of years after turning forty in 1934. The Maryland born Smith had been kicking around the literary world since the late teens with very little notoriety but he hit pay-dirt in 1926 with the publication of Topper, a work that would cement his reputation as one of the finest supernatural comic writers in the country. Many works followed the success of the book and eventual film version of Topper but only 1941’s The Passionate Witch (the inspiration for I Married a Witch, Bell Book and Candle and Bewitched) came close to matching its success. McLeod’s film version of Smith’s side-splitting book thankfully more than did justice to the original very-fine source material.
Prolific director McLeod might not have had any Oscars on his shelf, and his name never became as synonymous with comedy as Lubitsch or McCarey, but he was an absolute master at the kind of breezy (if sometimes chaotic) American comedies that populated the thirties and forties. Michigan born McLeod worked with everyone from The Marx Brothers to Hope and Crosby in his career that spanned five decades, but few of his popular works could match the quite daffy and joyously subversive Topper, a work which champions individuality and personal happiness over conformity and corporate greed at every turn.
With McLeod’s breezy direction, the uncredited but fine music of Marvin Hatley, the beautiful black and white cinematography of Norbert Brodine and the innovative Robert Fulton conceived special-effects, Topper would have been an at least partial success no matter who had been put on the screen, but the superlative cast gathered for the film transformed it into a comedic masterpiece of timing, innovation and originality.
In all seriousness you could have taken Cary Grant and Constance Bennett in 1937 and filmed them for 90 minutes staring at each other in front of a plain white wall and it would have been a film overflowing with style, wit and vivacity. You put the two of them in a sharply written work with a winning supporting cast and top of the line crew and you have absolute cinematic magic. The team of Grant and Bennett are eye-popping in how utterly fabulous they are as the irrepressible but charming Kirbys. They are gorgeous, funny, charismatic and oh so freaking sophisticated, even playing such an anarchistic pair. The often undervalued Bennett is especially endearing as Marion Kerby and its hard to take your eyes off her all these years later, even though she is often standing next to one of the most perfect leading men in Hollywood history.
Topper is far from just a two person show as McLeod and crew were blessed with one of the best supporting casts of the period, including scene-stealing Roland Young as the title character and Billie Burke as his wife. Also popping up are Alan Mowbray, Hedda Hopper and in a blink and miss early cameo, Lana Turner. The whole cast just has a real fall into place feel about them, making Topper one of the most wonderfully realized and executed films of 1937.
Topper would snag two Oscar nominations in 1937, including one for Young’s supporting turn and it would prove popular enough to inspire a couple of (ill-conceived) sequels, a television series and a TV-movie. None of these came close to measuring up to the original and the rumored upcoming Steve Martin remake will no doubt fail to capture the magic either. Topper would enter into some unfortunate infamy when it was the first major film colorized back in 1985, an absolutely disastrous release that should be avoided at all costs. The film has sadly slipped into the public domain, which makes tracking it down easy enough, but more often than not the quality of its presentation is sadly lacking. How I wish Criterion would get a hold of this and grant it the deserved place it deserves on home video.