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George and Marion Kerby lead a carefree life, cushioned from the world by privilege, wealth, and high society engagements until a fatal car crash threatens to end the party prematurely. But the Kerbys soon learn they can't leave the Earth unless they perform a good deed. So they decide to teach Cosmo Topper, a business associate, how to enjoy life. The hitch is that Topper is the only one who can see them, making him look increasingly unhinged to those who only see him having agitated conversations with himself.
Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Producer: Hal Roach
Screenplay: Jack Jevne, Eric Hatch, Eddie Moran
Based on the novel The Jovial Ghosts by Thorne SmithCinematography: Norbert Brodine
Editing: William Terhune
Art Direction: Arthur I. Royce
Music: Edward B. Powell, Hugo Friedhofer
Cast: Constance Bennett (Marion Kerby), Cary Grant (George Kerby), Roland Young (Cosmo Topper), Billie Burke (Clara Topper), Alan Mowbray (Wilkins), Eugene Pallette (Casey), Arthur Lake (Elevator Boy), Hedda Hopper (Mrs. Stuyvesant), Doodles Weaver (Rustic), Three Hits and a Miss (Themselves), Hoagy Carmichael (Bill, the Piano Player), Betty Blythe (Lady), Ward Bond (Eddie), Lana Turner (Extra)
Why TOPPER Is Essential
With his other 1937 releases, particularly The Awful Truth with Irene Dunne, Topper made Cary Grant a major star.
The film was the first feature-length ghost story to become a hit at the box office while also winning critical approval. It also inserted a fantasy element into the screwball comedy formula. Where most films in the genre show a stodgy male character liberated by a carefree, usually rich female, Topper did so by making the leading lady a ghost. Its success triggered a series of screwball comedies with a supernatural twist, including Turnabout (1940) and I Married a Witch (1942), both also based on Thorne Smith novels.
Topper revitalized Constance Bennett's career, leading her into other similarly glamorous comic roles. It also represents the epitome of her appeal as a film star.
by Frank Miller
Producer Hal Roach capitalized on Constance Bennett's success in Topper by re-teaming her with Billie Burke and director Norman Z. McLeod in another screwball comedy, Merrily We Live (1938). The film co-starred Brian Aherne as a butler who takes charge of a family of wealthy eccentrics. Ironically, Bennett had lost out on the lead in the similar My Man Godfrey (1936) two years earlier.
Topper was among the books and films spoofed in the 1938 Warner Bros. cartoon "Have You Got Any Castles?"
Roach followed Topper with two sequels. The 1939 Topper Takes a Trip reunited Bennett, Roland Young and Billie Burke, but Cary Grant, who had become a star partly as a result of the original's success, declined to participate. He was featured, nonetheless, in a reprise of the car crash from the original. In 1941, Topper Returns starred Young and Burke, with Joan Blondell taking over the role of Marion Kerby.
A television series based on Topper played on CBS from 1953 to 1956. Off-screen husband-and-wife Robert Sterling and Anne Jeffreys played the ghosts, with Leo G. Carroll as Topper.
In 1979, ABC presented a television movie remake starring another married couple, Kate Jackson and Andrew Stevens.
In 1985, Topper became the first film to be fully colorized.
The 1988 comedy hit Beetlejuice, like Topper, featured husband and wife ghosts who help liberate a family from its problems. In the later film, the couple are also killed in an auto accident in the opening of the movie.
by Frank Miller
The Topper score by Marvin Hatley, who had worked on Hal Roach's comedy shorts for years, includes themes from some of his classic Laurel and Hardy films.
The film introduced Hoagy Carmichael's "Old Man Moon." At various time, it's sung by the songwriter, Constance Bennett and Cary Grant, and the jazz group Three Hits and a Miss.
Although uncredited, Carmichael made his film debut as an actor in Topper. His best-known screen appearances would include To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Best Years of our Lives (1946).
Along with creating Cosmo Topper and the Kerbys, humorist Thorne Smith also wrote I Married a Witch, which inspired the hit 1942 film starring Fredric March and Veronica Lake and, in the opinion of many, the long-running television series Bewitched.
The film's original posters advertised it as "90 ROARING MINUTES OF LAUGHS!"
FUN QUOTES FROM TOPPER (1937)
"My pet, resting's the sort of thing you've got to work up to gradually...very dangerous to rest all of a sudden." -- Cary Grant, as George Kerby
"You know something, George? I think we're dead."
"I think you're right. Funny; I don't feel any different."-- Constance Bennett, as Marion Kerby, and Grant, as George Kerby
"Why don't you stop being a mummy for a few minutes and come to life? Of course, there's nothing wrong with being a mummy if you had any fun getting that way, but --"
"But I didn't, you see."
"No, I could tell that by the way you were staring at my knees." -- Bennett, as Marion Kerby, and Roland Young, as Cosmo Topper
"So I'm a ditherer? Well, I'm jolly well going to dither." -- Young, as Cosmo Topper
"Well, bless my blonde heart!" -- Elaine Shepard, as the Secretary
"My wife objects to drinking."
"Then she shouldn't drink."
"What's her objection?" -- Young, as Topper, and Grant, as George
"Perhaps you can explain the red on this cigarette."
"Yes, I...cut my tongue when I was shaving this morning." -- Theodore von Eltz, as the Hotel Manager, questioning Young
"Let's go have some dinner."
"Oh, no, we cannot eat on an empty stomach!"
"Then we better have a few drinks first!" -- Bennett, as Marion, and Young
"Say, if I'm in the way, you folks could leave." -- Grant
"Wilkins, after all these years, are you trying to be funny?" -- Billie Burke, as Mrs. Clara Topper, to Alan Mowbray, as the butler
"Don't teeter, Topper." -- Grant
Compiled by Frank Miller
After a successful career producing low-budget comedy shorts with such stars as Laurel and Hardy, Thelma Todd, Zasu Pitts and the Our Gang Kids, Hal Roach was interested in expanding into feature film production. Given his background in comedy, a screwball comedy seemed the logical choice. He found the perfect property in Thorne Smith's somewhat risqu 1926 novel The Jovial Ghosts.
Initially, Roach met resistance in the industry from filmmakers who thought a comedy about two madcap ghosts would be considered either distasteful or morbid.
Cary Grant was always producer Roach's first choice to play George Kerby, but the actor initially declined the role, concerned that the supernatural story elements wouldn't work. Roach won him over with his argument that the film was really a screwball comedy rather than a ghost story and the offer of $50,000 for his performance.
Roach's original choices to play Marion and Topper were Jean Harlow and W.C. Fields. Harlow was too ill to accept the role (she would die a month before the film's release), and Fields refused to accept the role.
Bennett had been a major star during the early years of talking films in a series of confessional melodramas in which she had played fallen women forced to pay for their sins in glamorous gowns and meticulously designed apartments. When the taste for such films waned, however, she had found herself in a career slump. When Roach called to offer her the chance to play Marion Kerby, she was so impressed by the script that she agreed to a lower-than-usual fee of $40,000 for the film.
Director Norman Z. McLeod was already an expert on comic filmmaking, having scored hits with two Marx Brothers films, Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932), and Fields' It's a Gift (1934).
by Frank Miller
The easiest part of the Topper shoot for Grant and Bennett was the many special effects scenes, which only required them to record their lines while special effects artists made the various items they moved, from fountain pens to a pair of frilly lace panties, appear to move on their own.
In addition to the stress of her career problems, Bennett was dealing with her sister Barbara's alcoholism, which left her short-tempered on the set. She also was frequently late.
The entrance to the Seabreeze Hotel, where Topper and the ghosts check in for a little fun, was filmed in front of Bullocks Department store on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.
by Frank Miller
AWARDS & HONORS
Topper won two Oscar® nominations, Best Sound and Best Supporting Actor, the latter for Roland Young, who played the title role. He lost to Joseph Schildkraut's performance as Capt. Dreyfus in The Life of Emile Zola.
The film placed 60th on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 funniest films ever made.
THE CRITICS' CORNER - TOPPER (1937)
"None of the other films of similar theme aroused more than mild enthusiasm among a small group who patronize the arty theatres and talk about pictures in terms of art expression....Effort to excuse the story's absurdities on the theory that the intent is farce comedy does not entirely excuse the production from severe rebuke. Fact also that the living dead are always facetious may be shocking to sensibilities. Some of the situations and dialogue offend conventional good taste." -- Variety.
"...it is Roland Young's show. Between the capricious antics of his abstract companions and the carping of Billie Burke as his wife, his talent for being harassed finds exquisite expression." -- Literary Digest"For those who don't know why Constance Bennett was a big movie star, her provocative, teasing Marion Kerby should provide the answer." Pauline Kael, 5,001 Nights at the Movies.
"Now it seems an archetypal piece of cinematic fluff from the '30s -- too gentle and leisurely to survive as a solid classic, through there's pleasure to be found in the cast's graceful way with comedy and their smooth ensemble playing." -- Geoff Brown, Time Out.
"Influential supernatural farce, still pretty funny and deftly acted though a shade slow to get going." - Halliwell's Film & Video Guide.
"There might be better screwball comedies than Topper, but there aren't many that are funnier...Cary Grant and Constance Bennett excel as the "crazy Kerbys"...Bennett looks terrific in her clinging white beaded dress; with her heavy eyelids, wiggling body and slightly hoarse voice, she evokes a special sort of thirties' sophisticate. Her Marion is a brittle tease, while Grant's George has a savoir-faire that barely suppresses his tightly coiled anger." - Dan Callahan,http://www.culturedose.net/
"There's a giddily delirious frothiness to Topper. You can almost sense the film having been construed in a spirit of dizzily manic euphoria in a determination to throw off the social gloom of The Depression and celebrate people taking nothing at all, not even death, seriously. And Topper is really nothing less than a series of wonderful gonzo scenes....Roland Young gives a wonderfully droll and perfectly dull performance as Topper. Young has a perfect sense of deadpan timing." - Richard Scheib, The SF, Horror and Fantasy Film Review.
"I would love to live in Noel Coward's universe, where everyone's droll and dresses for dinner, even the dead. Topper, from 1937, isn't one of Coward's -- it's based on a novel by Thorne Smith -- but it's the same spirit. Look, its heroes, the undead Marion and George Kerby (Constance Bennett and Cary Grant), killed themselves by driving drunk and crashing into a tree, and then get to spend the rest of the movie in their evening clothes. There are worse ways to spend eternity, I guess...but the point is, the charming and witty darlings who get to spend eternity wandering around in their evening clothes and haunting their stick-in-the-mud friend Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) died because they were driving drunk. This simply wouldn't happen in a movie today, bad example for the children and all that." - Maryann Johanson, The Flick Filosopher.
Compiled by Frank Miller & Jeff Stafford
By 1937 producer Hal Roach had produced several features with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, as well as the feature-length "Our Gang" vehicle General Spanky (1936). Looking to branch out even further from the "two-reelers" that made his fortune, Roach produced the big-budget fantasy/screwball comedy Topper (1937), based on a novel by Thorne Smith. Rather than promoting one of his contract shorts directors, Roach brought in Norman Z. McLeod, who had already helmed such features as the Marx Brothers' Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932), and W. C. Fields' It's a Gift (1934). Reportedly, Roach initially wanted Fields for the title role in Topper and Jean Harlow for the female lead; while both were unavailable, it is now hard to imagine the resulting cast being improved upon.
The visual which opens Topper is a perfect introduction to our soon-to-be "Jovial Ghosts," the Kerbys. In a gorgeous streamline Deco-roadster, wife Marion (Constance Bennett) is trying to doze while husband George (Cary Grant) is sitting on the back of the zippy two-seater, driving with his feet! The two are dressed in smart party togs, having clearly just left an all-nighter. They are en route to Wall Street and a board meeting headed by bank president Cosmo Topper (Roland Young). Realizing they are running early, the Kerbys make several more club and cocktail stops. (Closing one joint, they sing along with Hoagy Carmichael performing "Old Man Moon.") Leaving the meeting, George is again driving recklessly when he crashes the car. Ghostly images of the pair look upon their solid, dead selves on the ground and realize their predicament. "I suppose soon we'll hear trumpets, and then off we'll go." When this doesn't happen, the Kerbys decide that they must perform a Good Deed to gain admittance to Heaven. Meanwhile, Cosmo has defied his prim and proper wife Clara (Billie Burke) by buying and repairing the Kerbys' damaged car. Topper is clearly henpecked, but on the verge of emerging from the domination of his wife, who tells him, "I shudder to think what kind of a ninny you'd make if I wasn't there to stop you." Topper conveniently has a flat tire in the same spot the Kerbys met their demise, and the couple materialize in front of him and determine as their Good Deed to help poor Cosmo shed his inhibitions.
The giddy Topper extolled the virtues of drinking, merrymaking and mischief - preferably in fine evening clothes and an exotic speedster. The film was an enormous box-office hit and a career-booster for all of the headlining actors. Freelancer Cary Grant had signed on to the film as a one-picture deal to justify the salary demands he was making to other studios such as Columbia and RKO. What he demonstrated to audiences, though, was that he could turn in a strong comedy lead, and not just light comedy support. He stepped from this film directly into the high-profile screwball antics of The Awful Truth (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), and Holiday (1938).
Roland Young earned his only Academy Award nomination for his role as Cosmo Topper. The nod was well earned - since the Kerbys don't want to "waste any ectoplasm," they often become invisible. Consequently, Young is seen talking to nobody, riding in a driverless car, and having his mussed clothes and hair straightened by unseen hands: "Nervous eccentricity, Your Honor - it sometimes gets the best of me." Young's physical performance is a delight, and never better than in a sequence in which he is drunkenly being carried through a hotel lobby by the invisible Kerbys. Topper earned Constance Bennett some of the best notices of her career, as well as a reputation as a top-flight comedienne. Roach immediately brought Bennett back, together with director McLeod, screenwriters Jack Jevne and Eddie Moran, and co-stars Burke and Alan Mowbray (again playing a butler) for the screwball comedy Merrily We Live (1938). Soon after, the entire Topper team save for Grant was reunited for Topper Takes a Trip (1939), in which the risqu interplay between Marion Kerby and Cosmo is revisited, much to the annoyance of Mrs. Topper.
Topper is also well-served by such familiar supporting players as Mowbray, Arthur Lake as the Kerbys' hapless elevator boy, Hedda Hopper as Mrs. Topper's snooty neighbor, and especially Eugene Pallette as a befuddled hotel dick. The resident Special Effects expert at Hal Roach Studios, Roy Seawright, handled the effects chore for Topper, and utilized a variety of simple but effective methods to depict invisibility including split screens, wire work, and even stop-motion animation.
Writer Thorne Smith specialized in populating his comic-fantasy stories with sexy young protagonists, which proved to be a popular combination with Depression-era readers. He did not live to see the Hollywood features adapted from his work, having died in 1934. Alan Mowbray, the butler of the Topper household, had starred in an earlier adaptation of a Thorne Smith comic-fantasy novel. In The Night Life of the Gods (1935), Mowbray played a scientist who invents a device than can turn flesh into stone and vice-versa; consequently, museum statues of Greek gods are given life and run amok. More notably, Thorne's story The Passionate Witch (published posthumously) was adapted for the screen as Rene Clair's I Married a Witch (1942) starring Fredric March as the mortal who marries a luminous young sorceress (Veronica Lake).
Hal Roach's other feature films included such non-comedy fare as the action-adventure Captain Fury (1939), and the prehistoric sci-fi adventure One Million B.C. (1940). Roach also went to the Thorne Smith library for another property, a role-reversal fantasy called Turnabout (1940), staring John Hubbard and Carole Landis as a bickering husband and wife who switch bodies. Finally, Roach tapped the popularity of the original Topper once more for Topper Returns (1941). Young and Burke again play the Toppers, and director Roy Del Ruth surrounds them with a murder mystery and a new cast, including Joan Blondell as the ghostly protagonist. Beginning in 1953, a Topper television series had a healthy run of 78 episodes. It featured Anne Jeffreys and Robert Sterling as the Kerbys and Leo G. Carroll as Cosmo.
Producer: Hal Roach, Milton H. Bren
Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Screenplay: Eric Hatch, Jack Jevne, Eddie Moran
Based on the novel by: Thorne Smith
Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Film Editing: William Terhune
Music: Marvin Hatley
Art Direction: Arthur I. Royce
Set Decoration: W. L. Stevens
Costume Design: Irene
Special Effects: Roy Seawright
Cast: Constance Bennett (Marion Kerby), Cary Grant (George Kerby), Roland Young (Cosmo Topper), Billie Burke (Mrs. Clara Topper), Alan Mowbray (Wilkins), Eugene Pallette (Casey), Arthur Lake (Elevator Boy), Hedda Hopper (Mrs. Grace Stuyvesant), Hoagy Carmichael (Himself).
by John M. Miller