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Generations after its filming, the scintillating screen adaptation of Thorne Smith's bawdy supernatural farce Topper (1937) would be a perennial revival-house favorite. Its latter-day following would prompt Pauline Kael to observe that "For those who don't know why Constance Bennett was a big movie star, her provocative, teasing Marion Kerby should provide the answer." Indeed, Bennett's most enduring screen characterization resulted from teaming with Cary Grant as the rich, attractive and irresponsible married couple of Smith's novel who come back as ghosts after a fatal car wreck, and find their salvation by injecting some excitement into the life of stodgy bank executive Cosmo Topper (Roland Young).
The critical and financial returns on Topper made a sequel an inevitability, and producer Hal Roach managed to reunite almost all of the principals for Topper Takes a Trip (1939). Grant's services were unavailable, and George Kerby's presence in the movie was therefore limited to stock footage in the opening recap. However, with the returns of Bennett, Young, Billie Burke, Alan Mowbray, director Norman Z. McLeod, screenwriters Jack Jevne and Eddie Moran, and special effects master Roy Seawright, Roach was successfully able to tap into the spirit of the original.
Conveniently ignoring the first film's climactic reconciliation between Topper and his dithery society matron spouse Clara (Burke), Topper Takes a Trip finds Mrs. T seeking a divorce in the wake of Cosmo's erratic, mortifying behavior, including his public appearances with another woman. After Topper's attempts to rationally explain that the other woman was merely Marion Kerby's ghost, Clara hops a cruise ship to Paris in order to expedite the end of their marriage. Marion, now somehow still stranded on earth along with the spectre of her dog Skippy, pushes Topper to follow his wife to the continent and beg her forgiveness.
The proceedings are helped along by a great cast of comic supporting players, including Franklin Pangborn, Verree Teasdale as Clara's snooty society friend, and Alex D'Arcy as the fortune hunter who targets her. 1939 saw the debut of the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, and Seawright deservedly became a charter nominee for his efforts on Topper Takes a Trip; the sequences showing Skippy's penchant for wagging a disembodied tale were imaginatively executed. Roach would ultimately get Young and Burke into harness one last time for Topper Returns (1941), a more conventional haunted-house comedy, with the ectoplasmic hi-jinx being provided by Joan Blondell as a murder victim enlisting Cosmo's aid in unmasking her killer.
Bennett sprang from solid theatrical stock, the eldest of three daughters who followed their parents, stage and early screen luminaries Richard Bennett and Adrienne Morrison, into their profession. She signed her first film deal with Goldwyn in 1922 at the age of 17 on the strength of the family name, but abandoned Hollywood by the mid-'20s for a life of partying in international society. This lost its attraction for her within a few years, and she resumed her film career in 1929; within two years, her $300,000 two-picture pact with Warners made her the highest paid performer in the industry to that date.
While her professional star was waning by the mid-'40s, the determined and savvy Bennett broadened her focus, founding and running a cosmetic concern as her stage and screen appearances became more sporadic. In 1946, she had entered into her fifth and final marriage, to Brigadier General John Coulter; her final illness came when he was stationed at Fort Dix. She passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage not long after wrapping her last film performance as Lana Turner's mother in the 1966 version of Madame X.
Producer: Milton H. Bren, Hal Roach
Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Screenplay: Thorne Smith (novel), Jack Jevne, Eddie Moran, Corey Ford
Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Film Editing: William H. Terhune
Art Direction: Charles D. Hall
Music: Hugo Friedhofer, Marvin Hatley, Edward B. Powell
Cast: Constance Bennett (Marion Kerby), Roland Young (Cosmo Topper), Billie Burke (Mrs. Clara Topper), Alan Mowbray (Wilkins), Verree Teasdale (Mrs. Parkhurst), Franklin Pangborn (Louis).
by Jay Steinberg