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It was during his tenure as Vice President in Charge of Production at RKO (1931-33) that David O. Selznick solidified his reputation as a producer of uncommon taste, imagination and ambition. One of Selznick's most impressive talents was his knack for finding just the right vehicles to bring out the best in performers. Among his triumphs in that regard at RKO were casting Katharine Hepburn in her star-making role in A Bill of Divorcement (1932), signing Fred Astaire to appear in film musicals and tapping into the comic talents of John Barrymore and Myrna Loy in Topaze (1933).
A year before Howard Hawks' "discovery" of Barrymore as a first-rate comedian in Twentieth Century (1934), Selznick cast him in Topaze. It was an adaptation of Marcel Pagnol's satire about an honest yet naive science teacher who loses his job because he won't pass an undeserving student who is the son of a wealthy man. After inventing a formula for a questionable health tonic called "Sparkling Topaze," however, the teacher risks losing his integrity by marketing the product with an unscrupulous businessman (George Mason). Loy is cast as the businessman's mistress, who falls for the teacher and eventually joins him on the road to redemption.
Of his uncharacteristic comic turn, Barrymore biographer Margot Peters wrote that "Refreshingly, Jack neither makes a pass at nor kisses a woman in the whole film; refreshingly, he is neither stuffed into a tight uniform nor profiled on the screen. His performance is subtle, nuanced, and beautifully controlled."
As strange as it now seems, Loy had been trapped for years in the role of exotic siren until Selznick cast her in light comedy roles in The Animal Kingdom (1932) and Topaze, allowing the actress to at last find what Selznick termed her "natural field." Selznick later wrote that Loy's earlier image had always been "a joke with people who knew her.... In real life she is no more a siren than I am."
Topaze was voted the best American film of 1933 by the National Board of Review, "with a salute to John Barrymore's memorable characterization." It was remade in 1951 and 1963 with Fernandel and Peter Sellers, respectively, in the Barrymore role.
Producer: David O. Selznick, Kenneth Macgowan (Associate)
Director: Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast
Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur (uncredited), from play by Marcel Pagnol as adapted by Benn W. Levy
Cinematography: Lucien N. Andriot
Original Music: Max Steiner
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Editing: William Hamilton
Cast: John Barrymore (Professor Auguste A. Topaze), Myrna Loy (Coco), Reginald Mason (Baron Philippe de La Tour-La Tour), Jobyna Howland (Baroness Hortense de La Tour-La Tour), Jackie Searl (Charlemagne de La Tour-La Tour).
by Roger Fristoe