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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 risqué 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