A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Topper (Norman Z. McLeod, 1937)

In a golden age for character actors, Roland Young stood out because he put the emphasis on "actor" as much as on "character." If you wanted a character type, such as a prissy fussbudget or an irascible fat man, you went to Franklin Pangborn or Eugene Pallette, but if you wanted depth and versatility, you went to Young, whose range extended from the fawning, vicious Uriah Heep in David Copperfield (George Cukor, 1935) to the slyly lecherous Uncle Willy in The Philadelphia Story (Cukor, 1940). The role for which he's most remembered, and the one that earned him his only Oscar nomination, was that of the repressed, henpecked husband Cosmo Topper in Topper. It was followed by two sequels, Topper Takes a Trip (Norman Z. McLeod, 1938), and Topper Returns (Roy Del Ruth, 1941). The first film, also directed by McLeod, is the best, partly because it's the only one with Cary Grant as the ghostly George Kerby, who with his (also ghostly) wife, Marion (Constance Bennett), haunts Topper out of his stuffy funk. The Kerbys, a wealthy, fun-loving couple, have died in an automobile accident and, finding themselves in a kind of limbo, decide that they must redeem themselves with a good deed. They hit upon the idea of cheering up the morose Topper, president of the bank on whose board George serves. The characters come from a pair of novels by Thorne Smith, a now mostly forgotten author of comic novels that in their day, the 1920s and early '30s, were thought to be quite risqué. As a kid, after seeing the Topper movies and the 1950s TV series based on them, I went to the library in search of the books and was told quite firmly that they were not suitable for young people. Whatever bawdiness may have been in the source has been edited out by the Production Code, although there are some glimpses of it still in the scenes in which Topper, at odds with his wife, Clara (Billie Burke), retreats to a hotel and is spied upon by the hotel detective (Pallette in his element), who thinks Topper has a woman in his room after overhearing Marion Kerby talking to him. There is also a bit involving Clara's discovery of a woman's undergarment -- Marion's -- in her husband's possession. Topper is a lightweight farce, but an engaging one, thanks to its cast, which also includes Alan Mowbray as the Toppers' butler. Young stands out not only for his portrayal of the put-upon husband but also for his skill at physical comedy. He gets drunk and hilariously demonstrates his dancing skills to Marion, and then, having passed out, is carried down the hall by the invisible Kerbys -- a brilliant bit in which Young has to walk on tiptoes with arms lifted to suggest their support. Young is his own special effect in a film full of clever ones.