Monday, October 6, 2014

Topper (1937)

Directed by: Norman Z. McLeod
Runtime: 1hr. 37mins.
DVD on Amazon
Will be playing on TCM on Dec. 08, 2014 at 10pm

"Resting is the sort of thing you have to work up to gradually. It's very dangerous to rest all of a sudden."

I happened to turn on TCM a few nights ago and caught this film again. It seems TCM, in a month long celebration of Halloween, is doing something of a marathon related to ghosts. As such, I can scarcely think of a funnier example of ghosts in film than Topper, which just so happens to be one of their chosen films.

It's a comedy I saw first on TCM years ago, and fell instantly in love with. It's Cary Grant, just before his rise to stardom (he received second billing behind costar Constance Bennett here), and the film was so successful it spawned a couple of follow up films in 1938 and 1941, as well as a TV show that ran in the 1950's. While it didn't make Cary Grant, it certainly had a hand it setting up his career (he was, of course, most known for his screwball, romantic comedies). It also recieved a couple of Academy Award nominations including one for best supporting actor for Roland Young. There's also some great character actors in smaller roles, such as Billie Burke as Mrs. Topper (known for playing Glinda the good witch in The Wizard of Oz), and Eugene Pallette as the detective (known for playing Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood).

The movie is about a rich, fun loving couple of socialites, George (Cary Grant) and Marion (Constance Bennett) Kerby who spend all their time going from one high society party to another. However, they have some dangerous driving habits, and eventually get themselves into a car accident they can't come back from.

After the crash they wake up to find themselves looking a little see-through, and standing next to their own bodies. They realize that not really having done any good or bad deads (or perhaps equal amounts of both) they are likely stuck on earth as ghosts till they can pull off a good dead. 

"What do you suppose is the conventional thing to do now?" George asks Marion.
"I don't know. We've never been conventional." She says.

It just so happens that the Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) manages the bank that George serves on the board of directors for. They know his boring life all too well. He is a man developing a bit of a midlife crisis. His wife runs his home in an extremely structured manner, and he's jealous of the fun loving, spontaneous life the Kerby's lived. Mrs. Topper is too consumed by her desire to live up to the expectations of their age and status.

"Life is so very short and we get so very little out of it." He says.
"We're middle age!" She replies.
"Yes, but why should we be? We aren't so much older than the Kerbys and look at how carefree they were, how full of life!" He protests. Though she laughs at the thought and says,
"I shudder to think of what sort of ninny you'd make if you didn't have me to stop you."

He buys the Kerby's car and has it fixed up, out of anger over a conversation with his confining wife, and because the man selling it tells him he couldn't own a car like it. He wants to be impulsive and fun. He's desperate to shake the colorless image everyone has of him.

While driving it around he gets a flat tire right around where the accident happened. The ghosts of the Kerbys appear and decide to "help" him live a more fun life as their "good deed."

George introduces him to drinking and not being one for drinking he quickly starts acting strange, in what is perhaps the most humorous scene in the film.

"Look at him, his whole soul is crying out for self expression." - Marion.
George looks at Topper drunkenly curled up on the floor, laughs and says, "Is that the way a soul looks when it's crying out for self expression?"

From the beginning I was captivated with the humorously charming, fun loving Kerby's (Cary Grant, and Constance Bennet). Constance Bennett is both attractive and charming. It's easy to see why Topper is taken with her, not to mention that his boring overly structured life is nothing like the youthful, spontaneous life he wants, and that she represents.

George makes funny little jokey comments and puns throughout the film, and there is some good writing, at least a handful of really good, perhaps even quotable, lines throughout the course of the film. Much of it is dated, obviously, but this is one of the more enjoyable classic comedies I've seen.

The charm of the film doesn't end with the clever writing, and strong performances from the three leads, however, there are some interesting effects for the time. The Kerbys go invisible from time to time, and of course a lot of the humor surrounds Topper interacting with disembodied voices, and invisible bodies pushing and pulling him around.

It's one of my favorite classic comedies, and despite not really being his film, it's one of my favorite Cary Grant films. It isn't streaming anywhere these days, but the DVD can be bought for pretty cheap on Amazon (link at the top of this post), and it's definitely worth it.

Trailer for the film: