I need to learn to temper my expectations. It seems every time I think a screwball comedy will be amazing, I find myself experiencing varying degrees of disappointment. Such is the case with 1937’s Topper.
As this stars Cary Grant, I am stunned this couldn’t be anything less than amazing. But that’s because I keep forgetting his antics, depending upon the context, can be exhilarating (Arsenic and Old Lace) or exhausting (His Girl Friday). Not sure why I was surprised to recently learn he started as a circus performer, as he always had an excess of energy which the best directors knew how to apply accordingly.
When we first see him here, he is driving a convertible while perched on top of the driver’s seat. He is using his feet to manipulate the steering wheel. Quick question: how is the car still accelerating? It doesn’t appear Constance Bennett as the passenger is using her feet. She’s looks about half asleep.
It’s probably because of the extreme amounts of alcohol this married couple, the Kirbys, consumes. In one night on the town, we see them hit three clubs. One of these is Hawaiian themed, and visitors make their entrance via a spiral slide. Previous to seeing this, I was unaware of the intense love islanders have for playground equipment.
After a night of drunken revelry, they settle down to sleep in the car after parking it in front of a bank. When a cop tells them to move it, she informs him Grant is waiting for a meeting of the bank’s board to begin. I think I was as surprised as that officer when that turned out to be the truth.
Roland Young, as Cosmo Topper, is the president of this prestigious banking institution. He looks far from amused when Grant rolls in late to the board meeting and gives it the bare minimum of his attention. What’s weird is Bennett is hanging out in Topper’s office, waiting for that uptight man to return. She has a good line for when a secretary asks if she’s looking for her husband: “I know where he is. He’s in there dumbing up the board meeting”.
Topper shows up and Bennett is also over him and coyly giving him glimpses of her long legs. I don’t think she was putting the moves on him but I couldn’t discern her intentions. She keeps telling him he needs to unwind and enjoy life more. Topper’s uptight demeanor will eventually drive the largest part of the plot.
In a surprise twist in the first act, Grant and Bennett meet their demise when he crashes their car. Whodathunkit? I mean, he’s only an alcoholic who constantly drives recklessly.
The Kirbys are now ghosts, doomed to walk the earth until they can determine how to transition to the other side. Bennett is convinced they cannot move on until they do a good deed. She believes their good deed will be helping Topper learn how to live life to its fullest. The way she will pursue this makes it appear the good deed she will do may involve “doing” Topper. Would that qualify as necrophilia?
Their relationship is odd, and I never felt I had a firm grasp on how far either was willing to go. I was surprised this was released two years after the production code went into effect, as I would think censors would nix a storyline that has a ghost woman becoming romantically involved with a man who isn’t her husband. I guess “til death do us part” made her ghost a free agent.
Inexplicably, Grant just disappears from the feature for a long stretch as Topper checks into a ritzy hotel, accompanied by the invisible ghost of Bennett. One of the weird rules of the world this takes place in is the ghosts can become momentarily visible, though it uses their limited amount of ectoplasm each time.
This leads to the best laughs in the film, as the ghosts cause general mayhem. Alas, their antics cause at least person to lose their job, and I didn’t find that very funny. On the other hand, the funniest moment occurs when the ghosts hoist Topper by his armpits and march him into the elevator. Since they are invisible, you only see him stumbling awkwardly with his elbows weirdly jutting outwards. This gets some great reaction shots.
In addition to some humorous sight gags like this, many of the best moments are courtesy of some fairly sharp dialogue. After some goading from Bennett, Grant’s ghost reluctantly helps Topper change a tire with, “All right, I’ll change the tire, but I won’t waste any ectoplasm doing it!” She also says at one point, in a bit that had me confused, “I love stuffed eggs. You never know what’s in one until you bite into it”. This is the weirdest variation of the Forest Gump “box of chocolates” line I’ve ever heard. Then there’s Topper’s wife’s reaction to her husband sitting in the roadster of the deceased Kirbys: “You look like a whatnot!” Not sure exactly what he meant by this, but it isn’t difficult to imagine she is referring to male genitalia.
I liked Topper, though not as much as I hoped to. I found it to be a weird, clunky affair with a strange romance at its core. Even when they were causing comic mayhem, the ghost couple are largely jerks who cost at least person their job. A strange film that is a love triangle between a shallow, self-centered ghost couple and a hen-pecked, resigned banker.
Dir: Norman Z. McLeod
Starring Cary Grant, Constance Bennett, Roland Young
Watched on VCI blu-ray