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Hallmark Home Entertainment presents
Topper / Topper Returns (1937/41)

"Why don't you stop being a mummy for a few minutes and come to life?"
- Marion Kerby (Constance Bennett), to the title character, in Topper

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: June 30, 2003

Stars: Cary Grant, Constance Bennett, Roland Young
Other Stars: Billie Burke, Alan Mowbray, Eugene Pallette, Joan Blondell, Eddie (Rochester) Anderson, Patsy Kelly, Carole Landis, Dennis O'Keefe, George Zucco, Donald MacBride, Hedda Hopper
Director: Norman Z. McLeod, Roy Del Ruth

Manufacturer: Directorsite
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 03h:07m:24s
Release Date: June 17, 2003
UPC: 707729138280
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

How I love a good old-fashioned double feature. This disc features two full-length films featuring that old reliable fuddy duddy, Cosmo Topper, and his many adventures with those on their way to the hereafter.

Topper (1937)
Directed by Norman Z. McLeod

Topper: Can't you even look like a human being?
Wilkins: I don't know, sir. I've never tried.

Poor old Cosmo Topper is about as straight an arrow as you'll ever find—henpecked by his wife, Clara, strictly regimented by his many servants at home, and by his many employees at the bank he directs. But a rebel's heart beats underneath that banker's suit—he professes frustration with George and Marion Kerby, the fast-lane couple that holds the lion's share of the bank's stock, but who would rather spend their time not crunching numbers, but drinking champagne, staying out dancing until all hours, and just generally having a fine old time.

Catastrophe strikes, however, as a drunken George careens around a corner behind the wheel of his swanky convertible, and he and Marion are killed instantaneously. Don't shed any tears, however, for, this being a screwball comedy, their spirits rise right up out of their bodies, and they decide that the express lane to heaven is by helping old Topper to loosen up, at least a little bit.

Most of the movie involves Marion and George making things difficult for Topper—they can disappear at will, and take great pleasure in putting him in a series of compromising situations. And the Kerbys find that being dead and invisible has its advantages—it's an opportunity to exact some revenge on those like their elevator man all too happy to speak ill of the newly dead.

All of this is really rather silly, but it's pulled off with great style by a first-tier cast. Cary Grant and Constance Bennett are a consummate screwball comedy couple as the Kerbys, and the last days of their life are lived in such opulence that Depression-era audiences must have drooled at the very sight of them. (This is exactly the kind of movie that Woody Allen is parodying in The Purple Rose of Cairo.) In another age (say, ours), their consumption of champagne and closing down all the high-end bars might seem more alcoholic and pathological than carefree—but let's not put them into a twelve-step program, just yet, all right?

Roland Young plays the title character, and he's especially adept at the physical comedy work that the role demands—he plays many of his scenes opposite the disembodied voices of Grant and Bennett, and pulls this off beautifully. And especially noteworthy too is Topper's wife, Clara, played by Billie Burke—she will forever indelibly be Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, and merely to hear her bubbly little voice outside of Oz is likely to give you the giggles. Frog-voiced Eugene Pallette is hilarious and underutilized as a hotel house detective; and also worth mentioning, in a small role as Mrs. Rutherford Stuyvesant, grande dame of New York society, is Hedda Hopper, who would soon trade in her SAG card for a gossip column.

Topper Returns (1941)
Directed by Roy Del Ruth

"Mr. Topper is evidently suffering from hallucinations." -Mr. Carrington

The second film on the disc is actually Topper's third outing—the second was Topper Takes a Trip, made in 1939—and while it's got some laughs, you can feel the formula tiring. Grant and Bennett are sorely absent from this one, and those on hand to take their place can't fill those mighty big shoes.

The setup is actually more like a ghost story—on the day before her 21st birthday, Ann Carrington (Carole Landis) is off to meet her father for the first time. As per her late mother's wishes, she was raised in Asia, and for moral support has brought along a friend, Gail (Joan Blondell)—the Carrington estate is a great big creepy affair, and fair warning comes to the two young ladies when their cab crashes out on the way to the house. (What we know and they don't is that the crash was caused by a sniper's bullet.)

You'll never in a million years guess who lives next door to the Carringtons. Yes, Cosmo and Clara Topper are back, but early on are peripheral to the plot, at best. Ann learns upon her majority—that is, tomorrow—she stands to inherit the entire estate; someone is after the young heiress, and inadvertently kills her friend Gail instead.

As with the spirits of the Kerbys, Gail's ghost rises up out of her body, and for reasons that remain unclear, she goes next door, to Topper, to seek help. (Perhaps she'd seen the first movie?) The comedy feels sort of ginned up—Burke is extra daffy here as Mrs. Topper, and on for added comic benefit is Eddie (Rochester) Anderson, more familiar as Jack Benny's sidekick, as the Toppers' chauffeur. Anderson's slapstick routines and asides border on offensive in the Stepin Fetchit manner—lots of physical abuse is rained down upon him, and the poor man is even reduced to wrestling with a seal.

The Carrington estate is particularly ghoulish, and seems to be a pretty close parody of Manderley, the estate so crucial to the plot of Hitchcock's Rebecca, released the previous year. The Topper franchise would later find success on the small screen, as a reasonably successful television series in the early 1950s; there's enough in this second feature to sustain your attention, but you'll be glad that this is the last time that the filmmakers went to this particular well.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The picture quality of the first feature is better than that of the second, but neither looks especially good. Topper frequently looks washed out, with many scratches and the presence of reel-change indicators; the second film has even more of the same.

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The restored 2.0 tracks are obviously superior to the monaural originals, but there's only so much that can be done with a film of this period, and a good amount of hissing, on the second film especially, can be heard all too loudly and clearly.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 31 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The first film has sixteen chapter stops; the second, fifteen. No other extras.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

The opening stanza is more impressive than the nightcap—the presence of Cary Grant weighs heavily in favor of the former—but still, this is a nice and straightforward presentation of two amiable screwball comedies.


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