Thorne Smith is one of those novelists who were really popular for a decade or so and then either prematurely died (like Smith) or faded with their popularity. Today he is recalled for the creation of banker Cosmo Topper, and the ghostly couple of George and Marion Kirby, but they are remembered (probably) more for the movies and television series where they appeared, then for the actual novels. I'm not even sure if the original TOPPER or TOPPER TAKES A TRIP or THE NIGHT LIFE OF THE GODS is still in print.
Basically Smith took normal sex and twisted it by adding the supernatural to it - such as the original story to I MARRIED A WITCH. In TOPPER the Kirbys are a fun-loving young couple who are the wealthiest depositors in Topper's bank. George has stock in the bank too, and at the start we see him attend a stockholder's meeting of the Board of Directors. As Topper drones on about banking matters we see George writing down something in front of him. When he gives up at last he explains it is impossible for a person to write his signature backwards and upside down at the same time. The director sitting next to him starts trying to do the same thing, and them remembers why he and the others are still there and throws down his pencil in disgust.
That situation is what is developed in TOPPER. Cosmo (Roland Young - possibly in his signature role, as he repeated it twice afterward) is married to Clara (Billie Burke) and they are a staid, childless couple, whose only other "family member" (to stretch a term) is their butler Wilkins (Alan Mowbray). Cosmo's wife organizes his life around an unbreakable timetable, and Cosmo (although following it) is reaching a midlife crisis.
George and Marion (Cary Grant and Constance Bennett) try to encourage him to experiment with some occasional fun. But they get killed in a car accident, and Cosmo feels that that is the conclusion of their influence. But after an argument with Clara (she feels the Kirbys got what they deserved), Cosmo buys the car they got wrecked in, and takes it for a drive. He gets into a minor accident, and while recovering discovers that the ghosts of the Kirbys are still around - and they are determined to rescue Cosmo from his middle aged rut. It seems that the Kirbys have never helped anybody, and to enter heaven they have to rescue someone.
The comedy of the film follows how the two ghosts get Topper into a series of odd circumstances and adventures, including a visit to night court for causing a public disturbance (Topper punches a cab driver in the nose - the driver is Ward Bond, by the way - and causes a massive fight). As he is reported as being accompanied by a pretty woman (Marion, before she dematerializes), Clara gets upset about the scandal. Subsequently she gets upset that Cosmo is flaunting his infidelities in their home. And then he flees to just get away from it all.
It's a weird tightrope, with Topper trying to enjoy himself with Marion (and hide the fact he is accompanied by a woman who is not his wife), and also avoid a jealous George who is threatening to break his neck. The supporting characters are as good as the four leads, with special notice for Mowbray as a staid, proper butler who finally does break character to push Clara into a more proper frame of mind towards her husband. Also note Arthur Lake as a befuddled elevator operator, and later a hotel bellboy, bedeviled by Topper and "those crazy Kirbys", and the marvelous Eugene Palette as a good hotel detective who just cannot get the goods on Topper and his two friends.
TOPPER was interesting for another reason. It was one of the films that producer Hal Roach Sr. created in the late 1930s in his attempt to expand from just being the producers of Laurel & Hardy, the Little Rascals, and several other comedians in short subjects. It was a great success for him, leading him to produce two sequels, but it helped create the frictions that led to his eventual split with Laurel & Hardy by 1940. As the only non-TOPPER film that he produced of note was ONE MILLION B.C. it looks like Roach made a tactical mistake here, even if the TOPPER films were pretty good ones.
6 out of 7 found this helpful.
Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.