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Topper/Topper Returns

Remember kids — the "special-effects" that put bottoms in movie-theater seats back in the day may seem incredibly unsophisticated by current standards. Then again, several decades from now a whole new generation of young movie buffs probably will look at Spider-Man and The Hulk and think, "Gosh, the CGI just doesn't look that realistic..." (wait a minute, that actually was overheard last week). But before Hollywood had access to several square blocks of image-processing mainframes, the "magic" of the movies was done primarily with photographic processes and practical slight-of-hand. James Whale's The Invisible Man (1933) was a huge hit and made a star out of its unseen lead, Claude Rains. It was only a matter of time before a similar bag of tricks found its way to the screwball genre and 1937's Topper — a breezy spooktacle that united a trio of the day's most appealing stars. Constance Bennett and Cary Grant star as George and Marion Kerby, a wealthy, fun-loving couple who survive primarily on George's position as the majority stockholder of a major bank. All George really has to do is appear at the annual Board of Directors meeting, but Marion has taken a special interest in the bank's president, Cosmo Topper (Roland Young), a meek bean-counter who is terrified of his nagging wife (Billie Burke). However, on their return trip from Manhattan, George and Marion wreck their car and suddenly find themselves semi-transparent specters. Believing they are in a form of purgatory, they thus set out to do a good deed, which turns out to be putting some excitement into Cosmo Topper's dull life. Cary Grant fans will enjoy his role in Topper as playboy George Kerby — he would soon follow this picture with The Awful Truth (1937) and Bringing Up Baby (1938) and establish himself as one of Hollywood's major players. Gorgeous Constance Bennett already was well known (billed above Grant in this production), and at one time was the highest-paid actress on the Warner lot. And stuffy Roland Young provides the right sort of foil for the swanky young couple.

*          *          *

By the time Topper Takes a Trip (not included on this DVD) came around in 1939, Grant had strung together enough hits to skip the sequel (he does appear uncredited), and then Bennett bowed out of the final film in the series, 1941's Topper Returns. This time, Topper (Young) is visited by the ghost of a recently murdered woman, Gail Richards (Joan Blondell), who then asks him to return to a spooky old mansion where she had been staying with her friend Ann Carrington (Carole Landis) and her mysterious father (H.B. Warner). The skeptical chauffeur Eddie (Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson) joins his boss and spectral companion, soon followed by the suspicious Mrs. Topper (Burke). What follows amounts to little more than an overlong episode of "Scooby-Doo," saved by the presence of Eddie Anderson. Often billed as "Rochester" in films after his radio success with Jack Benny, the poor fellow is asked to do a lot of scared-Negro-in-a-ghost-story mugging, but there is some charm in his performance — just as he sparred with Benny on the radio, he similarly fails to understand why these apparently sophisticated white folks would want to go digging around a haunted mansion. Well, there's that, and he also gets into a fight with an ornery seal. Hallmark/Artisan's double-feature DVD release marks the first time Topper has arrived on DVD — the source-print is pleasantly clean and offers good low-contrast details, although at times the telicine process seems to exhibit a very slight shudder. The restored audio is available on a monaural DD 2.0 track that eliminates a lot of ambient noise, while the unrestored track (DD 1.0) is included for the sake of comparison. Topper Returns apparently is a public-domain title, which means several DVDs are on the street, but this version probably is the most definitive, and particularly attractive since it's bundled with the superior Topper. The source-print also is clear, and while the restored DD 2.0 audio exhibits some variation, it's perfectly intelligible, and the original track (DD 1.0) also is on board. Keep-case.
—JJB



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