What are we to make of the 1937 screwball comedy Topper?
Alas, the pair are killed in a car wreck, and they’ve become stuck in an incorporeal No Man’s Land. They’re not summoned to heaven – or that Other Place, fortunately – but are confined to earth until Bennett decides they must perform a Good Deed.
The unfortunate object of their charity is a Mr. Topper (Roland Young), president of a Manhattan bank of which Grant was a prominent shareholder.
Young’s character is a buttoned-down fellow who wields a great deal of economic authority, yet is forever Bossed Around by his wife (Billie Burke) and butler (Alan Mowbray). This makes him an ideal Fixer-Upper Project for Bennett, and she resolves to show him a zestier life. But she has a real time of it, given the pursed-lip disapproval of Young’s staff and family.
Example: Young purchases the sporty car belonging to Grant and Bennett, but Burke is Not Amused. She’s bewildered by this “circus wagon” and says being seen in it would be as embarrassing as going to the opera in pajamas.
Even so, Bennett and Grant drag a not-unwilling Young into a series of adventures, including a brawl, an arrest, and allegations of an affair.
Young appreciates this exotic new lifestyle – “Maybe I’ve needed a drink all these years and haven’t known it,” he muses. Meanwhile, the disapproving Burke slowly realizes their lives may have been too constricted.
Yet, a surprisingly bad fate is in store for Young, thanks to his phantom friends.
Topper the film doesn’t take anything seriously, and it’s something of a tonic for those tired of seeing privileged classes live by a separate set of rules.
You see, Grant and Bennett, while alive, enjoyed all the perks of being rich, including the ability to do whatever they want. In the film’s opening scene, for example, Grant drives his fancy convertible while perched on the back of the driver’s seat, steering the car with his feet. Imagine if any of us did that.
Notice the telling conversation between Bennett and Grant after they realize they’ve, uh, expired. They try to list all the Good Deeds they’ve done in their lives, but Come Up Short. They can’t think of any altruistic acts, which underscores their shallow and self-absorbed nature.
That’s why the reformation of Young-as-Topper is almost cliché. The couple’s attempt to re-create him in their image reinforces their belief that the world is (or should be) a reflection of themselves.
Topper was a hit at the box office; Ultimate Movie Rankings lists it at #18 in the 50 top-grossing movies of 1937. It was also nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Sound and Best Supporting Actor for Young).
This film boosted the careers of Grant and Bennett. After Topper, Grant would appear with Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth, a film that made him a superstar.
As for Bennett, she was reportedly so impressed by Topper‘s screenplay, she took a reduction in pay to star in the film. Happily, she received critical praise for her performance, which helped diffuse her image as a mere “clothes horse”. Her next film, Merrily We Live, would reunite her with co-stars Burke and Mowbray.
Topper is a lot of fun, and it’s a good example of a 1930s screwball comedy, especially since it concerns silly rich people wedged in an awkward afterlife.
Topper starring Cary Grant, Constance Bennett, Roland Young. Directed by Norman Z. McLeod. Written by Jack Jevne, Eric Hatch, Eddie Moran. Hal Roach Studios, 1937, B&W, 98 mins.