Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Topper Movies

The amiable banker from Thorne Smith's Slick Fantasies was the subject of three movies, a tv series (> Topper [1953-1956]) and two tvms.

1. Topper US movie (1937). MGM. Pr Hal Roach. Dir Norman Z McLeod. Vfx Roy Seawright. Screenplay Eric Hatch, Jack Jevne, Eddie Moran. Based on Topper: An Improbable Adventure (1926) by Smith. Starring Constance Bennett (Marion Kerby), Billie Burke (Clara Topper), Cary Grant (George Kerby), Roland Young (Cosmo Topper). 96 mins. B/w.

After he skids off the road at the site where irresponsible socialites Marion and George died in a car crash, their Ghosts – capable of Invisibility at will – "adopt" Topper, manager of the bank in which George was a major stockholder. Having got drunk with them, he is involved in a fight with some sailors, and is arrested. The press is full of the story of the disorderliness committed by him and a mysterious "babe" (i.e., Marion). His dominating, image-conscious wife Clara assumes social suicide, but to her astonishment the pillars of society court the Toppers, whom no one has before suspected of being interesting. Marion, peeved with George, lures Topper, who has long had a secret yen for her, to the swanky Seabreeze Hotel for a fling; there are riotous scenes – plus a reconciliation between Marion and George – before they depart, George driving maniacally. The car crashes in the same old spot, and Topper is concussed. On his recovery, Clara promises to be a new and delightful wife.

This comedy veers between wryness and shrillness, with wryness just winning; the same contest exists between Young's low-key restraint (as in The Man Who Could Work Miracles [1936]), which occasionally slips to just the right degree, and the staccato chatter of the Kerbys. The frequent materializations and dematerializations of the ghosts are among T's many excellent, state-of-the-art spfx. [JG]

2. Topper Takes a Trip US movie (1939). Hal Roach/United Artists. Pr Roach. Dir Norman Z McLeod. Vfx Roy Seawright. Screenplay Corey Ford, Jack Jevne, Eddie Moran. Based on Topper Takes a Trip (1939) by Smith. Starring Constance Bennett (Marion Kerby), Billie Burke (Clara Topper), Alexander D'Arcy (Baron), Cary Grant (George Kerby, in extracts from 1), Alan Mowbray (Wilkins), Franklin Pangborn (Louis), Verree Teasdale (Mrs Parkhurst), Roland Young (Cosmo Topper). 85 mins. B/w.

As a result of events at the Seabreeze Hotel in 1, Clara has been egged by grim friend Mrs Parkhurst to divorce Topper; his testimony in court allows extensive extracts from 1 to be run as a recap. Her case dismissed, Clara is dragged by Parkhurst to the French Riviera; Marion returns from oblivion, without George but adopting the dog-Ghost Atlas, to help Topper recover his wife. In France, Parkhurst and oily hotel manager Louis try to fasten a gigolo Baron onto the rich Clara. Deprived of funds by his wife's lawyers, Topper goes to the casino, where an invisible Marion fiddles the roulette game for him; back at the hotel, she sneaks them into the suite shared by Parkhurst and Clara . . . and something of a bedroom farce (with added ghosts and a jail-break) ensues. Inevitably, the Toppers are joyously reconciled.

TTAT lacks some of the verve of 1, but makes up for it with some excellent comic routines. There is some desperate scripting to account for Cary Grant's absence – officially because he had become too expensive, but likely also because he had been comprehensively outshone in 1 by Bennett and Young. [JG]

3. Topper Returns US movie (1941). Hal Roach/United Artists. Pr Roach. Dir Roy Del Ruth. Vfx Roy Seawright. Screenplay Gordon Douglas, Jonathan Latimer, Paul Gerard Smith. Starring Eddie "Rochester" Anderson (Eddie), Joan Blondell (Gail Richards), Billie Burke (Clara Topper), Carole Landis (Ann Carrington), Dennis O'Keefe (Bob), Roland Young (Cosmo Topper). 87 mins. B/w.

Gail Richards and heiress Ann Carrington are travelling to the home of Ann's father, whom she has not seen since childhood. An assassin's bullet blows out the tyre of their taxi; when taxi-driver Bob goes for help, they hitch a lift with Topper and his chauffeur Eddie. That night in Carrington's gloomy castle the two women swap assigned bedrooms; a masked man stabs Gail to death in error, and her Ghost walks through the skies to Topper's house, where she blackmails him into coming back to the Carrington place with her to solve the murder. The ensuing hijinks comprise a broad Parody of Haunted-House movies, Psychological Thrillers and film noir, with elements of The Phantom of the Opera (1925) thrown in. Quite unlike the earlier two Topper movies, it is one of a cluster of such spoofs, including The Cat and the Canary (1939), and is, even though its plot is not entirely resolved, one of the best. [JG]

4. Topper Returns US movie (1973 tvm). NBC. Pr Walter Bien. Exec pr Arthur P Jacobs. Screenplay AJ Carothers. Dir Hy Averback. Starring John Fink (George Kerby), Roddy McDowall (Cosmo Topper Jr), Reginald Owen (Jones), Stefanie Powers (Marion Kerby). 30 mins. Colour.

This unsuccessful pilot sequelled the original Topper tv series (1953-1956). Cosmo Topper Jr has inherited all his uncle's worldly possessions – and three unworldly ones as well. The Ghosts are as determined as ever to make at least one Topper join in their fun. [BC]

5. Topper US movie (1979 tvm). Cosmo Productions/CBS. Pr Robert A Papazian. Exec pr Kate Jackson, Andrew Stevens. Screenplay Maryann Kasiac, George Kirgo, Michael Schiff. Dir Charles S Dubin. Starring Jackson (Marion Kerby), James Karen (Fred Korbell), Macon McCalman (Wilkins), Rue McClanahan (Clara Topper), Andrew Stevens (George Kerby), Jack Warden (Cosmo Topper). 120 mins. Colour.

This further pilot for a Topper series followed several years later, this time starring Kate Jackson of Charlie's Angels fame and her then-husband Andrew Stevens. Perhaps one of the worst-received tvms of the year, this for some reason changed Topper from a banker to a lawyer. [BC]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.