Any 21st-century movie series about ghosts and hauntings is assured to be horrific and gory. In the late 1930s, however, the country, still in the grips of the Great Depression, found some laughter in a series of ghostly screwball comedies — namely, the films based on the Topper novels of Thorne Smith. The first and best of these, 1937’s “Topper”, materializes as the next film in the News-Gazette Film Series, screening at 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign.
When fun-loving, fast-driving couple George and Marion Kerby (Cary Grant and Constance Bennett) accidentally and fatally run their car into a tree, they find themselves stuck on Earth because they haven’t really done anything to get them into heaven. Later, their stuffy banker, Cosmo Topper (Roland Young), having bought their repaired vehicle, winds up at the same tree with a flat tire, and they decide that helping him lead a less dull, carefree life might be just the good deed they need to get through the pearly gates. Resistant to change but titillated by Marion’s flirting, Topper does not get any real say in the matter.
Versatile ghosts George and Marion can materialize at will or remain invisible and insubstantial. Visible, Marion makes Topper’s wife, Clara (Billie Burke), suspicious of his fidelity; invisible, George and Marion manipulate Topper like a puppet to the puzzlement of any onlookers. And of course, floating objects and disembodied voices befuddle or frighten everyone else who encounters Topper and his two unwelcome companions.
The 1930s and 1940s produced a fair number of delightful comic fantasy films featuring ghosts, angels and even a witch, including “The Ghost Goes West” (1935), three Topper films, “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” (1941), “I Married a Witch” (1942), “The Canterville Ghost” (1944), “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) and “The Bishop’s Wife” (1947). All the films named here have achieved some level of classic status and retain their charm today; most of them have been remade (some multiple times) or inspired television series.
When Hal Roach, the producer of popular comic shorts series starring Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, and the Our Gang kids, decided it was time to expand into features, he chose “Topper” as his first project. He had Grant in mind from the beginning to play George Kerby, but he had to convince Grant, who was wary of the supernatural element, that it would be handled as a screwball comedy (and offer him $50,000 — about $1.1 million adjusted for inflation). Bennett, whose early sound films had been more dramatic, even melodramatic, was so taken with the script that she did it for $40,000 (about $880,000 today), a reduction in her usual fee.
It’s somewhat ironic that Roland Young, who plays the title character in all the Topper films and has the most screen time, always appears in the credits after whoever is playing the ghosts. And his one Oscar nomination is for best supporting actor in this film.
Grant and Bennett had it relatively easy: a significant part of their performances was simply saying their lines while their characters were invisible. When George and Marion get Topper drunk and manhandle him through various situations, Young has to act as though he’s being held up by unseen hands and move as though he’s doing it against his will — a marvelous combination of stuntwork and choreography.
Director Norman Z. McLeod was renowned for making popular comedies. He’d already directed the Marx Brothers in “Monkey Business” (1931) and “Horse Feathers” (1932) and W. C. Fields in “If I had a Million” (1932) and “It’s a Gift” (1934). Later, he would guide Bob Hope, Danny Kaye and Red Skelton through some of their signature comedies.
The film was a big success at the box office and spawned two sequels, “Topper Takes a Trip” (1938) and “Topper Returns” (1941), and eventually a TV series in the early 1950s with Leo G. Carroll as Topper. It also bolstered the careers of everyone involved but especially Grant, for whom it would be the first in a truly amazing run of classic screwball comedies in a four-year period: “The Awful Truth” (1937), “Bringing Up Baby” (1938), “Holiday” (1938), “His Girl Friday” (1940) and “The Philadelphia Story” (1940).
“Topper” is based on 1926 novel by Smith, whose specialty was comic fantasies tinged with sexual high jinks and social satire. “Topper” may be his best-known work these days, but his novels in general have influenced many other writers both in print and on the screen.
Roach produced and directed a 1940 adaptation of his “Turnabout” in which a husband and wife involuntarily trade bodies after making some ill-considered comments in front of a statue of the Buddha — very likely the first body-switch comedy. And Smith’s “The Passionate Witch” was adapted as “I Married a Witch” (1942), one of the acknowledged inspirations for the “Bewitched” TV series (1964-72).
If You Go What:
- The News-Gazette Film Series presents ‘Topper’ (1937).
- 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday.
- Virginia Theatre, 203 W. Park Ave., C.
Box office: thevirginia.org or 217-356-9063.