Topper Takes a Trip (1938)

+++ Cosmo Topper is in trouble. Despite her changing attitudes and her forgiveness displayed at the end of Topper, his wife Clara has decided to file for divorce after all. And in court, Cosmo finds it understandably difficult to convince the judge that the woman he was seen with at the Seabreaze Hotel was actually the ghost of Marion Kerby, wife of the equally dead majority shareholder in the bank Cosmo manages.

A friend of Clara’s seems to be the driving force behind the divorce proceedings, although her motives are unsure. When the proper way through the courts seems to develop too slowly, she convinces Clara to go to Europe and seek a divorce in a foreign court. Cosmo is in hot pursuit, trying to win back his wife. And in this attempt he is going to have the help of Marion – whether he likes it or not. +++



Given that Topper had been a big box-office hit, it is hardly surprising that it was immediately followed by a sequel. Like the first film, Topper Takes a Trip is based on an original novel by Thorne Smith. Two of the three screen-writers from Topper returned (Jack Jevne and Eddie Moran), with Eric Hatch being replaced by Corey Ford. Other major functions also went to the same people, like directing (Norman Z. McLeod), cinematography (Norbert Brodine), and editing (William H. Terhune). Roy Seawright also returned for the visual effects, and this time round he earned himself an Oscar nomination.

The financial success of Topper notwithstanding, the relationship between producer Hal Roach and Topper’s distributor MGM had turned sour in the intervening months, partly because of Roach’s ill-advised decision to establish a joint-venture company with Mussolini’s son Vittorio. So when Topper Takes a Trip was released, the distribution was handled by United Artists.

As with the crew, the main cast members also returned: the great Roland Young as Cosmo Topper, Billie Burke as his wife Clara, and Constance Bennett as Marion Kerby. Alan Mowbray also reprises his role as Wilkins, the butler. The only one not returning is Cary Grant (though he is seen in flashbacks at the beginning which summarise the first film), which is why this adventure is a solo mission for Marion – with her husband George being mysteriously absent. Prominent supporting roles went to Verree Teasdale, Franklin Pangborn, and Alexander D’Arcy. Since Marion needs someone to talk to in George’s absence, a ghost dog is shoe-horned into the film, played by Hollywood’s finest canine actor, Asta (he of The Thin Man fame).



The production seems lavish, and does certainly not look cheaper than the first film. But of course, there was no extravagant sports car to be manufactured; and not having to pay Cary Grant will also have helped to keep the budget down. Still, even if the budget was lower, you did not see it on the screen. This does not look or feel like a cheap film. And once again a whole array of visual trickery is employed to have objects seemingly move on their own, courtesy of our resident female ghost.

The one thing that is different from the first film is the running time: 76 minutes, as opposed to 90. That probably saved money as well; not to mention the fact that nearly 6 of those 76 minutes consist of flashbacks that serve as a recap of the first film for those audience members who have not seen it or who do not remember it well enough.


Now here comes the strange thing: I find this film vastly superior to the first film. The shorter running time might play into it, since it seems to improve the pacing. But there are a number of other factors. Most importantly, this film has an actual plot. We know who is doing what and why. Clara is in France to get a divorce, and Cosmo is travelling to Europe in order to stop her and save his marriage. Marion is hell-bent on helping Cosmo achieve this, even if her help kills him. And all the supporting characters also have their own specific goal (although the motivations of some of them are less clearly spelled out). The plot makes sense, it is well-written and well-paced, and Clara actually has a function in this film and is a character in her own right – and her actions are connected to the film’s plot. All this was missing in the first film.

Curiously, Bennett’s character Marion also works better in the absence of Grant’s George. Cary Grant may be one of my favourite actors, but George had no real role to play in the first film – he was never really needed for the story. Cosmo Topper was ghostly Marion’s pet project. It seemed like George was only in the film’s screenplay to justify Cosmo and Marion’s connection: George was a major shareholder in Cosmo’s bank and Marion was George’s wife.

Now, on a solo-detour from the afterlife, Marion can permanently converse and engage with Cosmo, who is also mostly on his own. She can undertake her project (saving Cosmo’s marriage) without having to discuss it with George, and she can easily haunt the French hotel and beach on her own. As an audience, we can concentrate on Marion and are not distracted by George.

For those reasons, I will give Topper Takes a Trip a rating far above that of the first film: 7.5 to 8.0 out of 10.

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