Topper Returns (1941)

Topper Takes a Trip must have been reasonably successful, because a few years later, Hal Roach decided to produce yet another Topper film. This is the third and last film in the franchise, although in later decades there would be unrelated TV adaptations and the like.

 

While both Topper and Topper Takes a Trip were more or less loosely based on books written by Thorne Smith, this third film merely uses the characters of Cosmo Topper and his wife, as well as Cosmo’s unfortunate predisposition to attract ghosts, and it then builds an entirely original story around them.

Writing an original story gives the writers much more leeway, and they use it to direct this franchise into an entirely new direction in terms of genre: a crime-mystery comedy. The crime-mystery angle actually seems inspired, because it fits hand-in-glove with the ghost premise of the franchise.

 

+++ While travelling peacefully in his car, Cosmo Topper and his driver are being commandeered by two young women who need a ride to a distant Victorian estate on the coast. On their way there, they are spotted by Clara who, as she always does, imagines the worst and accuses Cosmo of infidelity.

Meanwhile, the two young women, one of whom is destined to inherit the estate, are met by a cast of characters that range from mysterious to shady to sinister. It is clear that something is afoot in that gloomy house, which Topper’s driver says is all but haunted. And sure enough, soon after, there is a death at the house. And since Topper seems to attract ghosts like a magnet, he is prodded by the victim’s apparition to find the unknown killer.

Of course, as a stranger lurking about the house and behaving weirdly, Topper soon attracts unwanted attention from all sides. +++

 

 

While Topper and its immediate sequel shared a lot of cast and crew, this new film – coming after a three year gap since the second film – sees a lot of change in that respect too. A new director (Roy Del Ruth) and a new editor (James E. Newcom) shaped this film. The cinematography, however, remains the charge of Norbert Brodine. And Roy Seawright also returns for the visual effects on which the franchise’s appeal seems to have been largely based back in the day.

 

Since Cosmo and Clara Topper are the only characters that return, Roland Young and Billie Burke are surrounded by an entirely new cast. The Toppers have a maid (Patsy Kelly) and a driver (Eddie Anderson), who are both suffering under their employers’ eccentricities. Clara’s absentmindedness makes the life of anyone around her rather difficult anyway.

Cosmo’s black driver is a mildly stereotypical character. He is good-hearted, but cowardly and superstitious. In a story in which everyone else (including Clara and the police) do not believe in ghosts, Anderson’s character is in this regard rather important for balance. He also seems to attract bad luck as all sorts of accidents happen to him. This gives Anderson a lot of screen-time, and it makes me wonder if some (or all) of those scenes had originally been written for Cosmo, but then proved physically too strenuous for Young. Young, by the way, who was 53 at the time of shooting, somehow looks much older than the 46 years that are given in this film as Cosmo Topper’s age.

 

As I said, Eddie Anderson, as the only black cast member, has a stereotypical role, with a stereotypical voice and accent. His aforementioned, suitable superstition is not his only function in the film, however. He also has the (not unusual) function of the “black commentary character”, who can roll his eyes at the eccentricities of all the crazy white folks around him. But while we are meant to laugh with him, I am afraid that – with all the accidents happening to him, the nature of which reduce him to a clown – he is also used by the film to be laughed at.

However, on balance, I am always happy when a black actor is given the chance to take on a larger role (in this case with a number of decent lines as well), given the restrictions of the time and the many examples of black actors only playing the most marginal of characters in other films.

 

The two young ladies who get Cosmo into trouble are played by Joan Blondell (Desk Set) and Carole Landis; and their on-again-off-again taxi-driver is played by Dennis O’Keefe. The weird residents at the Victorian estate are played by Trevor Bardette, George Zucco (After the Thin Man), H. B. Warner, William H. O’Brien, and Rafaela Ottiano (in what proved to be one of her final roles). There is also a very nice role for Donald MacBride (The Thin Man Goes Home).

 

 

 

The story itself does not amount to much as the criminal plot is overly complicated – which is probably deliberate. But the film creates a great atmosphere. It is partially a crime mystery atmosphere, but there are also large bits of a more sinister, gothic drama. Flustered policemen, understandably confused by the ghostly shenanigans, feed into the crime comedy bits, as do Cosmo’s attempts at sleuthing.

The way the scene is set and the shady characters are introduced is reminiscent of Hollywood crime-mystery plots of the time. And when Cosmo Topper – somewhat haplessly – tries to trap the culprit in a “let’s-get-all-the-people-in-one-room-together” reveal, while trying to show part of his cards while not showing others, this is a clear spoof of similar “reveal monologues” in films like The Thin Man.

The film’s ending is somewhat odd and abrupt; in part, one must assume, because the mystery itself and its resolution are not the main focus of the film, it’s Cosmo’s bumbling.

 

Overall, I enjoyed this film very much, and (deducting a few decimal points for the not always convincing handling of the criminal plot and for the abrupt ending) would rate it at 6.5 to 7.0 out of 10. Easily recommended for an undemanding viewing experience on a lazy evening.

 

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