It was such a pleasant surprise to learn that VCI, in association with Blair and Associates, Ltd., had acquired the Blu-Ray rights to the Hal Roach feature collection. And while, true, the library does NOT contain any Laurel & Hardy or Our Gang or Thelma Todd & ZaSu Pitts or any of the master comedy producer’s many other terrific iconic funsters, there’s still a veritable gold mine of yuks to be savored and treasured in this stash.
To prove my point, let us examine their first release, 1937’s blockbuster TOPPER (insert sigh of relief that concurrently underlines collector’s gasps of “Finally!” along with, “Oh, yeah, there is a lot of good stuff sans Stan-and-Ollie”).
TOPPER was a topper in 1937, when Roach was winding down his partnership with MGM, and gearing up to move over to UA. The book was a natural for the sight-gag-dedicated director as it told the humorous tale of a couple of swinging swells who turn a staid banker’s life around after they enter the hereafter, due to an automobile accident. The possibilities of ghosts having fun at humans’ expense was just too good a prospect to pass up. Furthermore, George and Marion Kerby, the hot-looking ectoplasmic corpses, could additionally take Roach where he wanted his studio to go: to more mainstream, sophisticated, romantic fare – while remaining in the wacky, visual groove.
As the outwardly humorless “big shot banker from Wall Street” Cosmo Topper, Roach scored a coup by securing the services of Roland Young, who actually made the character sympathetic (and received an Oscar nomination for his efforts). For his flighty, upwardly mobile spouse, Clara, the producer insisted upon Billie Burke. The homerun casting, however, was lassoing a major A-list star for the role of Marion – the screwball, flirtatious eternally partying dead girl – the glamorous Constance Bennett, who although slipping a bit at the box office, was still popular enough to be top-billed. What ultimately gave TOPPER its revival/TV rerun legs for over seventy years was pairing Bennett with Cary Grant, giving the five-year movie veteran at last a chance to do full-blown comedy. For Grant, 1937 would be his breakout year; even TOPPER‘s bravura performance around the free-world globe would pale next to his other ’37 release, Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth. It instantly propelled Mae West’s former toyboy to major superstar. From here on in, there was no looking back.
MGM proudly highlighted TOPPER in its 1937 Exhibitor’s Promotion Reel, and gave Grant, on loan from Paramount, a special boost (it was part of his two-picture Metro deal, the other being 1936’s Suzy, opposite Jean Harlow and Franchot Tone). In TOPPER, for the first time, Grant is able to be physically funny (steering the fatal convertible with his feet), as well as verbally proficient in tossing off one-liners.
To be sure, the Kerbys’ deaths comprise the plethora of the movie’s barrage of priceless antics, starting with the pic’s key conundrum; upon realizing that they’re deceased, the couple is doomed to remain eternally Earthbound unless they perform a good deed for once in their essentially up-till-then one-per-center (aka, idle rich) useless lives. In their own way of thinking, that can only mean one thing: to turn their source of amusement, the stodgy Cosmo T, into a party animal. But even being confined to planet Earth isn’t that bad a deal, since their territory is New York City, to say nothing of the fact that torturing mortals is genuinely fun. And you can still drink (both are practically alcoholics, but, not in that spoilsport Ray Milland sense).
Even being horribly killed never fully deters the marrieds from their extravagant lifestyle (Marion’s initial shock response is “I got a run in my stocking!”). Suffice to say, the subsequent transformation of Cosmo from stuffed shirt to whoopee cushion is, as one might suspect, a slow-burn-to-dynamite-stick exercise in hilarity.
There are so many geniuses responsible for the above metamorphosis (aside from those already mentioned) that one barely knows where to begin. I guess a good start would be with the director, comedy ace Norman Z. McLeod (who guided the Marx Bros. through Horse Feathers), followed by the script (cowritten by Eric Hatch and Eddie Moran, in collaboration with Roach gagman Jack Jevne, who had just completed work on Way Out West). The Thorne Smith novel sale proved to be a gift-that-kept-on-giving bonanza for Roach, who wisely optioned the author’s other works, resulting in two more Topper movies, as well as the extraordinary 1941 Turnabout, where John Hubbard and Carole Landis exchange bodies and sexuality (how Roach missed out on I Married a Witch is an honest-to-goodness head-scratcher). The groundbreaking Oscar-worthy (but non-nom) special effects (causing mucho hilarity in cars, elevators, hotel lobbies and ballroom dance floors) were orchestrated by Roy Seawright, and superbly photographed by Norbert Brodine. And the music, featuring many legendary Roach riffs and melodies, is by the great Marvin Hatley (as much responsible for the Roach post-silent style as any prime player on the lot). Elmer Raguse’s nifty sound and sound FX (encompassing disembodied objects seemingly taking on a life of their own), like Young, received the second of the picture’s two Oscar noms.
TOPPER’s amazing large-scale cast, handpicked by the producer, is what caps this supernatural misadventure, accurately advertised as “96 Roaring Minutes of Laughter.” Featuring Roach stock company thesps (Dorothy Christy, Anita Garvin), brilliant character actors (Arthur Lake, Eugene Pallette, J. Farrell MacDonald, Si Jenks, Irving Bacon, Doodles Weaver, Clem Bevans, Lionel Belmore, Eddy Chandler, Theodore van Eltz, Syd Saylor, Ward Bond), former silent-screen stars (Claire Windsor, Kenneth Harlan, Jack Mulhall, Betty Blythe) and up-and-coming newbies (Lana Turner), the roster also includes Six Hits and a Miss, Hoagy Carmichael (introducing “Old Man Moon”), and, best of all, as the Topper’s flustered, but steadfast loyal butler, Alan Mowbray (his response to employer Burke’s chide of “After all these years, are you trying to be funny?” is, alone, worth the purchase).
The 35MM transfer of TOPPER is an excellent one. The silky monochrome camerawork looks just groovy, whether gliding across the mammoth MGM sets, or dodging in and around Marion’s runaway panties. The original theatrical trailer is also included in the package.
Can hardly wait to see what’s further down the pike.
TOPPER. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. VCI/Blair and Associates, Ltd./MVD Visual. CAT # VCI9031. SRP: $29.95.