We know what kind of movie we’re in for upon meeting Cary Grant, whistling a merry tune, as he drives his fancy wheels with his feet. His wife — a quizzical platinum blonde played to perfection by Constance Bennett — stares up at him in amusement. They are a picture of fun-loving decadence out of The Nick and Nora Charles mode.
Understandably, they are the main draw in Norman Z. McLeod’s corkscrew fantasy comedy but like its distant relative, The Thin Man, someone else’s name actually garners the title. In this particular instance, it is Mr. Topper (Roland Young), a highly successful businessman who is, nevertheless, enslaved by his rigid regimen, and it’s not of his own accord. His stifling spouse has cultivated his humdrum life like clockwork to her own liking. We don’t envy the man, hustled and harried as he is every day, with his breakfasts and innumerable sensibly scheduled appointments.
You quite forget Billie Burke can be insufferable in a different manner as the quietly exacting wife, giving the impression of a woman constantly on the verge of indignance, her voice teetering on the edge of fragility. I hardly believe myself saying this, but I like her at her more titteringly giddy spectrum. At least she’s allowed to be sympathetic; bubble-headed but sympathetic. If the point hasn’t been made apparent already, this enforced tedium is the baseline of the cinematic world needing to be spiced up by the Kerbies and their happy-go-lucky prodigality.
If we can hone in on a turning point, Topper really hits its stride in death — the death of Mr. and Mrs. Kirby, that is. Because as is the habit in the fantasy mills of Old Hollywood, our couple dies only to come back as ghostly versions of themselves, appearing and reappearing as easily as a snap of the figure.
They pull themselves away from the wreckage of their automobile and have their first out of body experience. Played straight, it would seem ghastly, but they are as gay and chipper as ever, nonchalantly debating how they’ll get through the pearly gates. Everything they did (or didn’t) learn in Sunday school says they need to do some good deeds. Regrettably, they’ve been living on the high horse for too long; they haven’t actually gotten around to the greatest commandment: loving their neighbors.
Their pet project is “Toppy,” and he’s in need of vivification. His one act of rebellion against his wife is purchasing George Kirby’s old automobile. This is the foot in the door after he gets into a near-death fender bender of his own. It leads to his first out of body reunion with his old friends.
The movie effectively utilizes old-fashioned special effects dating back to the days of George Melies, making it effortless for Toppy’s two guardian socialites to drop in and out of his visual field. As an invisible Mr. Kirby makes himself useful changing the tire, Toppy is teased by the lady Kirby as she blows on a blade of grass like a giddy schoolgirl. It’s our first chance to play with the logic, the fact only the audience and Toppy are availed of seeing the deceased.
Because what’s really a treat are the ghosts and the ghosted. The ones who are oblivious to the somewhat explainable supernatural acts around them. We get similar moments in Here Comes Mr. Jordan and even It’s a Wonderful Life when the concrete and ethereal collide in a most comical fashion.
Roland Young does an admirable job in the part, and he’s on par with any number of the comparable characters of the day and age whether a Charlie Ruggles or Leo G. Carroll, though slightly less well-remembered for whatever reason. He finally has some pizzazz injected into his every day as the Kirby’s indulge his budding interests in wine, dancing, and song. He’s hardly a party animal, still, he gives it a go.
It leads to a brawl in front of a restaurant that they must bail him out of and then a handful encounters with a hoodwinked doorman. At best, Mr. Topper is the hapless figure caught in the spectral screwball chaos with the Kirbys pulling all the strings for him. Unfortunately, the storyline becomes too stagnant without the constant presence of Grant and Bennett, visually or otherwise.
Toppy finds a new standard of living and comes to reconcile with his wife. These are wonderful things, mind you, but it feels like the movie itself has compromised and gone away from what really makes it zing — that is the screwball antics of its true leading couple. Without them, it feels insipid and frankly trite, arriving at its unequivocally saccharine ending.
He is the one playing it straight, in a boring perfunctory manner because this is what is requested of him. But there are a handful of quality character moments of note. Certainly, a befuddled house detective played by Eugene Palette is always good for a lark. Alan Mowbray is his typical snooty Jeeves-like valet and even Hoagy Carmichael shows up (in his screen debut) to knock back a tune on the honky-tonk with Cary and Constance.
I couldn’t help thinking, I wish our two dazzling leads had partnered in another rom-com. After all, Powell and Loy got together for over 12 offerings. Alas, it was not meant to be. It makes Topper even more crucial in charting the rise of the Cary Grant we would come to know and also an oft-forgotten starlet in Constance Bennett.