Cosmo Topper may be a wealthy Wall Street banker but he’s also trapped in a boring job, hen-pecked by his social-climbing wife, and completely unable to relax and enjoy life. Or at least he was until the fun-loving ghosts showed up and turned his life upside down.
American author Thorne Smith (March 27, 1892 – June 21, 1934) was born in Annapolis, Maryland, the son of a naval commodore. He attended college then barely eked out a living as a part time advertising agent. Thorne had written a series of comic stories during his time in the Navy in 1918 and 1919 but he rocketed to sudden success with his 1926 book, Topper, about a boringly respectable banker named Cosmo Topper and two devil-may-care ghosts. Thorne wrote a few other novels then struck gold again in 1932 with Topper Takes a Trip. The two Topper novels are “comic fantasy fiction involving sex, much drinking, and supernatural transformations”. Add some “racy illustrations” and the two books sold millions of copies.
In 1937, producer Hal Roach wanted to break into the “screwball comedy” movie genre and he selected Thorne Smith’s Topper as his fist vehicle. The movie Topper was a huge hit and “gave a boost to the careers of all the lead actors” especially actor Cary Grant who played ghostly George Kerby. Cary not only had an interest in the film and made a pile of money but his acting career moved to a series of very popular “screwball comedies” following Topper. Roland Young, who played formerly boring banker Cosmo Topper, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
The movie Topper (1937) was followed in 1938 by a movie sequel, Topper Takes a Trip, based on author Thorne Smith’s second Topper book. A third Topper movie, Topper Returns, followed in 1941, this movie not based on a Thorne Smith book.
I’ll save the books for a future post. Originally I was just going to review only Topper Returns because the first two movies were not available on the Internet Archive because of questions concerning their copyrights. But, just recently, the original Topper (1937) movie has reappeared on IA, so I’ll take a look at Topper numbers one and three. Topper number two, Topper Takes a Trip, seems to be the least popular of the movies and rarely makes an appearance. I have seen Topper and Topper Returns many times on television over the years but I have only seen Topper Takes a Trip once, just a few months ago.
Topper premiered on July 16, 1937 and starred Roland Young as the repressed title character. British heart throb Cary Grant played irresponsible and drunken millionaire George Kerby and the gorgeous Constance Bennett played his equally fun-loving wife, Marion. George and Marion dance and drink and drive recklessly and generally behave like thoughtless children. But their harebrained behavior comes back to bite them when they are killed in a car accident. They quickly discover that they have done absolutely nothing with their lives – nothing good enough to end up in heaven and nothing bad enough to end up in hell. They are stuck in limbo on Earth in ghostly form. George and Marion decide to do a good deed in the hopes of getting a heavenly reward and they pick their banker friend, Cosmo Topper, as their subject when he buys their old car.
Poor Cosmo is horrified at first by the two unpredictable ghosts as they run about livening up his formerly staid and predictable life. His wife, Clara (played by Billie Burke, more famously known as Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz (1939) ) is equally aghast at the scandal that begins to surround Cosmo Topper as he slowly learns to enjoy life.
Will George and Marion Kerby be able to help Cosmo loosen up and live life fully?
Will Clara loose her husband to scandal?
Will Cosmo Topper be able to build a more full life or will he go back to being staid and boring?
Topper is a hilarious movie. Cary Grant and Constance Bennett are perfect together as well as being perfect eye candy. Their characters, the Kerbys, are very wealthy and that vast wealth has enabled them to never really grow up. George and Marion play at life. And even their good-hearted attempts to help their friend, Cosmo, are just more “play” at first. They get him drunk, cause a near riot, and poor Cosmo ends up in jail. Marion is flirtatious and George gets jealous. The ghosts appear and disappear and objects move through the air, stupefying Cosmo and anyone else unlucky enough to catch their ghostly attention.
Roland Young and Billie Burke are also perfect as Cosmo and Clara Topper. He is hen-pecked and hesitant and she is dithering and distraught (and I absolutely love her Glinda the Good Witch voice). But under the weight of their social positions, they really do love each other. Both of them are completely out of their depth in trying to deal with the wild antics of the spectral Kerbys.
The special effects are simple compared to the wonders of today’s CGI. Objects move on their own and George and Marion appear, disappear, and often look transparent but so do various objects and people around them at times. Otherwise, the audio and video are very good. Movie fans, keep an eye out for actor Arthur Lake (more famous for playing Dagwood Bumstead in the Blondie series of movies) as a bedeviled bellboy.
Topper Takes a Trip
The second Topper movie, Topper Takes a Trip, premiered on January 12, 1939. This movie picks up where the first leaves off. All is not well with Cosmo Topper and his wife. One of Mrs. Topper’s friends has convinced her to divorce her husband because of his strange behavior. Mrs. Topper and her friend go to France to await the divorce and Clara Topper gets entangled with a gold-digging French baron. Marion Kerby (sans George) returns from her heavenly reward to help her old friend Cosmo get his life, and his wife, together.
Will Marion (without George) be able to help Cosmo get back together with his wife?
Will Mrs. Topper really go through with a divorce?
Topper Takes a Trip is, unfortunately, not available at the Internet Archive and I’ve only seen it on television once. The ghostly antics are similar to those in Topper but I really missed Cary Grant as George Kerby. Roland Young is still funny as Cosmo and Billie Burke gets to stretch Mrs. Topper a bit more in this film. Constance Bennett is just as lovely and free-spirited as Marion Kerby as she was in the first film but some of her flirtatious behavior does not play as funny without Cary Grant around as her jealous husband.
The third Topper movie, Topper Returns, is in the Public Domain and freely available at the Internet Archive. This movie was not based on a Thorne Smith novel, as the first two movies were. Roland Young and Billie Burke return as Cosmo Topper and his much put-upon wife. The ghostly Kerbys are nowhere in sight, though, in this movie. Instead, we have two young women, actress Joan Blondell as spirited Gail Richards, and actress Carole Landis as her more delicate friend Ann Carrington. The two are on their way to meet Ann’s long-lost father at a huge spooky mansion but trouble is lurking in wait to pounce on them.
After a car accident, Gail and Ann finagle a ride with Cosmo Topper and his chauffeur (played by Eddie Anderson, better known as Rochester of The Jack Benny Program). Mrs. Topper spots the girls in the car – one of whom is sitting on Cosmos’ lap! – and poor Cosmo is in hot water again.
The mysterious events surrounding the girls soon turns deadly when Gail is murdered. Like George and Marion Kerby, Gail returns as a ghost. She seeks out Cosmo Topper to help her find her killer and save her friend Ann. Once again, Cosmo must deal with ghosts that suddenly appear and disappear, objects that seem to move on their own, and a very suspicious wife. But this time, Cosmo also has to outwit and catch a murderer running about a spooky old house filled with secret passages and mysterious goings-on.
Will the killer strike again?
Will Gail get revenge?
Will Cosmos convince his wife and the police that he is innocent of philandering and murder?
Topper Returns continues the zany antics of the first two movies. I actually like this third movie much better than the second film. I just love Joan Blondell’s robust, wise-cracking character. She’s very different from Marion Kerby. Carol Landis as Ann the heiress is a bit delicate and pale. Roland Young as Cosmo Topper is really beginning to take all the ghosts popping up on him in stride. Billie Burke is still dithering and adorable (she’s a bit like Gracie Allen in her silly illogic). Besides Eddie Anderson as the Toppers’ hapless chauffeur (who gets into repeated trouble with chairs, water, and a very unfriendly seal), movie fans should also keep an eye out for actress Patsy Kelly as Mrs. Topper’s maid Emily. Patsy was in The Gorilla with the Ritz Brothers in 1939.
The special effects in Topper Returns are much better than in the earlier movies (especially note a wraithlike Joan Blondell changing clothes). Topper Returns was nominated for an Academy Award for Special Effects. The audio and video quality are excellent.
The story of specter-haunted Cosmo Topper actually does not end with the two novels or these three films. A radio series titled The Adventures of Topper debuted in 1945. In 1953, there was a television series titled Topper that ran for two seasons and starred Leo G. Carroll as Cosmo Topper (some of these episodes are in the Public Domain at the Internet Archive and will feature in a future post). In 1973, there was a television pilot for a proposed new series called Topper Returns that starred Roddy McDowall. A TV movie remake in 1979, titled Topper starred Kate Jackson (of Charlie’s Angels fame) and Andrew Stevens. And in 1989, there was a short lived TV series called Nearly Departed that had a similar plot.
But to start at the beginning, here is Topper to read, listen to and watch:
Feedbooks has the two Thorne Smith Topper novels.
Please click this link for the first book, Topper.
Please click this link for the second book, Topper Takes a Trip.
Please click this link to download /watch the first movie, Topper, at the Internet Archive.
The Internet Archive has three versions of the third movie Topper Returns.
Please click here for Topper Returns Version #1 (this is the one I watched).
Click here for Topper Returns Version #2.
And click here for Version #3.
The Internet Archive also has four episodes from the television series.
Click here for S1, Ep14 – Second Honeymoon.
Click here for S1, Ep17 – Decorating.
Click here for S1, Ep27 – Henrietta Sells the House.
And please click here for S1, Ep39 – George’s Old Flame.