Producer Hal Roach, associated with the Laurel & Hardy-Our Gang slapstick, wished a change of pace and genre. In 1937, Roach selected the racy Thorne Smith fantasy novel Topper for adaptation, and the result was one of the most charming films of the decade.
Benefiting from strong chemistry, Constance Bennett and Cary Grant play Marion and George Kerby, a wealthy, freewheeling married couple living an uninhibited lifestyle.
After a bibulous evening on the town, the Kerbys race homeward in their gleaming new roadster. The car plows into a tree, killing both its occupants. Seconds later, the ghosts of George and Marion emerge from the wreckage, behaving as frivolously as if nothing had happened.
The Kerbys realize that they haven’t been immediately snatched up into Heaven. Feeling that they have to perform one good deed, George and Marion set about to “liberate” stuffy, sedate, henpecked banker Cosmo Topper (Roland Young).
At first resistant to the charms of his invisible benefactors, Topper begins to loosen up and enjoy life for the first time. This kind of change doesn’t suit Topper’s supercilious wife (Billie Burke) or his long-suffering butler (Alan Mobray), especially during a climactic free-for-all at a vacation resort.
Though special effects abound in Topper, most of the humor derives from the embarrassed reactions of Roland Young as he tries to fend off the flirtatious advances of the ghostly Marion and the benignly strongman tactics of the spectral George. Adding to the fun are Eugene Pallette as a flustered house detective and Arthur Lake as a pratfalling bellboy.
The musical score by longtime Hal Roach composer Marvin Hatley is attuned to the zany goings-on (including snatches of background music from Roach’s earlier Laurel and Hardy comedies)
Hoagy Carmichael appears briefly on screen to introduce the film’s signature tune, “Old Man Moon.”
Topper proved so commercially successful that two sequels followed, as well as a popular TV series of the early 1950s.
Roland Young, the British born thespian, was known for his diversity and physical comedy. He excelled in two Cukor movies, as Uriah Heep in David Copperfield, and as the lecherous Uncle Willy in The Philadelphia Story.
Running time: 97 minutes.
Directed by Norman Z. McLeod
Written By: Thorne Smith, Jack Jevne, Eric Hatch, E. Edwin Moran
Released: July 16, 1937.
Oscar Nominations: 2
Supporting Actor: Roland Young
Sound Recording: Elmer Rogue
The Supporting Actor Oscar winner was Joseph Schildkraut for The Life of Emile Zola. The Sound Oscar went to The Hurricane.