Carole Landis and Joan Blondell charm us in... Topper Returns (1941)


A delightful screwball comedy with a supernatural twist, 1937's Topper was a smash hit for MGM, producer Hal Roach, and stars Cary Grant, Constance Bennett, and Roland Young. As fun-loving sophisticates George and Marion Kerby, Grant and Bennett were sensational, and Young was hilariously uptight as their friend Cosmo Topper. When the Kerbys die in a car accident, they find themselves unable to go to heaven until their ghosts have helped change the rigid ways of Topper.

The superb special effects, brilliant cast, and unusual premise were so loved by audiences that a sequel was made shortly thereafter. Entitled Topper Takes a Trip, the film featured the same cast, with the notable exception of Grant, who was unavailable. Both movies were based on the 1926 and 1932 novels by Thorne Smith, a hard-drinking author with a gift for crafting unique, supernatural plots. Some of his other works include The Passionate Witch, which was published posthumously and completed by Norman H. Matson before it became the 1942 romantic comedy I Married a Witch, and Turnabout, a wild story about a bickering married couple who switch bodies with the help of an ancient Egyptian idol. Turnabout was adapted for the screen in 1940, and let me tell you, it is one fascinating flick. It isn't a masterpiece by any means, but if you've never seen it before, I highly recommend it just for its sheer craziness -- and for Carole Landis's remarkable performance.


Interestingly enough, the stunning Ms. Landis would be associated with Thorne Smith again when she starred in the third and final Topper movie, 1941's Topper Returns. This film differed from its predecessors in a few ways. For starters, it was directed by Roy Del Ruth instead of Norman Z. McLeod, who helmed the first two movies. Aside from Roland Young and Billie Burke as the Toppers, the cast was new, too, with Joan Blondell taking over Bennett and Grant's ghostly duties. The plot of Topper Returns is slightly more gruesome as well, as it focuses on a murder mystery instead of just the domestic troubles of Cosmo Topper.

Topper Returns earned two Academy Award nominations for its sound recording and the special effects of Roy Seawright and Elmer Raguse. Seawright had been nominated previously for Topper Takes a Trip in 1939, which was the first year the Academy introduced the category for Best Visual Effects.


Topper Returns begins with best friends Ann Carrington (Landis) and Gail Richards (Blondell) riding in a taxi to the Carrington estate, where Ann will meet her estranged father (H.B. Warner) and accept her deceased mother's inheritance. Before they can arrive, though, a dark figure shoots out their tire, forcing the women to hitch a ride from a passing Topper and his chauffeur, Eddie (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson). At their destination, the gals meet Mr. Carrington's sketchy doctor Jeris (George Zucco -- naturally!) and his foreboding housekeeper Lillian (Rafaela Ottiano). Later that night, Ann and Gail decide to switch bedrooms, a move that proves fatal when the mysterious masked figure sneaks in and mistakenly kills Gail. Now a ghost, she finds Topper and asks for his help in solving her murder.

While the mystery aspect of the film is somewhat weak and a few of the plot points are muddled, the film as a whole is rather fun. It's also just a well-made movie. The cinematography is great, especially in the spookier moments. The set for the Carrington house is spectacular, with lavishly decorated rooms, an appropriately eerie exterior, and plenty of clever escape hatches and revolving walls. The pacing is quite good, too, with a snappy runtime of 95 minutes, and the quips come fast and furious all throughout.


The film's real strength -- besides its tremendous special effects -- is its cast. The character actors alone are worth the price of admission. You've got Anderson's scaredy-cat chauffeur, Donald MacBride's blustering police sergeant, Billie Burke's daffy Clara Topper, Zucco's shifty doctor, and Patsy Kelly's incredulous maid. Dennis O'Keefe also turns in a fine performance as Bob, Gail and Ann's taxi driver from the first scene who gets pulled into the mystery when he tracks them down to collect his fare. O'Keefe particularly shines whenever he mocks MacBride's Sgt. Roberts, as he lands one zinger after another.


My favorite cast members, though, are easily Blondell and Landis. Although they sadly share little screen time because of Gail's death, they are wonderful together. I love their hitchhiking scene. After the first driver buzzes by them, Ann wryly remarks, "Must have been his wife with him!" For the next car, Gail gets the idea to lift her friend's skirt while Ann waves. Unfortunately, this just causes the male driver to crash. Now wised up, the women sit on their suitcases in the middle of the road, forcing Topper to stop for them.


In terms of the leading ladies' roles, Blondell clearly gets the juicier part. Ever the wisecracking dame, the actress seems to have a ball as the snarky, earthy Gail. For Blondell, vivacity was the name of the game, as demonstrated by her marvelous scenes as Gail's ghost. Whether she is getting drunk on champagne or beating up the masked killer to save Ann, watching Blondell is, as always, a treat.


To be honest, Landis is asked to do little more than be pretty and act sweet, but she still infuses Ann with a playfulness and vulnerability that illustrate what a bright light Landis was on the silver screen. Ann is the archetypal damsel in distress, yet Landis never lets her come across as cloying or, worse, stupid. When Ann screams as she identifies Gail's body, your heart breaks for her. When she switches bedrooms with Gail after seeing how enamored her friend is with her suite, you can tell she has a generous spirit. And when she reunites with her father, you feel happy for her, despite only knowing her for ten minutes.

It will forever be a shame that Landis wasn't with us for many, many more years. Films like Topper Returns show audiences what a gorgeous, funny, and talented presence she was, and I'm always so grateful for the performances that she left behind. Happy 100th, Carole!


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This is my entry to the A Century of Carole Landis Blogathon, a celebration of a terrific leading lady that we lost much too soon. Check out the other tributes here!

Comments

  1. Thank you for participating in the blogathon! I haven't seen this film yet, but I am now planning one watching it after the amazing review you gave.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Christine! It's a pretty fun film -- actually, all of the Topper movies are!

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