52 Before 62 — #12 Topper (1937)

Topper Lobby Card 2.jpgDirected by Norman Z. Mcleod

Screenplay by Jack Jevne, Eric Hatch and Eddie Moran, from the novel of the same name by Thorne Smith

Starring Cary Grant, Constance Bennett, Roland Young, and Billie Burke

The first Tim Burton movie I ever saw was Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, which they showed us in school in 1986 as a reward at the end of the school year.  I was in the fifth grade.  This movie was actually a little bit controversial for some people in the school, owing to Dee Snider and Twisted Sister making an appearance.  Not that Twisted Sister did anything all that controversial themselves, just that in the mid-80s it was still very-early days in the era of men dressing overtly feminine.  There were worries some parents would raise a stink, which sort of speaks to what a different time it was where I came from in the mid-80s.  Either way, in the end we got to see the movie and as far as I know, nobody turned to a life of crime for having seen Dee Snider in a corset and fishnet stockings.

While Pee Wee’s Big Adventure was the first Tim Burton movie I ever saw, it really wasn’t demonstrably a “Tim Burton” movie in the way we know them now, as much as it was an extension of the Pee Wee Herman brand.  Sure, Burton might have brought a certain skewed perspective to the movie, but it was never really his.  And how could it be, with the stars name right there in the title?

Image result for tim burton beetlejuice

Tim Burton (l) and Michael Keaton on Beetlejuice

No, the first demonstrably Tim Burton joint I saw was Beetlejuice, which was the first movie that generally bore his aesthetic in a complete way.  That marriage of the off-kilter and the macabre he’s known for, all in the guise of a commercial vehicle.  It

Beetlejuice is the story of the Maitland’s, an uptight, recently deceased couple (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) who don’t take kindly to the Deetz’s, a pretentious couple of city folk (Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’Hara), moving into their house.  In order to reclaim their space, the Maitland’s determine to ‘haunt’ the interlopers out.  Except, the Deetz’s are either oblivious to the haunting, or don’t mind it, and so everything the Maitland’s do seems to fail.  This is where Beetlejuice himself comes in, lending a chaotic hand to the adventure.  Despite trying to reclaim their house, the Maitland’s eventually take a shine to the Deetz’s daughter (Winona Ryder) and, in the end the two couples come to step enough outside their comfort zone that they can live happily together.

It the broadest sense, Beetlejuice is the story of how it’s generally good for all of us if we occasionally break out of our routines and experience new things.  And in that way, the story of Beetlejuice is the story of Topper.

But here’s the thing about Beetlejuice: while the ticks and tricks Tim Burton used seemed revolutionary and refreshing at the time, as Burton’s repeatedly reached into the bag of tricks in the thirty years since, to diminishing returns, those tricks have become increasingly tired and uninteresting, to the extent they now look less like an aesthetic choice appropriate to the story of whatever film they appear in, as much as a crutch from a filmmaker who hasn’t the imagination to do something different.

What’s It About?

An insanely wealthy, fun-loving couple (Cary Grant and Constance Bennett) are killed in a car accident.  But, rather than ascend to heaven, they are instead relegated to some sort of limbo state where they walk the earth.  Why not heaven for them?  Because, they reason, they were too frivolous in life and didn’t do enough good.  The solution?  Break their stuffy friend, Topper (Roland Young), from the regimented life he and his wife (Billie Burke) live.  But while Topper is seemingly agreeable to the change, because he realizes he’s not taking enough pleasure from life, he’s also so stuck in his existence he reflexively bristles against all attempts to change him.  Eventually, though, he and the wife step outside their comfort zone for the better of the both of them.

Image result for roland young topper

(l-r) Cary Grant, Roland Young, Constance Bennett

Any Good?

Topper is described as a supernatural comedy and the supernatural is easy to see – Grant and Bennett play ghosts, and throughout the film they get into the expected shenanigans you’d imagine ghosts getting up to.  They can be invisible, they can be mischievous, they can be devious.  But while the supernatural is easy, the comedy is a bit tougher call, as the film isn’t exactly all that funny.  Sure, there are some bits here and there that inspire a smile, but on the whole the movie is too long and doesn’t do enough to mine its premise for all the humor it could have.  Rather, it’s more interested in going for that easy laugh, often to less-than-desirable effect.  For instance, the movie goes back to the well of ‘objects floating’ so often it’s tedious.

At the same time, the movie isn’t sure what it even wants to be.  First, it tries to play like a clash of manners and mores, you know, the carefree couple v. the prudes.  But just as it begins to nod towards that as it’s story, it turns the other way and focuses on repetitive scenes of ghosts being heard, but not seen, and the ‘comedy’ of that.  Similarly, when it seems like it wants to go all in on the nonsense caused by ghosts moving things around, it backs away from that and tries to be a physical comedy.  And so on.

Ultimately, the problem with Topper is it can’t really decide what it wants to be long enough to really be anything at all.  And by constantly shifting from one idea or tone to the other, it fails to really spiral up into the outright lunacy you might expect from this sort of film.  Instead, every time it starts to get good, it deflates itself.

Though Cary Grant toplines this movie, which seems to promise he is the star, this is another instance when the advertising and the reality don’t match up.  Truth? Grant is not the star.  In fact, he’s almost hardly a featured player.  The most he does is pop in now and again, lending his voice to as many scenes as he lends his body, and while he’s fine and charming when he does appear, there’s not enough of him to be truly worthwhile.

The same can be said for Constance Bennett, an actress I’ve never really known of before and only wish there were more of her in this movie to get a sense of what she’s about.  After all, in those times when she is here, she’s playful and fun and yes, sexy, but it’s almost too little, too late for her when she does show up.

Because Grant and Bennett are not really the stars of the film, that leaves Roland Young to carry the weight, and he does.  He’s droll and unflappable and if anybody in the film gets a chuckle out of you it’s him and his almost complete indifference to the craziness around him.  He’s particularly good when he’s so determined to not be derailed by anything, because to do so would be to admit weakness in himself.  Even if those scenes do eventually become repetitive.  Interestingly, while he’s actually the star of the film, Young got an Oscar nom for this film as Best Supporting Actor, which is just proof that even as far back as the 1930s the size of the role had little impact on where it was ultimately honored at the Oscars.

While Topper is not all that amusing, and is a bit too long, there is one interesting angle the film flirts with a couple times that left me wanting to see more of how they’d handle it.  Specifically, the attraction between Topper and the dead wife (Constance Bennett).  Throughout the movie she is more than a little into Topper, and he is more than a little into her, so much so that when she’s dead she can’t quite figure out if she wants to haunt him or fuck him.  And he can’t quite figure out if he wants her to haunt him or fuck him.  More than once the movie tantalizes us with the prospect of some sort of supernatural sexual encounter between the two of them, only to turn away from it, likely out of a sense of propriety for the sanctity of marriage – her’s and his – and also for the fact that you couldn’t exactly have sex in a movie in the Hays Code era of Hollywood.  What’s really too bad is that, even if they weren’t going to truly explore the sexuality of it, they at least could have played up the humor of it and that they didn’t, and only went for the easy chuckles of it, is a disappointment.

Image result for glynda goodwitch the wizard of ozAre You A Good Witch, or a Bad Witch?

Yes, indeed, that is Glynda The Good Witch (Billie Burke) from The Wizard of Oz playing Topper’s uptight wife, Clara in Topper.

 

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