Topper Returns (1941)

Directed by Roy Del Ruth

The original Topper movie had been a success in 1937-38 and therefore produced a number of follow-ups. On the Artisan DVD, you get two movies – the original Topper, plus the later Topper Returns (1941), which was the third movie.

Although Topper Returns takes the original as its starting place, at least as far as the Topper character and the basic scenario of amusing ghosts, it actually owes less to screwball comedies than it does to later Hollywood comedies like The Ghost Breakers (1940).

Here, the ditzy sophistication is replaced with just plain silliness. This doesn’t mean it isn’t funny, or a bad movie, but it lacks the charm and wit of good screwball movies. There are no character arcs here.

For example, Topper’s wife (Billie Burke) is no longer a socially ambitious woman who becomes funny because she is so wrong-headed with such ambitions. Rather, she becomes simply a twit – a stupid, empty-headed bimbo with a voice that gets increasingly irritating. She begins and ends this way.

Roland Young as Topper in Topper Returns.

One of the reasons for this is that screwball comedies are based on social situations. The humour grows out of characters, their relationships, and particularly on their social position and how they behave within it. Topper Returns, on the other hand, is a movie that roots itself in other movies of the time – particularly murder mystery and ghost/horror films. Like The Ghost Breakers, it’s a kind of send up of those movies.

Topper Returns is much more farce and satire than screwball. It’s filled with mistaken identities, disappearing bodies, people quickly entering and leaving rooms, false walls etc. The emphasis on Topper is far less – in fact, he becomes almost a minor character, as if he is in the film simply to get it going and for the sake of being able to use the word Topper in the title.

Also significant is the lead female role – here, Joan Blondell. Rather than a wealthy, ditzy woman she’s “a regular gal,” not rich (her gorgeous friend, Carole Landis, is the one with the money). Rather than sophisticated, she’s a wise-cracking woman.

The end result is a funny movie but one that lacks the charm and wit of the original Topper film. It has a very different sensibility. While very entertaining, there is something missing.

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