The fourth film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1941’s Topper Returns. Topper Returns was the third (and final) film to be made about Cosmo Topper (Roland Young). Cosmo Topper is an upper class and mild-mannered banker who likes to collect automobiles and who is married to the somewhat daffy Clara (Billie Burke). Cosmo would seem to be a pretty normal guy, except for the fact that he can talk to dead people. In the first Topper film, a ghost played by Cary Grant helped him to learn how to appreciate life. In the second Topper film, Topper Takes A Trip, a ghost played by Constance Bennett helped to save Topper and Clara’s marriage. And in this Topper film, a ghost helps …. well actually, the ghost doesn’t help Topper out at all. Instead, Topper helps the ghost solve her own murder.
When Gail Richards (Joan Blondell) visits her friend Ann Carrington (Carole Landis) for the weekend, she has no idea just how weird things are going to get. First off, while Gail and Ann are riding in a taxi to the big and foreboding Carrington mansion, a mysterious man in black shoots out the taxi’s tires. Though the taxi crashes, both Gail and Ann survive and are able to hitch a ride from Ann’s neighbor, Cosmo Topper.
Once they get to the mansion, Gail meets Ann’s strange family. Gail loves the mansion and who wouldn’t, seeing as how it is big and dark and full of secret passageways? However, Gail makes the big mistake of switching beds with Ann. Later that night, when that man in black sneaks into the bedroom and attempts to stab Ann to death, he ends up killing Gail instead. When we next see Gail, she’s a ghost who can’t leave our world until her murder has been solved.
No worries! Gail isn’t that upset about being a ghost. In fact, she seems to be rather amused by it all. She floats right over to Topper’s house and demands that he come over and solve her murder. After some initial reluctance, Topper agrees. Topper sneaks into the Carrington mansion and gets to work searching for clues and attempting to solve the crime. Needless to say, it involves a lot of family secrets, hidden rooms, and dark passageways.
Now, I should admit that I haven’t seen the first two Topper films so I don’t know how Topper Returns compares to them. The majority of the reviews that I’ve read online seem to indicate that Topper Returns is widely considered to be inferior when compared to the first two films. It is true, as a lot of other reviewers have pointed out, that Topper himself occasionally seems almost superfluous to the film’s plot. At no point does he mention that he has a history of talking to ghosts and, if not for the fact that the film’s title is Topper Returns, it would be easy to believe that this film was the first appearance of the character.
But no matter! I enjoyed Topper Returns, mostly because I’d like to think that if I was ever murdered and came back as a ghost, I would manage to have as much fun doing so as Joan Blondell appears to be having in the role of Gail. Funny, likable, and quick-witted, Gail isn’t going to let a little thing like being dead keep her from having fun! I also appreciated that the film has a nicely morbid streak. Towards the end of the film, there’s a cheerful conversation between Gail and another ghost. Gail mentions that, as soon as the murder has been solved, she can go to Heaven and “you can go to…” Gail lets her voice trail off but still make a point of glancing down at the ground.
For a modern viewer, the most problematic part of Topper Returns is the character of Chauffeur, who is Topper’s African-American servant and who doesn’t even get a proper name even though he’s in about 80% of the movie. On the one hand, Chauffeur is written as a total racist stereotype and, as written, the majority of his lines will absolutely make you cringe. On the other hand, he’s also played by Eddie Anderson, a talented comedic actor who always played his servants in such a way as to suggest that they were actually a hundred times smarter than the white people they were working for. Though you may not like the way the character is written, it is possible to appreciate the subversive subtext that Anderson brings to his performance (a subtext which, undoubtedly, was not present in the original script). Anderson was best known for playing comedian Jack Benny’s sidekick and, at one point during Topper Returns, he announces that he’s sick of ghosts and that he’s going “return to Mr. Benny!”
Taken on its own 1941 terms, Topper Returns was an enjoyable old, dark house movie. Watch it for Joan Blondell having the time of her afterlife.