The Fabulous Forties #4: Topper Returns (dir by Roy Del Ruth)


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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.

Horror on TV: Twilight Zone 3.17 “One More Pallbearer”


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In this episode of The Twilight Zone, bitter millionaire Paul (Joseph Wiseman, who also played the title character in Dr. No around the same time that this episode as shot) offers three people safety from a nuclear war on one condition. They must apologize to him for insults that are both real and imagined.

This episode originally aired on January 12th, 1962.

Shattered Politics #2: They Won’t Forget (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


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The title of the 1937 film They Won’t Forget works on many levels.

It describes the reaction of a small Southern town, following the brutal murder of teenager Mary Clay (played, in her film debut, by Lana Turner).  The town won’t forget Mary and they won’t forget the terror caused by her murder.  They also won’t forget that local teacher Robert Hale (Edward Norris) was accused of the crime.

The district attorney, Andrew Griffin (Claude Rains), hopes that the people of his state won’t forget his efforts to see Griffin convicted of that crime.  Griffin wants to be elected to the U.S. Senate and he knows that the high profile case could be just what his career needs.

The Governor (Paul Everton) knows that, if he steps into the case and acts on his suspicion that Hale is innocent, the voters of his state will never forget.  And they certainly won’t be willing to forgive.

And, on a larger level, the title lets us know that the South and the North will never forget the Civil War and the conflict between the two regions.  The film opens with three elderly veterans of the Confederate Army, preparing to march in the town’s annual Confederate Memorial Day parade and admitting to each other that, after all these years, it’s difficult to remember much about the war other than the fact that they’re proud that they fought in it.

It’s while the rest of the town is busy watching Griffin and the governor ride in the parade that Mary Clay is murdered.  It’s easy to assume that Hale was the murderer because Hale was one of the few townspeople not to go to the parade.  You see, Hale is originally from New York City.  When he’s accused of murder, it’s equally easy for Griffin and tabloid reporter William A. Brock (Allyn Joslyn) to convince the town people to blame this Northern intruder for both the murder of Mary Clay and, symbolically, for all of the post-Civil War struggles of the South itself.

Meanwhile, up North, Hale is seen as a victim of the South’s intolerance.  A high-profile lawyer (Otto Kruger) is sent down to defend Hale but, as quickly becomes clear, everyone involved in the case is more interested in refighting the Civil War than determining the guilt or innocence of Andrew Hale.

They Won’t Forget is a hard-hitting and fascinating look at politics, justice, and paranoia.  It’s all the more interesting because it’s based on a true story.  In 1913, a 13 year-old girl named Mary Phagan was murdered in Atlanta.  Leo Frank was accused and convicted of the murder.  (In Frank’s case, he was born in Texas but was also Jewish and had previously lived in New York before moving to Atlanta, all of which made him suspicious in the eyes of many.)  On the word of a night watchmen, who many believe was the actual murderer of Mary Phagan, Leo Frank was convicted and sentence to death.  After spending days reviewing all of the evidence and growing convinced that Frank had been wrongly convicted, Georgia’s governor committed an act of political suicide by commuting Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment.  Leo Frank was subsequently lynched and the man who had prosecuted the case against him was subsequently elected governor.

Well-acted and intelligently directed, They Won’t Forget is probably one of the best films of which few people have heard.  Fortunately, it shows up fairly regularly on TCM and, the next time that it does, be sure to watch.  It’s a great film that you won’t easily forget.

 

 

Now Showing On The Shattered Lens: Flight to Mars (dir by Lesley Selander)


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Are you lucky enough to have an extra 70 minutes free today?  Why not spend them watching an entertaining little B-movie called Flight to Mars?

First released in 1951, Flight to Mars is reportedly the first American film to ever be made about traveling to the red planet.  At the start of the film, a rather phallic spaceship is launched into space.  Aboard the ship are cynical reporter Steve (Cameron Mitchell), brilliant scientist Jim (Arthur Franz), token female scientist Carol (Virginia Huston), and a few other scientists who all kind of blend together.  Steve is attracted to Carol but Carol is more interested in Jim.  However, Jim isn’t interested in anything other than his work.  When the spaceship does reach Mars, it turns out that Mars is a lot like Earth and the Martians are a lot like us.  The main difference between humans and Martians appears to be that Martian women wear miniskirts.  Among those Martian women is Alita (Marguerite Chapman), who falls in love with Jim.  The rest of Mars, however, is not quite as infatuated with their intergalactic visitors…

Flight to Mars is definitely a product of its time.  This is one of those films where the men are all blatantly sexist and the women are usually just happy to be noticed.  Carol, for instance, is overjoyed to discover that they have kitchens on Mars and, while the men spend all of their time making plans, Carol usually just stands in the background, eating Martian snacks and pining for Jim.  Of course, Jim only has eyes for Alita, who, upon meeting the virile males of Earth, has absolutely no problem betraying her entire planet.  Beyond the sexist attitudes, Flight to Mars is also distinguished by presenting space travel as being the equivalent of a long flight on a small airplane.  This is definitely a low-budget B-movie that has absolutely no relation to science fact (or, for that matter, any other type of fact).

And, to be honest, that’s why I like the film.  It truly is such a time capsule that just watching it will make you wonder if Eisenhower is still in the White House.  I’ve always felt that the best way to learn about history is to experience it personally and one of the best ways to do that is to watch a movie that could only have been made during a certain period of time.  And trust me, Flight to Mars is pure 1951.  As for the film’s low budget — well, this film proves that you don’t need CGI to create an alien world.  Sometimes, cardboard and colorful costumes work just as well.  And, as for the film’s science — well, facts are boring.  That’s one reason why good people have often turned to science fiction.

So, if you’ve got 70 minutes to kill, why not experience Flight to Mars?

Enjoy!