I’m in the midst of a Topper trio; reviewing all three films, in order. I re-posted my review of the first Topper film yesterday, and we continue with a look at the 1938 sequel, Topper Takes a Trip. This is the final film to have include the cast from the original – although Cary Grant only appears in footage from the earlier adventure – and is the one not available on DVD. I had to tape this during TCM’s Topper trio last month in order to get it. With that, Topper Takes a Trip starts the inevitable decline the series would take, before becoming a Topper story in name only with Topper Returns (but that’s a story for tomorrow). While Topper Takes a Trip continues to have the duo of Roland Young and Constance Bennett, the movie treads water and never coalesces into an actual story.
Clara Topper (Billie Burke) wants to proceed with a divorce from her husband Cosmo (Young) after the events of the first film. The judge, finding Cosmo’s story of ghosts to be ridiculous, won’t judge on the proceedings right away allowing Clara and Cosmo to go on separate vacations. Unfortunately for Cosmo, Marion Kerby (Bennett) has returned to help Cosmo get back together with his wife.
Thorne Smith wrote the books that the Topper series is based off and coincidentally, an unfinished manuscript of his was turned into the Veronica Lake classic, I Married a Witch; it’s always nice to see Veronica trivia turn up in the most unexpected places. Anyway, that whimsical tone we saw in I Married a Witch comes through loud and clear in Topper Takes a Trip. I’m not sure why, but this movie feels more unrealistic and outright magical than the first Topper did. That could be because the first film introduced us to the reckless world of the Kerby’s, and was in the vein of a classic screwball comedy, albeit with overt consequences. Here, we have a premise that plays out in the same way as Rene Clare’s film (I Married a Witch wouldn’t be released till 1942). Marion comes down to see Topper with no explanation other than desiring to get him back together with Clara. In the original, the Kerby’s were kept on Earth to do one good deed. It’s a brief explanation that explains the stakes for the audience, but that element is missing entirely in the sequel. We’re never told that if Marion doesn’t pull this off that she’ll be stuck on Earth. Sure, at the end, she mentions that now she can be reunited with George (Cary Grant), but why were they separated in the first place? It’s not hard to come up with some excuse to explain Grant’s absence. The lack of explanation makes the audience believe Marion has done something to get kicked out of Heaven and the script doesn’t do anything to dissuade you from that belief. It’s a sloppy way to tiptoe around the fact that Grant wasn’t in the film, and thus Bennett was the only option.
The opening credits do thank Cary Grant for allowing them to reuse his footage from the first film, but it’s unnecessary, especially if you just watched the original. For current audiences, Topper Takes a Trip shows how long time passed between sequels. I know that only a year separated these movies, but in that time audiences could easily forget what had happened between installments. Thus, we get the entire plot of the original condensed and presented as Cosmo’s testimony during the divorce trial. It’s a way to reignite the memory of the original in the audience’s mind, but for those of us watching these back-to-back, its ten minutes that we’ve already enjoyed. I could understand the need to help the audience remember, yet the script totally contradicts that by having the divorce be the crux of the plot! At the end of Topper, Clara and Cosmo were reunited. Clara never really changed, and remained the daffy woman who loved Cosmo, but loved her role in society just as much. By having the crux of this movie being that Clara and Cosmo are divorcing, the script wants the audience to forget the first ending. They sweep it under the rug by having Clara be seduced into divorce by a wealthy friend, and while Clara was obsessed with appearance, it’s all incongruous with how she cries and worries about Cosmo during the proceedings. Her character becomes a woman that’s either bipolar, or wants everything at once.
The use of gimmickry is also irksome in this movie. We may have lost Grant, but we get Asta from The Thin Man playing a ghost dog! That’s enough to get butts in seats, right? Asta’s cute, as he always was, but he adds nothing to the plot. If anything, he adds a lot of yapping and the punchline to several jokes is that his barking alerts people to the fact that Cosmo has people in his room. Going off that, Topper Takes a Trip ends up being all punchline and no joke. The plot really wanders with the hopes that at the end Cosmo and Clara will be reconciled. At 88 minutes, this movie felt incredibly long because nothing seems to happen for long stretches; it’s best described as Topper Goes European. There is a lot of slapstick here as there was in the first, and the Kerby’s invisibility in the first film made Topper look insane. Since we’ve seen that, Topper looking crazy plays out as a rehash of the first movie, simply set down in a tropical location; and these sequences feel like they go on forever! The director really loves the SFX because the invisibility of Marion takes over in lieu of forwarding the plot. Does it make the plot go further with Topper having to explain why he needs two beds…and then explain why he needs two dinners…and then explain why he needs a dog bed? The jokes are dead after five minutes. When the pratfalls and dialogue are allowed to breathe and be concocted, then there are a few glimmers. When Cosmo is told “‘You killed a woman,” he flippantly responds with “I don’t understand what all the fuss is about.” We also have the return of lovable butler Wilkins (Alan Mowbray) who concludes with “Bless our happy home” as he did at the end of the first. Mowbray’s characters gets fleshed out here, but that doesn’t combine with the wacky hijinks of Cosmo’s story; I wouldn’t get used to his character though as he’s summarily dumped in the next movie.
The actors that return all perform their roles with the gusto you’d expect. They’re comfortable in their positions and all have an easy camaraderie with each other. With that, there’s no stretching into new territory. Young is befuddled, Burke is nervous, and Bennett is beautiful. I did find that Bennett is dressed and acts surprisingly like Veronica Lake in I Married a Witch. Starting to get worried that my favorite Lake film is a little too similar to this. Gran didn’t provide much in the first film. In fact, in my original review I mentioned the long stretches in which Grant was absent, and yet his absence is palpable here. Without Grant’s George fighting to keep Marion to himself, and getting jealous of her relationship with Cosmo, there’s nothing to keep Marion engaging. She’s simply the beautiful
witch ghost who forces Topper to learn new things about himself.
Topper Takes a Trip is a marked downgrade from the original entry in the series, but is far better than the weird mystery/comedy hybrid that Topper Returns is. The plot doesn’t develop till late in the movie, and simple lines of dialogue could tighten up the plot changes between films only to be left hanging in the breeze. If the movie is on, considering it’s not available on DVD, I’d recommend sitting down for it.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.