We conclude our Topper trio with a look at the final, and weirdest installment in the series. Topper Returns is a Topper film in name only because our beloved wealthy leader is marginalized and reduced to befuddled detective in a movie that has nothing to do with any of the themes or characters set down in the first two movies. Topper Returns is a ghost story/murder mystery in the vein of The Woman in White. It’s a B-grade detective story and a C-grade Topper movie.
Gail Richards (Joan Blondell) and her best friend Ann Carrington (Carole Landis) visit the mysterious Carrington estate to meet Ann’s father. In the night, Gail is murdered by a shadowy figure. Her ghost enlists the help of Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) to help figure out who murdered her, and why.
Removed from the Topper franchise, Topper Returns is no better than the countless B-grade haunted house/murder mysteries out there. The movie relies on shadowy figures, as seen in the opening credits, and the spooky houses on top of the hill for evidence of the dark origins it wants to invoke. We’re definitely not in the clean, white hotel rooms or penthouse apartments of the Kerby’s. What’s funny is that the Carrington house is on a hill where it continually looks about ready to storm, and right below them is the beautiful Topper estate that looks normal. It reminded me quite a bit of Edward Scissorhands where you have the big spooky mansion that the people of the suburban area below don’t mention. Once Cosmo is enlisted to solve Gail’s murder we enter into standard Thin Man territory with Gail and Cosmo being Nora and Nick; you just need Asta and you’d be set….he was in the wrong movie!
The first twenty minutes establishes the new characters of Gail, Ann, and the Carrington clan. In fact, we don’t see Cosmo or Clara (Billie Burke) till over 25 minutes into the movie! We didn’t meet them right away in the original installment, but this movie has so many moving parts that you need someone to orient yourself with. Everything about this movie screams something totally original that once Cosmo shows up, he looks and acts as if he stumbled into the wrong movie. This isn’t Young’s best work because he’s reduced to the backseat. There’s no fun lines or moments, he’s usually found sitting around somewhere. He’s told to act like a tough detective but he’s too laconic to make it work. The entire relationship between him and Gail is funny in a stupid way; is Cosmo Topper the ghost whisperer? In the first two movies, he knew the Kerby’s and wanted to live life like them; there was a connection. In Topper Returns, Gail simply shows up and reveals herself to him and demands he solve the case. Why him? Because he gave you a ride in a car, once? Remember how I said in the last review that a few well-placed dialogue exchanges could answer these simple questions? Well, don’t expect to see that. In the character of Cosmo, gone is the befuddlement in favor of irritation and exhaustion. Clara is still daffy and darling, but even she doesn’t have a proper use in this movie. I’d go so far as to say the Toppers provide cameos in a movie that boasts, and sells on, their name.
The new characters range from okay to downright awful. Joan Blondell isn’t as refined as Constance Bennett, but I usually adore seeing her. She’s sassy and expressive, particularly with those big eyes. There’s a well of sarcasm that runs through Gail, and I’ve always seen her as a more outspoken Vivian Vance. In one scene, Blondell feigns crying so she can take a drink. Bennett would simply ask for it, or make it herself. Here, Gail’s going to rely on her feminine wiles, and get away with doing what she wants. She’s sneaky in a way that the Kerby’s weren’t, reliant on street smarts as opposed to wealthy refinement. She works well opposite Young, but Young feels uneasy against her and some of his exchanges just feel tired and boring. He doesn’t appear to be having fun at all. I hope you all don’t miss Wilkins because he’s gone with zero explanation. The man went on vacation with them in Topper Takes a Trip, so if the events take place right down the road where is he? Again, a simple line of dialogue would have sufficed. Instead, we get the chauffeur simply named….Chauffeur. Are you kidding me? This guy is in 99% of the movie, and he doesn’t even warrant a proper name! The character is played by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and to say the character is written with racism in mind is an understatement. The character is a glorified Wilkins replacement, only he does things Wilkins would have never been written to do. Chauffeur (God I hate writing that) gets dumped down holes, and generally looks bewildered while talking like an uneducated servant. Wilkins was a servant, who knew he was far smarter than the wealthy people around him. Chauffeur is that imaginary, poorly constructed African-American character who understands he’s a servant, and is damn happy about it! Carole Landis seems to spend the movie on her back, either fainting or sleeping. She’s okay, but the plot doesn’t give her anything other than being the one with the last name and the inheritance that’s at the crux of the story.
The actual mystery is fairly self-explanatory if that last sentence is any indication. The characters we’re meant to believe are evil are painfully so. It’s obvious why Gail was killed from the minute you see two women with blonde hair sleeping in the same house. The entire climax is predicated on an error that, in any other movie, would be hilarious. It’s hilarious here because it’s stupid! At the end, I guess we’re supposed to take pity on the murderer because Gail and him work together. Since the villain is dead, his ghost doesn’t have anything to lose by working with Gail, and the movie is literally ending in two minutes by this point, but Gail has been so brassy this whole time that she should have at least given this guy a what-for for killing her!
For an 88 minute movie, the script isn’t confident about leaving events up to Cosmo. You have several storylines working with each other, as well as separately. There’s far too many cooks in the kitchen so not only do you follow Cosmo and Gail, but plots involving Clara and Chauffeur; Ann, her father and a bland love interest. The first two Toppers were self-contained, and focused on how the ghosts changed Topper. Here, events are taken away from Topper and at the end, we’re still left with the same character. It’s a problem we saw in the last Topper movie with the film effectively starting over and putting Cosmo in the same place he started out in during the first film.
It’s a sad end to the Topper series with Topper Returns being the most frustrating of the series. It’s not a Topper movie in the sense of being fun and whimsical. Topper Returns is dark, murderous, and hopes you find it funny. Young and Burke are day-players in their own story, and while Blondell is good the script adds in plots for everyone leaving no unified plotline to follow. You can usually get this on a disc with the first Topper, and I recommend it if you’d like to complete the trilogy.
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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.