Sunday, December 21, 2003

REVIEW: Topper Returns

* * ¾ (our of four)
Seen 13 December 2003 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

The screwball murder mystery is a genre that seems to have more or less died out nowadays; only the Coens, with movies like The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn't There, seem to be in the general ballpark. I imagine it's a casualty of the growing push toward realism films have made over the past thirty or so years - you could combine elements as dissimilar as a premeditated murder and goofy comedy when the artifice of a movie was clearly on display, with sets that unashamedly looked like movie sets and actors who hadn't yet developed the naturalistic technique of today's film and television performers. We're more sophisticated today, and like our cross of humor and tragedy served up with a heavy dose of irony.

So maybe a movie like Topper Returns, which throws a little murder, a little romance, and a fair amount of comedy together without winking at the audience, wouldn't work today. And, indeed, it doesn't necessarily work for its time (1941). At times, the Toppers only seem to be included so that the film doesn't have to spend much time explaining why Gail Richards (Joan Blondell) comes back as a ghost. Indeed, the film never explains why Gail allows Topper to see her but nobody else, and the plot mechanics become more convoluted and elaborate as the film goes on. It's an idiot plot, really. And Eddie "Rochester" Anderson's performance as Topper's chauffeur is awfully Steppin Fetchit for a modern-day audience.

The film is not without its charms, though. Joan Blondell and Carole Landis go on my list of actresses I'd really rather not be reminded would be old enough to be my grandparents if they weren't dead; they're pretty and likable here. The movie has a knack for escalating comic scenes, as well; it's good lightweight fluff.

No comments: