In "Topper Returns" (1941), Roland Young reprises his role as the hapless Cosmo Topper, a well-to-do gentleman who wants to live a conventional life. Unfortunately for him, an ability to see and hear ghosts has him attempting to help a pretty young spirit discover her killer before her friend joins her in untimely death. This film followed the huge hit "Topper" (1937), which featured Cary Grant and Constance Bennett as the spirits haunting the banker, and the sequel "Topper Takes a Trip" (1938), in which Bennett returns to rescue Cosmo's marriage with the silly, pampered Clara.
Film scholars peg the Topper films as "screwball comedies"—a film genre some argue exploded in response to the Great Depression of the 1930s, when unemployment rates skyrocketed to 25 percent and audiences were eager to escape the everyday world. Laughter was a welcome release, and people flocked to theaters to enjoy the improbable plots and silly antics of characters in movies such as "The Awful Truth" (1937), "Bringing Up Baby" (1938) and "Holiday" (1938).
The fact that so many of the best-loved screwball comedies—including the first Topper film—starred the same actor testify to Cary Grant's exceptional combination of glamour and goofiness. (Who else could take a pratfall yet look so studly?) One could argue that screwball comedy itself depends largely on the same paradoxical blend of qualities. Often, characters (like Topper) inhabit ritzy mansions and are chauffered in snazzy cars, yet are subjected to clownish scrapes and embarrassments. As others have suggested, this may have been especially pleasing to a public that, in their struggle to survive, felt a tad hostile to society's "haves" even as they yearned to join them. Like many screwball comedies of its era, "Topper Returns" lets regular folks have their fantasy cake and eat it too.
Donald FeenerDr. Donald Feener of the University of Utah’s Department of Biology discusses animals that hide their true natures and the film “Topper Returns.”
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