Topper (1937)

Cary Grant, Roland Young and Constance Bennett

'Topper' is a highly original screwball comedy film made in 1937, directed by Norman Z. McLeod, and starring Constance Bennett, Cary Grant and Roland Young. The movie has a supernatural theme and stars two ghosts but it is a warm ghost story, without any screaming or sudden chilling images. 'Topper' was nominated unsuccessfully for Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor for Roland Young – his only nomination – and Best Sound, Recording for Elmer Raguse.

It was a huge box-office hit in the summer of 1937 and gave a boost to the careers of all the lead actors.

Constance Bennett – who had previously been known as more of a fashion plate than an actress – also received good critical reviews, and she was reunited by producer Hal Roach with her director McLeod and screenwriters Jevne and Moran – as well as Billie Burke and Alan Mowbray – for 1938's 'Merrily We Live'.

Cary Grant continued after this film to play in other classic screwball comedies such as 'The Awful Truth' in 1937 and 'Bringing Up Baby' and 'Holiday' the following year.

The film was adapted from the 1926 novel by Thorne Smith, an American writer who became extremely popular in the 1920s for his humorous stories of the supernatural. The movie was produced by Hal Roach and distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The excellent supporting cast includes Billie Burke and Eugene Pallette.

'Topper' was followed in 1938 by the sequel 'Topper Takes a Trip' and then 'Topper Returns' in 1941. There was also a television series, which ran for two seasons from 1953, starring Leo G. Carroll, Robert Sterling and Anne Jeffreys.


Once the audience's disbelief is suspended, the plot is thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining. It centres round a young couple, Marion and George Kirby, played by Constance Bennett and Cary Grant, who enjoy a fun-loving, hard-drinking, uninhibited lifestyle which comes to an abrupt and some would say, deserved, end when their car crashes into a tree.

As neither has committed any particularly good or bad deed in life, they become ghosts caught between heaven and earth. They realise that they have to perform at least one good deed in order to enter heaven and so they set about changing the life of their former banker and friend the stuffy and hen-pecked Cosmo P. Topper, played deliciously well by Roland Young. The fun begins as Cosmo is dragged, at first unwillingly, into one crazy adventure after another.


Producer Hal Roach, one of the originators of the Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang comedy shorts, was anxious to expand his career by producing full length movies. He found the ideal work to adapt in 'The Jovial Ghosts', a slightly risqué 1926 novel by Thorne Smith.

The main shooting took place at Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, with location shooting at the entrance to the Bullock's department store on Wilshire Boulevard – as the entrance to the "Seabreeze Hotel" – and in Pasadena, California.

Cary Grant was Roach's first choice to play George Kerby and he quelled the actor's doubts about the overly supernatural aspects of the plot by assuring him, accurately, that the screwball nature of the film would be highlighted more. Grant also found the $50,000 fee very convincing.

Roach originally considered Jean Harlow for the Marion Kerby role but as Harlow was ill and died in June, 1937, he turned to the beautiful and experienced Constance Bennett. Bennett was frequently late on set and wae trying to cope with the alchoholism of her youngest sister, Barbara.

The film is in black and white and the cinematography still looks good, even today as do the groundbreaking special effects for the ghost scenes, very original in 1937.

Main Cast

Constance Bennett … Marion Kerby
Cary Grant … George Kerby
Roland Young … Cosmo Topper
Billie Burke … Mrs. Clara Topper
Alan Mowbray … Wilkins, the butler
Eugene Pallette … Casey
Arthur Lake … elevator boy / bell boy
Hedda Hopper … Mrs. Grace Stuyvesant
Virginia Sale … Miss Johnson
Elaine Shepard … Secretary
Ward Bond … cab driver (uncredited)


Director ... Norman Z. McLeod
Producer ... Hal Roach
Screenplay ... Jack Jevne, Eric Hatch, Eddie Moran
Based on ... 'Topper' (1926 novel) by Thorne Smith
Music ... Marvin Hatley
Cinematography ... Norbert Brodine
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date ... July 16, 1937
Running time ... 97 minutes

Academy Awards

No Wins:
Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Supporting Actor ... Roland Young
Best Sound, Recording ... Elmer Raguse