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Topping Off

“I’m not supposed to think. I’m from city hall!” shouts a beguiled detective, trying to sort out a murder mystery. That’s Topper Returns’ humor on full display, wide ranging and with a bit of a social snark.

Topper Returns deals with domestic gags. The impromptu detective Hopper (Roland Young) tries to get away from his shrieking wife in some old-fashioned, sexist thinking. It doesn’t hurt the wife is Billie Burke, Glinda from Wizard of Oz; she’s wonderful as a ditz who tends to eschew common sense. Think Gracie Allen’s famous routine.

The movie hinges itself on Joan Blondell, murdered during a stay in a creepy mansion. Now, she’s a spirit, and remarkably accepting of the circumstance. Blondell’s tipsy, sarcastic ghost form has a blast with various spooky antics. Topper Returns isn’t without a touch of Invisible Manlike laughs either. The 1941 release gave audiences a reprieve from the then fast-moving Universal monster cycle, relying on the same tropes (a deeply voiced, monotone butler, creepy servants, wide staircases). All it needs is a persistent thunderstorm snapping lightning toward the windows and a mad scientist for completion’s sake.

Topper Returns is Blondell’s movie, a hard-drinking character able to hold her own

While a touch sluggish to get started, eventually Topper Returns begins to fill its dark mansion on top of a hill. Police, suspects, wives, drivers; everyone pours into the halls, creating cause for a frantic third-act. Everyone sinks into their roles, especially racially typecast Eddie Anderson. He’s not only a quip master; his skills at physical comedy deliver. Anderson’s delightful struggle against a stubborn sea lion bests even the ghost material.

Even by ‘41 standards, Topper Returns isn’t high on creativity. It’s on familiar tracks, with people reacting to self-closing doors or levitating objects. The murder mystery is fun however, sorting out that growing cast and who might be the culprit gives grounding to the comedy. Some morbidity helps too. A bevy of missed connections and inadvertent meetings keep the criminal mystique lively.

In the end, Topper hardly matters. He’s swarmed by the rest of the cast, stuck in the middle and reacting. Topper Returns is Blondell’s movie, a hard-drinking character able to hold her own while solving her murder. For 1941, this is a progressive bit of filmmaking, allowing the title star to fall to the wayside and letting the women – even the bubbleheaded among them – solve the case. Good on the male creatives for getting ahead of things.


VCI issues this third Topper film ahead of the second. The distributor released the first in 2017, but so be it. Topper Returns looks slightly clean, given a mild filtering pass if not enough to erode the grain or detail. Reasonable texture produces firm facial definition in some close-ups, unusual for a movie this vintage. Interior sets show a lavishly decorated home, bringing out the small touches put into production design.

Compression is an issue. Visible blocking in shadows becomes an annoyance. Topper Returns, in general, carries a digital video sheen. Part of that falls on the inconsistent gray scale. This one moves from excellent dimension to utterly flat between shots. Artifacts wait for their chance to jump in anytime pure black fades away. Not to pile on a typically appealing transfer, but the shift from a yellowed to green to gray tint is distracting too.

VCI does good work here, even with the issues above. Most of the damage is removed, a few stray scratches and dirt spots not withstanding. Resolution remains high and consistent, even during those scenes involving visual effects. Bear in mind Topper Returns sat withering in public domain for years. This is miles ahead of those shoddy reissues.


A PCM mono mix comes through the speakers with issues. The score, most notably, droops from age. Highs wobble and strain. Lows may as well not exist anymore. Bass is rotten. All of the general aging is fine, including light static, a few instances of popping, and one dropout. That’s all controlled.

Dialog deals well with the open ceiling atmosphere. Voices naturally reverb in the environment, still intelligible and clean.


Trailers for the other two Topper films begin the disc. In the main menu, there’s a trailer for Topper Returns too. That’s it though.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

Topper Returns
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The third and final film in the series, Topper Returns has a manic energy that isn’t creative, but every joke lands even with the passage of time.

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