Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Topaze: A sparkling pre-code meditation on integrity

This comedy follows scrupulously honest Professor Topaze (John Barrymore) who is fired from a boy's academy because he refuses to give good marks to a rich pupil. Topaze unwittingly becomes the name behind a brand of dodgy tonic water called "Sparkling Topaze." Lulled into complacency by financial, scientific and the glimmerings of romantic success, Topaze goes through a major moral crisis when he discovers his research has been a sham that's been used to dupe the public into buying over-priced tap water.

Myrna Loy is suprisingly ineffectual as the vamp turned lab assistant who helps Topaze switch careers from chemistry to blackmail. It is hard to believe that Loy was less than a year away from The Thin Man and that a supposed comedy would make so little use of her talents in that genre. As the notorious Coco, she's mostly required to look worldly in Chinese pajamas (Loy got her start in Hollywood playing the "Asian" exotic) which she trades in for a rather chic lab coat for the second half of the film. She develops a sweet platonic friendship with Professor Topaze and eventually chooses to go to afternoon matinees of tawdry movies with him over more lucrative meetings with her married lover.

The film rests mostly with Barrymore who manages to be both charmingly naive and funny at the same time. At times his mannerisms dip across the line into caricature, but for the most part it is a surprising performance that departed from Barrymore's more usually serious material.

That the film ends with no calamities befalling calculating Coco or the unrepentant Topaze, will surprise movie fans who've mostly been schooled on the cinema after 1934. Instead Topaze delivers a moving speech at his old academy again refusing to reward the same rich pupil, giving honors instead to all the boys who will soon be turned out in the real world armed only with maxims about the value of honesty and that ill-gotten gains never satisfy. Within these walls, Topaze says, justice can for once be done, even though it can not be in the real world. Then he and Coco go take in a movie called Man, Woman and Sin. It is as if the filmmakers foresaw the coming of the Production Code reinforcement that a year later would have made Topaze impossible. By summer of 1934, censors would drop a similar screen between the public and the storyteller. Within the walls of movie houses around the country, crime could never pay and justice was always meted out in the final minutes of the movie.

1 comment:

kda0121 said...

I recorded Topaze on TCM a while back and really enjoy this movie. I think Barrymore is so fun to watch. Topaze gave him the perfect vehicle to ham it up and he did not disappoint. I had such fun watching the film, I forget how little Myrna Loy has to do, but I do recall that she went through a transformation of her feelings for Topaze; from initial pity to friendship and then a couple.

Barrymore went through quite a transformation also, rivaling his 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He starts out as a milquetoast school instructor, to dupe in the private sector, to master of his destiny by the last reel. It must've been a fun part to play.