With Topper Returns, the series draws clear and undeniable inspiration from the hit remake of The Cat and the Canary (1939) starring Bob Hope two years earlier. The Cat and the Canarys success lay in taking the Old Dark House genre of the previous decade creepy old thrills set around a big old mansion and usually a plot to kill/drive a young pretty heiress mad and playing them for comedy. Topper Returns throws in a bunch of the tropes and cliches from the Old Dark House genre the big gloomy old mansion, the heiress and improbable schemes to kill her, figures skulking in the shadows, various murders, sliding/rotating hidden panels, disappearing bodies. Director Roy Del Ruth whips it up into a lively froth. Everything arrives at a typical whodunnit solution (even if it is not clear at the denouement why the particular individual was impersonating Joan Blondells father and trying to kill her). The noteworthy thing about the Old Dark House genre, whether played seriously or comedically, is that the appearance of the ghostly and supernatural was always revealed to be of mundane origin at the end thus Topper Returns has the distinction of being probably the only film of the Old Dark House genre to feature actual ghosts.
The ghost scenes are played for droll comedy. These allow the special effects team to roll out all the effects shots that they perfected on the Universal Invisible Man films Eddie Rochester Anderson lighting a cigarette for a phantom Joan Blondell and she blowing smoke back at him, she putting on a slip, the ghost invisibly rowing a dinghy, even a comic scene with the ghost driving a car with Eddie Rochester Anderson in the back. The funniest and cleverest scene is the one where most of the group are locked up in a walk-in freezer and the dialogue between them makes a series of lightning-fast plays of puns and word associations.
The film is considerably lifted up by its performances. Roland Young plays with the same droll comic dullness he perfected throughout the other two films. Joan Blondell gives a wonderfully airy and funny performance through a chipper New York accent. She has a great bubbly comic presence that is perfect for playing off Young. While the plot is routine Old Dark House antics, it is Roland Youngs roly-poly absent-mindedness and the gaily blithe Joan Blondell that lift it up enormously. On the minus side, Eddie Rochester Anderson is cast in one of the eras racist cliches of the scared comic Black servant, at which he at least plays in a very lively way. One of the big plusses of Topper Returns is some amazingly good art direction the scenes entering the various halls, libraries and bedrooms have a lushness that is almost edible at times.
Roy Del Ruth was a director who had been working way back to the 1920s. He made the original The Maltese Falcon (1931) and various musicals, including several of the Broadway Melodies series. During the 1950s, he made two other films of genre interest with the Edgar Allan Poe adaptation Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954) and the mad scientist film The Alligator People (1959).
Full film available online here:-