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Friday, 19 August 2016

Topaze (1933)

Don't confuse this film with Hitchcock's 1969 movie of more or less the same name, which in my opinion is undoubtedly the worst of his amazing output. What we have here is a little-known and completely charming outing from my great fave John Barrymore. Written by Ben Hecht and based on a Marcel Pagnol play which ran on Broadway for over 200 performances in 1930, this is not the grand-standing, self-loving Barrymore of so many of his roles, but cast against type as a self-effacing and na├»ve schoolmaster trying to drum moralistic platitudes into his surly charges. When he fails Jackie Searl's Charlemagne, spoiled bratty son of Baron and Baroness de la Tour-la-Tour, he is summarily dismissed from his post.

As luck would have it, he is immediately taken up by the Baron as a suitable scientific stooge to promote the health-giving properties of his bottled water. Professor Topaze really believes that his research has produced a pure and beneficial beverage and is thrilled to see 'Sparkling Topaze' promoted to the public. When he eventually learns that the Baron has been marketing adulterated tap-water, the worm begins to turn. Rather than inform the authorities, many of whom are actually on the Baron's payroll (and they have just awarded him the 'medal of merit' that he long coveted as a teacher), he begins to realise that nice guys finish last in this dog-eat-dog world. His conversion is beautifully played as he enlists the aid of the Baron's mistress (Myrna Loy, sparkling as ever) and employs the Baron's own blackmailing methods to secure his future.

Apart from Barrymore and Loy the film does not boast an A-list cast but they all do beautifully, especially Reginald Mason as the Baron, the toy-dog-toting Jobyna Howland as his formidable wife, and Luis Alberni as the Baron's previous pseudo-scientist. The movie was directed by the marvellously-named Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast. The story is that he met an American director while they were both recuperating in an army hospital during World War I, who urged him to come to Hollywood. He did, starting as a researcher and assistant-director before moving into the director's chair in 1927, helming little of note other than "Laughter" (1930). He directed his last film in 1935 before moving back to Europe where he made his living off the roulette tables. On the strength of the sophisticated direction shown in "Topaze", one can but wonder whether his move was our loss.

As a pre-code movie, no shame is placed on Loy and Mason's illicit relationship and we even see him sharing a double bed (unheard of subsequently for years) with the Baroness and her yapping pooch. When they tried to re-release the film in the mid-thirties, the Hays Office refused a certificate on moral grounds. It ends with a lovely sight-gag as Barrymore and his new friend Loy enter a movie-house whose marquee reads "Men, Women, and Sin -- Twice Daily".  The phony water may have been marketed as 'Sparkling Topaze' but that is an apt description for the film as well.

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A bit of housekeeping: here's advance warning that I will not be blogging next Friday. No, it's not the FrightFest marathon again which starts on Thursday as we have finally decided enough is enough, especially since the organizers have moved the venue to a hard-to-reach shopping centre in West London. In addition the programme seems a little less scintillating than usual. However, to keep our hand in, we have booked tickets to a trio of the more interesting-sounding offerings and my report will follow in due course. 'Til then....
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