Topper Returns (1941), is a 90-minute, spooky screwball comedy mystery starring Joan Blondell with a superb supporting comedy cast of eccentrics. Good fun with a few chills, and you can watch it free online.

Joan Blondell (1906–1979) was a gorgeous, versatile, intelligent actor and durable female star. She grew up in a Vaudeville family and debuted at age three in her parents’ act. With vaudeville fading as she entered her twenties, Blondell worked as a model, and, crowned Miss Texas, was a Miss America runner-up. From pageant runway she made it to Broadway in her early twenties when Hollywood beckoned both Blondell and her co-star James Cagney.

Like Cagney, Blondell danced, was a deft comedian (wisecracking blonde) and a superior dramatic actor. They made a seven films together.

Although Bette Davis crowned herself as queen of the Warners lot, it was Joan Blondell’s 45 starring movies made over nine years (1930-1938) under contract to Warner Brothers that paid to keep the lights on at the studio during the Depression.

Joan was among the most respected and beloved of Warners’ stars. Not given to tantrums, she was always on time with her lines memorized. Directors requested her for their casts, and everyone on the set—from co-stars and supporting actors to crew, make-up and costuming—found her cheery and cooperative.

Starting in 1938 and for ever after, Blondell freelanced on film (44 more movies), acted on Broadway (15 plays), in 33 radio dramas, and over a hundred acting roles on television.

Bette Davis, Jimmy Cagney and Olivia de Havilland bulled their way through Warner Brothers demanding better roles, more money and artistic control—all three went on suspension to show they meant business. And it worked for them. But Blondell could not afford independence. She had parents, siblings, children and grandchildren to support. Even while she was terminally ill with the leukemia that killed her, Joan Blondell made her final five movies (all released in 1979, the year of her death at age 73).

Ms. Blondell was surrounded by a top-notch cast in Topper Returns: the droll Roland Young and fluttery Billie Burke co-star as Mr & Mrs Topper. The understated Mr Young, could play gentlemanly sorts as well as duplicitous villains. Flighty drama matron Billie Burke turned dialogue into hysterical arias. Eddie Anderson (Jack Benny’s valet, ‘Rochester’) plays a part better suited to Willie Best; still he delivers well in a stereotypical role. Wisecracker Patsy Kelly and blustery, befuddled detective Donald MacBride rounded out the comedy contingent; Carol Landis and Dennis O’Keefe handled the romance; and George Zucco, Raphaela Ottiano, Trevor Bardette and silent film star H.B. Warner round out the cast of unusual suspects.

Topper Returns is the fourth in the American Vaudeville Museum’s suggested series of “Exceptional Films of Every Era and Many Lands” presented by the American Vaudevill Museum, The Independent, East Mountain Public Library and Route 66 Arts Alliance.

Topper Returns isn’t a serious arty film, but it is a heck of a lot of fun. Watch the full-length Topper Returns free here.

Movies in the Mountains (in Exile) is presented for The Independent by Frank Cullen, a published historian and novelist, 2011 recipient of NY Theatre Museum Award for Excellence in the Preservation of Theatre History, and co-founder American Vaudeville Museum. Send inquiries and comments to announcements@vaudeville.org.

Frank Cullen
Frank Cullen