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March 01, 2018


topaze poster.jpg

Harry D'Abbadie D'Arrast - 1933
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

In The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris wrote of Topaze and another film by D'Arrast, Laughter, " . . . seen today, seem fragile and vulnerable exceptions to the boisterousness of mass taste." What Sarris wrote about fifty years ago, seems more so when mainstream films are often so much sound and fury a quick succession of images and lots of noise. This is light comedy that is barely featherweight. It was only a couple years after the publication of Sarris' book that I was able to see Topaze in a 16mm print in a class taught by the venerable William K. Everson. In a more perfect world, it would be Everson who would be providing the commentary track on this new blu-ray version.

A very restrained John Barrymore stars in the title role as a professor for a class of pre-teen Parisian boys. Among the lessons in chemistry and history are emphasis on ethics, with signs posted in the classroom with adages as, "Ill-gotten gains are not worth having." Dismissed from the school for refusing to give good grades to one of the boys at the behest of a baroness on Friday the 13th, Topaze's luck turns for the better. The idealism taught in the classroom is turned on its head as Topaze finds that money can buy a certain amount of happiness, as well as his benefactor's mistress.

This is a pre-code film, most pointedly in the opening scene with Reginald Marsh and Myrna Loy sitting opposite each other in what appears to be a quiet, domestic scene, he playing solitaire, she reading a book. That presumption is broken when Marsh announces it is time to return to wife for the evening. The film concludes with Barrymore and Loy going to the movies, the title, Man, Woman and Sin virtually describes the opening scene, with the marquee also announcing, "Twice Daily".

D'Arrast often uses lateral tracking shots to follow Barrymore. The most notable times the camera doesn't move are in two speeches given by Topaze, with Barrymore in close-up. Barrymore is the star here. This was a year before Myrna Loy made The Thin Man, although a few hints of Nora Charles can be seen here. Humor is also to be found when Topaze discovers that the sparkling water that bears his name is not quite the healthy beverage he assumed it to be as a series of neon signs change their wording to declare Topaze as a thief. This scene becomes a montage of nightmare visions with the small professor overwhelmed by oversized advertisements of dishonesty.

Kat Ellinger's commentary track explains how screenwriter Ben Hecht streamlined the original play by Marcel Pagnol into a relatively short, seventy-eight minute, feature. She also discussed the other filmed versions as well as the Broadway production that was still on stage simultaneous to this film. Topaze was also named as the best film of 1933 by the National Board of Review, although a review of what films made that list reads mostly of titles that have lapsed into obscurity, while ignoring such acknowledged classics as Design for Living. While there is some writing to be gleaned on the films by D'Arrast, there is very little about the life of the director. More hints are to be found from Jonathan Rosenbaum. I was hoping to know a bit more about D'Arrast's life in Monte Carlo after leaving Hollywood, following a decade of filmmaking. The source print appears to be flawlessly rendered on this blu-ray. If there's any problem, it's that I had to remind myself that the film takes place in Paris when several of the interior sets suggested an art deco New York City.

And in case anyone was wondering, my recollection based on William Everson's class is that the name of the director is pronounced "Da ra".

loy and barrymore.jpg

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 1, 2018 10:43 AM