“Ill-gotten gains are not worth while”
Never heard of Topaze before? No worries I am sure not many have unless you are a fan of Myrna Loy or John Barrymore. Me being a huge Myrna Loy fan I had to see this and luckily I found it some time ago. Topaze is a nice little gem of a film starring two of MGM’s most popular stars in the 1930s but in an RKO film produced by David O. Selznick.
Topaze is a satire in more than one aspect. The film opens on what seems like a nice married couple happily reading in front of the fireplace late at night. The telephone rings and the woman answers it. The person on the other end is her sister asking if the man happens to know any good tutors for her son. The man says yes he does know a tutor one by the name of Topaze (Barrymore). The women set a meeting for the next day. Next thing the clock tolls a late time. The man named Baron Philippe de La Tour-La Tour jumps up and tells the woman named Coco (Loy) that he must be getting home to his wife.
At home the Baron’s wife is awake waiting for him. Before the poor guy can even get his jacket off the wife begins to immediately pester him about their spoiled son. She shows him the son’s report card that has all zeros and only a mark of thirty for general knowledge. The Baron knows his son is not worth a damn and the grades are true. The son named Charlemagne comes in and the Baron asks if the tutor, who turns out to be Topaze, has slapped him. The son fake cries for his mother’s attention and it works.
The next scene shows Topaze’s classroom with Charlemagne all the way in the back. Topaze tells his other students to ignore the noise that comes from somewhere in the classroom. Topaze is not the typical professor. Instead of really teaching the basic subjects he focuses on the philosophy of life and how money does not always make a person. He finds the student who is making noise with the noise maker is Charlemagne and has him sent to the front of the classroom facing the corner. Someone walks into the class to tell Topaze that he is wanted in the principal’s office. When he walks in he sees Charlemagne’s mother. The principal at first tries to get the professor to go along with the story that it was his secretary who gave Charlemagne those bad grades but Topaze is such a kind and honest man that he does not realize to play along and admits that he gave the boy the grades. He explains that the boy does not pay attention at all and is disruptive. The Baroness is appalled and has the poor professor fired.
The Baron has run into some difficulties with a water a scientist has created for his company. The Baron wants the water that was created to be backed by a scientist who approves the water is good for your health. A Dr. Baum refuses to have the water named after him since the water is not healthy. The Baron talks the situation over with Coco and he comes to the idea that he needs someone who is not completely with it to know what is truly going on and needy enough to want cash fast. In the nick of time for the Baron walks in Dr. Auguste A. Topaze newly fired from his teaching position. Since Topaze is such an honest and naïve man it does not take the Baron much to convince him to take the position. He gives Topaze his own lab to let him believe that he has created the water. Coco becomes his lab assistant and is very sweet to him.
The Baron takes Coco and Topaze out to lunch one day at a restaurant. A few moments later the Baroness walks in. She immediately knows that Coco is the other woman and plans her attack. When she gets to the table the Baron acts very guilty but he introduces Coco as Madame Topaze. Topaze does not really know what is happening and when Coco suddenly leaves he follows her. Coco explains to the professor that she is upset because the Baron was too afraid to tell his wife that she is his lover. All the time Topaze thought that Coco was the Baron’s wife and is totally befuddled when he finds out.
After lunch Coco did not return to her apartment but spent the rest of the day with Topaze at the movies. The Baron is upset with her and furious with Topaze but once he learns the professor truly has no idea what he is mad he lets the whole thing go. Not much long after Baum barges on raging about the water. He plans to blackmail the Baron for money but the Baron gets Baum back with his own blackmail that is much worse. Hearing this going on Topaze becomes upset and rushes to his lab. He tests the water that is being sold and sees that the product in use is not the one he created. He runs out into the streets terribly upset thinking he is a thief. Coco is worried about Topaze and mad at the Baron for what he did. Topaze shows up at Coco’s apartment all disheveled and dirty. He is ready to go to the police but a board of scientists shows up at the same time to give him a medal for his works.
With Coco’s help Topaze comes up with an idea to get back at the Baron. He shaves his beard and cleans himself up with a nice suit. He also gets himself an office and hires some people pretending to make himself look important. Topaze has people wait a long time so, as he says, that when they finally see him that are in awe of him. The Baron is one of the people Topaze keeps waiting. He has Coco brought in too and goes to his business. He tells the Baron that he wants a third of the shares in the company. The Baron refuses but Topaze blackmails him the same way the Baron blackmailed Baum. Topaze has a file on all the Baron’s movements with Coco.
Topaze is asked to speak to his own class since he is now a distinguished man of science. Charlemagne is being given an award for being a good student. No one but his mother is happy for him. Topaze has the boy come up and asks him questions about the Punic Wars. Charlemagne knows nothing but the other boys in the class do. He gives the award to the whole class. Topaze tells the boys that the world is exactly what he has been teaching them but they need to experience the teachings for themselves out in the real world.
The end is of Topaze and Coco going to see a film.
This was such a different film for John Barrymore and he was excellent. He was not playing a smooth talker or charmer he was a naïve professor with a good heart and good intentions. This one of my favorite roles I have seen him in yet. When Barrymore is first introduced in the film he sounded and looked so eerily like his brother Lionel! If you have ever seen Lionel in Grand Hotel you will know what John was like in Topaze! Myrna Loy does not have many scenes but she brings a warmth to the film. While the Baron is being cruel and manipulative to Topaze she is kind to him and in the end helps him out. Their relationship is not as lovers but platonic and cute. This was the second film Loy and Barrymore made together they had made Don Juan in 1926… well he was the main character and she was the maid to the villain in a few scenes. That first outing did not go to well (for more read my review of Don Juan). Loy writes in her autobiography Being and Becoming (if you can find this read it immediately!!) that she had been loaned out to RKO to make The Animal Kingdom and after that film MGM kept her there to make another. Topaze was her second film she made on loan and this time instead of being a secondary character she was to play Barrymore’s leading lady. On her way to see the director Barrymore walked right past her without saying anything. Loy believed that he did not want her in the film but the director told her “Don’t pay any attention to him.” The next day Barrymore went to Loy and apologized saying that he had seen three of her and did not know which one to bow to because he was drunk! Loy goes on to say that she was expecting Barrymore to blow up at her at any time like he did during Don Juan but this time he was very nice and very easy to get along with. She writes that he wanted to do well and really liked making the film and his character.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review Topaze is satirical in several aspects. The way the film begins is making fun of marriage. You think that Coco and the Baron are a husband and wife sitting together one night when all the sudden he says he has to get back to his wife. When the Baron gets home the wife is hysterical and the son comes in. He asks her if he has to go sleep in the other room because he has to get up in the morning but she tells him his place is in the bed with her… along with Charlemagne and her stupid little dog. The film also satirizes advertising: once “Sparkling Topaze” is put into production there are billboards everywhere and neon signs all over Paris telling people to drink it.
Topaze is a very good film and one worth tracking down. It is biting and one of those perfect classic films where everything about it just works. With John Barrymore and Myrna Loy as the leads and Ben Hecht as the screenwriter Topaze is a treat to find and watch and one film I hope to see available on DVD one day.