Combustible Celluloid
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With: John Barrymore, Myrna Loy, Reginald Mason, Jobyna Howland, Jackie Searl, Albert Conti, Frank Reicher, Luis Alberni
Written by: Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, Benn W. Levy, Charles MacArthur, based on a play by Marcel Pagnol
Directed by: Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 78
Date: 02/24/1933

Topaze (1933)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Testing the Waters

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Born in Argentina, filmmaker Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast occupies one of those dark corners of film history, very talented, but the work remains largely unknown and unexplored. For every one thousand film buffs who love Billy Wilder, perhaps only one has even heard of d'Arrast. He apparently lived in France for a while, and was in the army before coming to America. There, he assisted Charlie Chaplin and then made his own films. The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has tried to make a case for greatness with d'Arrast's film Laughter (1930), though it's still difficult to find. But now his Topaze (1933) has been released on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, and a wrong has been righted.

Based on a play by Marcel Pagnol, Topaze is something of a pre-code comedy, but there is so much thought and sophistication crammed into its 78 minutes that it seems a shame to describe it in such vulgar terms. Yet it's still a great deal of fun, and pretty darn funny. John Barrymore gives arguably one of his finest — or at least his most humane — performances as the title character (pronounced, like the Hitchcock film, "Topaz"). He's a professor, chemist, and schoolteacher, trying to educate children on the value of virtue and not vice. He has slogans like "Ill-gotten gains are not worth while" hanging all over his walls.

But when he gets fired for giving an honest grade to the son of the influential and wealthy Baroness de La Tour-La Tour (Jobyna Howland), he doesn't quite know what to do. Meanwhile, the Baroness's husband, Baron Philippe de La Tour-La Tour (Reginald Mason) is having an affair with the pretty and smart Coco (the great Myrna Loy). He also runs a company that sells "healthy" water, and he needs a spokesperson to make the water look legit. So he hires the chemist Topaze to be the face of it. Topaze takes his job seriously, developing newer and better types of water, but the company keeps on selling the same old stuff. From there, the movie takes a somewhat unexpected turn, and one that probably would not have been allowed to pass through the Hays Code only a year later.

It's a cynical movie, but it's also cleverly aware of, and comments upon, its own cynicism. d'Arrast's direction is ultra-focused, but smooth and sly. He makes remarkable use of space, wide shots crossed with closer shots for just the right effect, and wry, slight pauses in the rhythm. He seems inspired by Lubitsch, and came closer to emulating that special "Touch" than even Wilder. Consider the hilarious scene in which we learn that Coco is the Baron's mistress; it could not have been done with more grace and more humor. The material is based on a play, but never seems stagebound; it has been completely transformed into cinema.

It all makes me want to explore more of d'Arrast's films, even if it still requires deep and diligent hunting to find them. In the meantime, having Topaze on Blu-ray is a treat, and Kino Lorber's Blu-ray gives no indication that this film could ever have been in bad shape or lost. It includes a scholarly commentary track by Kat Ellinger, and trailers. (Note: The movie was the National Board of Review's choice for Best Film of 1933.)

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