If I wanted to watch a film just for its entertainment value, chances are I would choose one that predates me. And my selection would not always be an acknowledged classic. It may be flawed, but it will feature enough onscreen to keep it attention-grabbing. One such film is TOPAZE, which dates from 1933. Kino Lorber recently released it to home entertainment.
The film’s title is the surname of its central character, a quietly devoted chemist and schoolteacher. He is a simple man, to be sure, but he exudes a special dignity despite the fact that he is lorded over by a classroom crammed with wealthy, unruly boys. The professor attempts to instill in them positive life-affirming values, stressing the principles of honesty and kindness, but he is not admired as if he is a clone of Mr. Chips. Additionally, the mother of one of his charges-- she’s a stuffy overweight baroness-- even wishes to have him fired. However, the core of the film involves a chemical formula the professor has perfected, which translates into a special distilled water which can be used as a laxative. But of course, there is a hitch, and that drawback involves the manner in which nice, well-meaning individuals like Professor Topaze are endlessly abused in a society that is neck-deep in corruption.
As a film, there is nothing really special or unusual about TOPAZE, but what makes it a must-see is the presence and performance of the actor who plays the professor. That would be the great John Barrymore, and it is a treat to watch Barrymore in TOPAZE. He creates a fully-dimensional character by the way he walks, moves his hands, and employs his voice to recite his dialogue. Now if you ever have wondered why John Barrymore was a special, beloved actor, all you need do is watch this film closely and observe the essence of his performance. Plus, one of the reasons for watching TOPAZE or any film on DVD or Blu-ray is the ability to see and re-see it. If you miss a bit of dialogue or savor the acting or direction in a certain scene, all you need do is re-play it, and enjoy it yet again.
Finally, a word about Barrymore. His film credits only begin with DINNER AT EIGHT, GRAND HOTEL, and COUNSELLOR-AT-LAW. This last title is a pleasure to screen for my students. And also, his films are not only talkies. Back in 1922, Barrymore starred as SHERLOCK HOLMES. In 1920, he played Jekyll and Hyde in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, and his transformation from Jekyll to Hyde, done without make-up or special effects, remains a sight to behold.
John Barrymore is among the immortal screen actors who never earned even one Oscar nomination. Such a list only begins with Edward G. Robinson, an all-time favorite, and Myrna Loy. By the way, Loy co-stars in TOPAZE, cast as the mistress of one of the characters, a much-older man. Years ago, I got to interview Myrna Loy, and a nicer film star from any era is not to be found. It always is a pleasure to see and savor her in one of the dozens of films in which she appeared, before earning screen immortality as Nora Charles opposite William Powell’s Nick Charles in the THIN MAN films.
Rob Edelman teaches film history courses at the University at Albany. He has contributed to many arts and baseball-related publications; his latest book, which he co-edited, is From Spring Training To Screen Test: Baseball Players Turned Actors. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.
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