Wednesday 22 August 2007

Topaze (1933) D'Abbadie D'Arrast

The Topaze of the title is Professor August Topaze, played by John Barrymore. He's a characterful teacher at the Stegg Academy, who has rated young Charlemagne de la Tour with a long string of zeros, something that the Baroness Hortense de la Tour is more than a little unhappy about. She and her husband, the Baron, are just as unhappy about the Professor's political views, which go beyond anti-capitalism to nigh on communism.

The class we are treated to watch is fascinating but bizarre. Topaze is sincere and idealistic but misguided and a strange choice to teach a class on ethics, especially one that contains such students in his class. However he soon loses his position, courtesy of the Baroness's intervention, with dishonour because honesty is hardly the best policy in the real world of the precodes, and he's forced to join the real world for which he is woefully unprepared for.

Strangely he ends up hired by the Baron de la Tour as a research chemist, rewarded still further by the use of his name a sparkling water of no merit. He has absolutely no clue about anything, from the blatant exploitation of his name to the Baron's adultery. As Myrna Loy's character points out, he's deaf, dumb and blind. She's astute and honest in her own way, but she's wasted on such a mediocre character.

John Barrymore has great fun with his character, a blissfully ignorant man with a blissfully ignorant take on everything. The precodes were a fascinating period for him and I've now seen almost all of his work from that era. While the films themselves aren't always great, he was always powerful in roles from Arsene Lupin to Svengali, from the Baron in Grand Hotel to Larry Renault in Dinner at Eight. Professor Topaze is a worthy addition to that repertoire, but he's about the only fascinating thing about this stage adaptation, with the possible exception of Luis Alberni's outrageous accent.

It's not a great film and there's little to it outside of Topaze himself, but fortunately he learns from the situations he is thrust into and adapts them to suit his own purposes. As the second half of the film progresses, he captures our sympathies and rides them to a decent finale. It's fluff but it's fluff with John Barrymore. That's never a bad thing, however much this one tries.

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