"We'll make you young again," Martin Kirby promises Cosmos Topper, and it was a promise kept, in spite, on television of the 1950s, with "Topper," first of a long lime of supernatural sitcoms that would include "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" and "I Dream of Jeannie."
The basic and nearly infallible conceit of all these shows is that cups and saucers floating through the air are funny. Such programs depend on the innumerable visual jokes possible when invisible characters are on the premises.
"Topper" was the best of them all and probably the most foundly remembered. Starting today it can be foundly relived; Channel 20 had scheduled "Topper" reruns, dating as far back as 1953, for Saturday mornings at 11:30.
The first show, today sets up the endearingly improbable situation. Proper Cosmo Topper, a closet playboy in a banker's body, finds himself haunted by the ghosts of George and Marian Kirby, once "the most dissolute couple in the entire community," according to Topper's dowdy wife, Henrietta (Lee Patrick), but killed in their tipsy prime by an avalanche.
They are accompanied in their mischevious haunting by Neil, an alcoholic St. Bernard who had been sent to rescue them but arrived in a state of terminal inebriation. Throughout the series, which lasted unitl 1956, there were clockwork cuts to Neil slurping up giant martinis and passing out ina heap.
The Kirbys and Topper, charmers all, are introduced at the begining of each episode with this announcer's roll call: "Ann Jeffreys as Marian Kirby, the ghostess with the mostess, Robert Sterling as George Kirby, that most sporting spirit, and Leo G. Carroll, host to said ghostsd, as Topper."
The roles in the original film were played by Roland Young (Topper), Cary Grant and Constance Bennett, Carroll is even better than Young, and it's remarkable how perfectly Sterling and Jefferys (then married i real-life) suffice as scaled-down TV versions of Grant Band Bennett. Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk didn't work quite so well as reductions of William Powell and Myrna Loy in "The Thin Man" series, another '50s comedy.
In truth, "Topper" is not brilliantly written or directed, and the canned laugh track is klutzily erratic. But like many shows, this one became a welcome weekly ritual - the Kirbys complicating Topper's life and rescuing him from tools and scoundrels. In the course of these escapades, there would always be an excuse to float dishware, furniture, champagne bottles or Topper himself about the room.
Then Henrietta would say things like "Cosmo! Why is that paper flying through the air," and Topper would say, "Oh - uh, fly paper, my dear."
The simplicity of it all is disarming.
On later episodes, th cast is argumented with Kathleen Freeman af nervous maid Katie and Thurston Hall as Mr. Schuyler, the blustering bank president. The Kirbys regularly foiled them all, just as they foiled death, and age, and just as television foils time when shows like "Topper" return from the past.