The National Board of Review named Harry D'Abbadie D'Arrast's continental comedy the best American film of 1933, ranking it ahead of not only Cavalcade, the eventual Oscar winner, but also the films we think of eighty years later as that year's best: 42nd Street, King Kong, The Invisible Man, etc. None of those three, in fact, made the Board's cut. Some that did make the cut are even more obscure than Cavalcade or Topaze. Even I have to plead ignorance of such worthies as Papa Loves Mama and Three-Cornered Moon. Standards change over time, of course, and many people now consider Cavalcade (a film I still haven't seen) as one of the least-worthy Oscar winners. Topaze wasn't nominated in any Oscar category, and its selection by the Board seemed to surprise many people at the time. Given its mixed reception in 1933, it's hard to say whether Topaze passes the current test of time unless you actually watch it.
While not aggressively or transgressively Pre-Code in terms of content, Topaze has that certain blithe amorality we identify with the period. D'Arrast filmed Ben Hecht's adaptation of an English translation of a 1928 French play eventually filmed twice over by its author, Marcel Pagnol. On Broadway the title role was played by Frank (Wizard of Oz) Morgan. At RKO it became a vehicle for John Barrymore. He is Professor Topaze, a chemist by vocation and a private school teacher by profession. We hear of him before we see him, as the Baron Latour Latour (Reginald Mason) recommends him as a tutor for a relative of the woman of his house, Coco (Myrna Loy). This house isn't the Baron's own, however, for Coco is only his mistress. At home he must share a bed not only with his heavygoing wife, but with her dog and their brat of a son. Home is in an uproar because this same Professor Topaze has given the brat a bunch of failing grades. That simply isn't done when someone like the Baron pays so much for the boy's education.
At last we see the Professor in his element. His nature is hard to grasp at first. Our first impression is of a slightly pompous idealist, determined to drill into his pupils the idea that dishonesty never pays. The Latour Latour brat actually seems realistic rather than stupid when he disagrees, but he's also obviously a brat, using a noisemaker to disrupt Topaze's lectures. Only later does it become more obvious that we're supposed to see Topaze as a naif or a plain fool. Defending his grading policy when confronted by the Baroness, he is fired on the spot. He lands unexpectedly on his feet, however, when the Baron decides he can use Topaze in a new project. Latour is manufacturing a new brand of sparkling water and wants a reputable chemist to endorse it. The problem is that any reputable chemist would reject the stuff. Latour has just turned away a Professor Baum (frequent Barrymore stooge Luis Alberini) who has denounced the product but is clearly holding out for more money. Topaze is less worldly and more easily deceived. Latour Latour sets him up in a new laboratory -- with Coco, inexplicably, as his assistant -- and lets him develop a virtually bacteria-free product that would be prohibitively expensive to mass produce, while the company mass produces the original formula, the germy stuff that Baum had condemned as "dishwater." Promoting Topaze as the embodiment of benign science, Latour Latour even names the stuff after him. Sparkling Topaze soon becomes a ubiquitous brand name in France.
To this point, it isn't an atypical Hollywood situation: a nice guy somehow ends up a fraud. Predictably enough, the deception begins to come apart. Topaze witnesses Baum's attempt to blackmail Latour Latour with a threat to publicize what he knows about Sparkling Topaze. He sees Latour Latour crush Baum by producing documents proving Baum an impostor and embezzler. The would-be blackmailer is blackmailed into silence, but in his retreat he's left behind his store-bought bottle of Sparkling Topaze and a confused Professor Topaze. How could Baum slander his noble product so? On a hunch, he subjects the bottled water to tests we've seen him conduct before on his own water. The results are dramatically different. Could it be a fluke? He invades a restaurant and performs similar tests on a glass snatched from a general's hand. The results are just as bad. Topaze is horrified. He hallucinates neon signs denouncing him and other disasters in a typical Hollywood nightmare montage. Fortunately, he has one supporter in Coco, who has also grown sick of Latour Latour's lies. She was humiliated earlier when the Baron, surprized by his wife's appearance at his favorite restaurant, passed Coco off as Mme. Topaze. Topaze himself was embarassed on her behalf without understanding why the Baron made up such a story. It's up to Coco to set him straight on a lot of things, but under her compassionate tutelage a transformation begins. The Baron has betrayed their honor; they take their revenge by outplaying him in his own game of blackmail. Topaze becomes a more domineering businessman, with Baum now his flunky. He exploits his celebrity, making visitors wait to see him until they feel the appropriate awe. From the Baron he demands a one-third share in the company. If he doesn't get it, he'll deliver to the Baroness Coco's full confession of her affair with the Baron. Triumphant, Topaze returns to his old school to deliver an oration and bestow some academic awards. Learning that the Latour Latour brat is to get the top honor, he stages a decisive humiliation for the boy to show the other students that here, at least, honesty will be rewarded.
You'll notice it isn't rewarded outside the school. If Hecht and D'Arrast (not to mention Pagnol) meant us to assume that Topaze would use his new power in the company to ensure the manufacture of his safe sparkling water, we definitely have no proof in the picture that he does so. As far as we know, the professor is content to live off the ill-gotten revenue from the Baron's bad water -- no one besides Baum has complained about it, as far as we can tell. In Topaze the hero's realization of his role in a fraud is the cue for his transformation into a more worldy and masterly man, as illustrated by Barrymore's shaving off his professorial beard and getting himself more smartly tailored. The effect had to be different from Frank Morgan undergoing such a change. Insofar as Barrymore remained a matinee idol at age 50, the change couldn't help but look like the star revealing his true and brilliant nature as a handsome fashion plate worthy of the young Myrna Loy. Compare his character arc to the fraud roles played by would-be peers like Warren William. Usually, when William was exposed as a fraud the result was professional and personal ruin. He had to touch bottom before he could begin to redeem himself. Barrymore experiences a moral crisis, or at most goes through a moral scare, and that's about it. It's all uphill from there, as in all likelihood he'll get the girl if he hasn't got her already. The film ends with the couple arriving at a performance of Man, Woman and Sin, the title clearly giving Topaze ideas. I don't think I've seen a more amoral Pre-Code movie since Night Nurse ended with the friendly bootlegger having Clark Gable whacked to guarantee a happy ending.
Barrymore was still capable of a controlled performance at this point, not long before his descent into alcoholic self-parody. He's fully committed physically to Topaze's eccentric mix of meekness and pretension, setting up the contrast with the more forceful character the professor will become. A character actor in a star's body (that he soon strove to destroy), he seems comfortable in makeups and odd voices, reminding me of Hans Conreid sometimes during his orations before toning it down later. People who saw both him and Frank Morgan seemed to prefer Morgan, but Barrymore is very entertaining in the role. D'Arrast directs him well, his moving camera allowing the actor to define his character through movement as he paces up and down classroom aisles. His fondness for lateral camera movement helps keep the whole film lively. Posterity has been fair, I think, to rank King Kong, 42nd Street, et al above Topaze, but I have a suspicion that it is better than Cavalcade, at least.