It is hard to envision a part Peter Sellers and John Barrymore could both convincingly assume, but the very different thesps portrayed the title role of Marcel Pagnol’s Topaze, nearly thirty years apart. Barrymore received strong notices, but not Sellers—at least when it was first released. The Goon Show legend subsequently did his best to make the film disappear from public view. He was particularly stung since it was his first and only credited foray as a director. Nearly sixty years later, it sure looks a lot better than the contemporary reviews suggested. Impressively restored from the few surviving prints, Sellers’ Mr. Topaze releases virtually this Friday.
Albert Topaze is a poor but honorable school teacher, who has a genuine passion for education. Prodded by his equally humble colleague, Tamise, he has finally started making overtures towards the bullying headmaster’s daughter Ernestine, after long-carrying a torch for her. Unfortunately, he refuses to change an underachieving student’s grade to satisfy the school’s wealthy patron, so he is summarily dismissed. He still has his good name, but he naively allows Castel-Benac, a corrupt Parisian wheeler-dealer to trade-off his reputation, inevitably soiling it, as a result. However, Topaze learns much in the process.
Poor Topaze was probably the most reserved character Sellers played until Being There, which is probably why it so confused critics and fans at the time. However, it really is quite good work. There is an emptiness to his Topaze that is deeply compelling. Along with The Optimists, it proves he really could be a crying-on-the-inside kind of clown.
Ironically, most of the pratfalls and more outrageous humor is left to Sellers’ future Pink Panther foil, Herbert Lom, who manages to ham it up, while still maintaining a sinister and sophisticated façade, as the nefarious Castel-Benac. Leo “Rumpole” McKern matches Lom’s bluster, but plays Headmaster Muche with ruddier earthiness. Nadia Gray takes a diva-turn worthy of Sophia Loren as Castel-Blanc’s torch-singer mistress (she also sings the number “I Love Money,” for which the film was retitled when it initially opened in America).
However, some of the most memorable work comes from the great Michael Gough as Tamise. Indeed, it truly was a shame for Gough Sellers kept the film out of circulation, because the sad dignity he brought to the film is so different from the severe white-haired authority figures we now associate him with.
Mr. Topaze is a smart, literate film that had the guts to embrace the source play’s moral ambiguity. Of course, that was probably the problem back then. It is not a-laugh-a-minute, but it is still vintage Peter Sellers that you most likely haven’t seen before. It is also fascinating to watch it with the madness of Peter Medak’s forthcoming documentary The Ghost of Peter Sellers in mind. Highly recommended, Mr. Topaze releases virtually this Friday (6/12).