Any show with an alcoholic St. Bernard needs to be celebrated at least a little, because a bumbling canine drunk just has something, a certain indescribable je ne sais quos that compels us to keep watching despite our better judgment. The half-hour sitcom Topper (which had just such a boozing Bernard) was based on Thorne Smith’s racy novel, the same book that begat a series of movies starting in 1937.
As the story went, loving couple Marion and George Kerby got caught in an avalanche whilst on a European skiing vacation. A rescue St. Bernard named Neil was supposed to save them, but alas, the booze that sloshed around in the barrel around Neil’s neck came between dog and duty. Though Neil might have enjoyed his snowy bender, both the dog and the Kerbys perished. And after their deaths, the ghost Kerbys came back to the States with ghost Neil in tow—but when they arrived at their old house, Cosmo Topper had moved in.
Now it would be one thing if Topper was a swingin’ guy, but he was a staid banker wound just way too tight. Therefore, Marion (the “ghostess with the mostest”) and George (“the most sporting spirit”) chose haunting tactics that would loosen him up, not scare him. Topper was the only one who could see and hear the Kerbys as they performed their shenanigans, so of course his wife and employer and staff of the house thought he had finally snapped. When a letter floated through the air and his wife Henrietta gasped, Topper remained unflappable—he just curtly dismissed the phenomenon as “air mail” and went officiously about his business.
Topper played for two years on CBS, and then immediately jumped to ABC, which reran it for a year. Trick photography was used to make the ghosts look transparent when Topper was in a scene with other mortals. By today’s standards, the effects may be a little anachronistic, but camerawork was never why this sitcom charmed. It was the comedy and the drunk dog—come on!
USA / CBS / x25 minutes / Broadcast 9 October 1953 – 30 September 1955
Leo G. Carroll as Cosmo Topper
Robert Sterling as George Kerby
Anne Jeffreys as Marion Kerby
Lee Patrick as Henrietta Topper
Thurston Hall as Humphrey Schuyler
Kathleen Freeman as Katie
Edna Skinner as Maggie
Mary Field as Thelma Gibney
Elvia Allman as Elsie Woods
Buck as Neil