Opinions on Artisan's 'Topper' Double Feature?

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Dave B Ferris, Jun 22, 2003.

  1. Dave B Ferris

    Dave B Ferris Screenwriter

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    Artisan has been known for some dubious transfers; how is the quality for 'Topper'/'The Return of Topper'?

    For $15.07 (tax included) at DVD Planet, I bought the
    DVD without the benefit of reading any feedback here at HTF. Besides the price, I also figured virtually any DVD would be an improvement over the (colorized!) LD.
     
  2. Brian PB

    Brian PB Supporting Actor

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  3. John Watson

    John Watson Screenwriter

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    The reviews are decent, sounds like good entertainment value.

    Thanks for bringing the subject up, and the references!
     
  4. alan halvorson

    alan halvorson Cinematographer

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    Oh, good - I took a chance on this disc too - much cheaper through DvdDeepDiscount though.
     
  5. BrianP

    BrianP Supporting Actor

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    I just watched my copy over the weekend and thought the video and audio were decent. I don't regret the purchase at all, and also picked it up at DDD. They are currently selling it for $10.63 shipped.
     
  6. Steve Phillips

    Steve Phillips Screenwriter

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    Why did they release a double feature of the original and the third film in the series? Where is the second film, TOPPER TAKES A TRIP?

    TOPPER (1937)
    TOPPER TAKES A TRIP (1939)
    TOPPER RETURNS (1941)

    Any idea on a release date for the second film?
     
  7. Jeff Swindoll

    Jeff Swindoll Supporting Actor

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  8. Bill Burns

    Bill Burns Supporting Actor

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    I own the Image release of Topper Returns, and I'm here to tell ya', it stinks. Analogue video glitches here and there, a terrible range of contrast ... ugh. Only the (really unfortunate) video glitches in Roan's Lonely Wives (a 1930's romantic comedy, believe it or not, somewhat risque, but happily not at all the sort of film that might boast such a title today [​IMG]) are worse among the more than 700 discs I've seen (most of them studio discs, of course, but many Image and several Roan discs contribute to that number). The Image Topper Returns is one of only five or six discs I've come across that I truly consider coasters (another of them holding that status because a big chunk of the movie is actually missing on the disc, with a number of chapter stops containing nothing, and any effort to play the film stopping and returning to the beginning when the first of these chapters is hit, all as tested on several players -- clearly a production error; that title is Hangmen Also Die, from Kino, and I'd love to know if anyone has seen a copy of that lately, to ensure the trouble's been fixed before I repurchase -- I could open a thread for it, but the release is several years old, so I'll just toss out a query now and then until someone bites -- but back to Topper Returns ....). Others might not react quite so vehemently, but having come to expect a certain level of quality from Image after ... oh, sixty or seventy discs, I'd say, give or take, from that company, I was flabbergasted at how poorly this "Hal Roach Studios" disc turned out (I was also very disappointed, though not quite as much so, in the Hal Roach Studios edition of Meet John Doe, leading me to believe the trouble lies with the Hal Roach label in these cases, and not Image, whose product usually falls between good and excellent -- it clearly depends on the "whom" in from whom one licenses a title).

    I'm thrilled that Artisan has revisited Topper Returns with the original Topper (though they skipped the second film, as already mentioned on this thread), and that "Hal Roach Studios" appears nowhere on the box (Hallmark does, however, and I know many are eagerly anticipating the Laurel and Hardy sound films they're apparently bringing to disc in the near future). [​IMG] Perhaps they've created a new video master, at the very least, as I dare say most of the Image disc's troubles stem from a terrible video master, however good the original film elements. I look forward to picking up Artisan's release.
     
  9. Bill Burns

    Bill Burns Supporting Actor

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    I've just watched both. The video glitch mentioned in one of the reviews linked in an earlier post occurs at the 1:53 mark of chapter 13 of Topper, and lasts for three frames -- it appears to be a small segment of the previous scene, carried over in a thick horizontal bar to the following scene after a cut: an MPEG digital error, in other words, rather than an analog glitch (such as those found on the Image edition of Topper Returns).

    Topper Returns looks the best here, and has not a single video glitch I could detect, thus besting its Image counterpart. But it doesn't look great, and I don't believe the contrast range has been much improved over Image's edition: everything is either gray or jumps into an elemental grave of undetailed black. Whites look all right in a few brightly lit scenes, but generally remain grayish. It isn't a terrible look for this (obviously) low-budget production, but it could have been better. Joan Blondell and (the ravishing) Carole Landis are both their beautiful selves, and that beauty certainly comes across, so it's difficult to complain too loudly.

    Topper, on the other hand, has a lovely contrast range and good fine detail, but it's the weaker of the two transfers because Hallmark (whom I presume provided this iffy master to Artisan) seems to have screwed up the 3:2 pull-down in transferring this to video (which runs about four frames faster per second than film, of course: 29.something-or-another compared to 24 fps). The film takes on a fuzzy quality which is not a lack of detail, but rather what looks like poor interlacing (I do not have a progressive display, so cannot comment on whether progressive playback helps the situation). This "poor interlacing" is, in fact, the 3:2 pull-down, which can be explored in detail by pausing the film just about anywhere, but in particular anywhere there is motion and a reasonable amount of production light. Frame advance from the pause and you'll see that every three frames look just fine, but are then followed by two where certain edges lose their resolution and become a pattern of lines (one black, the next white, the next black, etc.). The next three then look fine, followed by two "futzed" frames ... 3:2, repeatably, throughout the feature. A few sequences without motion look all right (peering closely in freeze frame will still reveal lines in eyelids and such), but in brightly lit scenes with motion, this is most evident. When playing the film back at normal speed, darker scenes fair the worst, where any spot of brightness (including the lighting on actors) tends to accentuate the "fuzzy" quality against dark backgrounds. Notice, for instance, the light fixture on the building behind Cary and Constance as they exit the club at the beginning of the film (the sequence in which they briefly speak with a milkman).

    This problem isn't new: watch the documentary on Universal's Rear Window, for instance, and while it looks just fine at full motion (perhaps because it's a newer source? Or perhaps because the compression is more sophisticated), pausing and advancing by frame reveals the same trouble: three good frames, two poor frames. Portions of Rear Window's documentary transfer seem to exhibit the trouble in every frame to some small extent, or fail to exhibit it at all, and this may account for why it isn't evident at full motion. Happily, Rear Window itself looks just fine and exhibits no such trouble. But in Topper's transfer, it's a precise 3:2 problem throughout, and is thus evident throughout the production. It's a trouble I've run across on a few public domain titles early in the format, and forgave at that point due to the newness of the technology, but from a relatively big label, such as Artisan, this late in the game ... quality control should be much better than this. I presume the fault lies foremost with Hallmark, as the transfer of Topper Returns, aside from its narrower range of contrast, looks much better and exhibits no 3:2 problems whatsoever. Hal Roach Studios isn't credited on the package, but their logo appears in front of the film itself, so this is clearly another video master from that company (or the same that was provided to Image, but re-encoded and thus lacking in any analog video errors -- tape "wrinkles" or skips that cause a thin horizontal distortion line in a couple of spots on the Image disc, and looks to be responsible for more of the same in Roan's Lonely Wives).

    So ... a disappointing effort from Hallmark on Topper, in spite of a pleasant contrast range and what would appear to be fine original film elements (which does not bode well for their long-rumored, upcoming Laurel and Hardy discs), and a reasonable, but unexceptional, effort from Hal Roach on Topper Returns. If this is, indeed, the same video master used on the Image disc, I'm probably mistaken in recollecting the contrast range as still poorer on Image's disc -- I last watched it years ago on a different television, so its quality, aside from video errors, is probably the same as the quality found here. Good, but nothing more, and certainly not bad, as I'd recollected. I've seen a great many silent film transfers, and early sound transfers, on disc in the time since I last viewed the Image Topper Returns, and what I see here on the Artisan disc is of an average quality to what I've seen with most visually unrestored B-pictures from 60+ years ago. Miles below WB's The Thin Man, but as good as or better than (certainly better in matters of frame damage) WB's Stagecoach, if that puts it at all into context.

    The sound quality on both Topper and Topper Returns, in restored 2.0 mono, is very good, and the difference between the restored and unrestored sound is most evident on Topper, where the unrestored track exhibits a great deal of hiss. My ear couldn't detect more than a (possible) boost in dynamic range on Topper Returns, but this may be due more to the 2.0 mono versus 1.0 mono comparison than actual improvements in fidelity. I only sampled the original mono for both films in one or two brief sections, so it's possible, as the disc suggests, that segments of particularly poor or missing sound have been corrected on both. I only wish the trouble that was given to the quality of sound had translated into the quality of video master provided for Topper. It should also be noted, for purists, that Topper's music cuts off a bit early at the end of the film (in the 2.0 restored track, at any rate; I didn't think to check the unrestored track), rather than playing out as I imagine it did in theatres.

    One further thing of note: it's unlikely Artisan (or at least the department responsible for writing the copy on disc inserts) is aware of Topper Takes a Trip, as their "Topper Trivia" page (the back cover of the insert) identifies Topper Returns as "the sequel to Topper made in 1941." Now, English professors will tell you this is perfectly correct, as only one sequel to Topper was made in 1941, and thus Topper Returns is the sequel to Topper made in 1941. But such wording, of course, makes it sound as if this is a direct sequel to the original, and it isn't. It's a direct sequel to Topper Takes a Trip, from 1939. Those thinking they're in store for fascinating behind-the-scenes information on the productions, beware: one bullet point on the brief trivia list for Topper informs us that the picture contains great big band music. [​IMG] A few of the points demonstrate a wee bit more research than that one, but not by much. The promise that the special effects in Topper were ground-breaking seems to ignore the use of double, triple, and even quadruple exposures in Sunrise ten years earlier, not to mention Universal's effects work on monster films from this vintage (it appears, from the clips I've run across, that many of the Invisible Man sequels from the 1940's used sophisticated prop and camera trickery, much more effectively than James Whale's original, but to cite something that predates Topper, one need only look to Death Takes a Holiday for rather fuzzy, but still impressive, transparency work), but ... I'm far from an expert, and perhaps the high quality of Topper's effects were something audiences hadn't quite seen before at the time. I'd have to review Universal's films, and A/B this with Sunrise and other late silent experiments, to determine just how accurate this claim really is. One way or the other, the effects work both here and in Topper Returns is truly first rate, and a delight to watch. Image quality degrades by perhaps a single generation for these optical composites and/or multiple exposures, but they're otherwise fairly seamless and quite fun. I'm still not sure how a scene in which Joan Blondell climbs into Topper's bed while invisible was accomplished in the sequel -- this would pass as good work today, though the visible wires that lift a gun out of a pocket at one point in the picture wouldn't. [​IMG]

    These are fun films, and the price here isn't bad (I love the cover art of both the case and the disc), but oh, how good these film elements of Topper could have easily looked with a better video master (simply eliminating the 3:2 pull-down errors and the MPEG digital error mentioned earlier, but otherwise appearing just as it does).

    As a post script, all reviews are only as good their equipment: I watched this in a completely dark room on a flat 32" Wega (anamorphic capable, though that's not applicable here), through component cables feeding off a Sony carousel. Sound was reproduced on a Pioneer Dolby Pro-Logic system hooked into five speakers (four full range and a center channel speaker). The Wega has been precisely calibrated in both Service and User Menus with Avia.

    And that's about it. [​IMG] The disc wasn't all that I had hoped, but it at least offers a watchable, marred transfer of Topper, and a good transfer of Topper Returns, all on a single disc for a slightly high, but acceptable, price.
     

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