Written by Kami at Classic Couple
The Duke Is Tops (1938) is an American musical film released by Million Dollar Productions, a production company noted for advancing Black filmmaking in the late 1930s. Ralph Cooper, one of the three heads of Million Dollar Productions, scripted, co-directed and starred in the film.
The Duke Is Tops is a B-musical featuring a mostly all-Black cast. In film history, it is considered a “race film” due to its casting as a vehicle for Black performers and its target market of Black filmgoers. Reportedly made in only ten days, none of the cast members were paid for their work as Ralph Cooper ran out of money during production. This included then 20-year-old Lena Horne who made her first film performance in The Duke Is Tops. Horne is given top billing in the movie credits and stars as leading lady opposite Cooper.
Ralph Cooper is best remembered as the original master of ceremonies and founder in 1935 of amateur night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York City, a role he passed on to his son in 1986. A consummate promoter of Black entertainers, Cooper wrote, produced, directed, and acted in 10 films for Million Dollar Productions, casting in his films many of the best variety act performers of the day.
The plot of The Duke Is Tops reflects what Cooper himself knew of the entertainment business in the 1930s. No longer in its heyday, Vaudeville was on the decline and acts of the prior decades found themselves struggling to perform in theaters, nightclubs and sideshow circuits, eking out a living by traveling from town to town.
Cooper plays Duke Davis a stage-show promoter in love with Ethel Andrews played by Lena Horne. Ethel is a popular singer in Duke’s variety act touring the South. The show is visited by big-time promoters from New York who want to contract with Ethel, known as “the Bronze Venus.” Standing in the way is Ethel’s contract with Duke. Ever loyal, she refuses to leave the small-time performing circuit until Duke fakes a lucrative buyout of her contract to propel her to pursue her career without him. As Ethel makes her way to the big city believing her star is on the rise, Duke’s fortune changes. Soon he’s working on a medicine sideshow circuit, peddling cures and entertaining passersby with down-on-their-luck variety acts.
Before long, Duke learns that Ethel’s show in New York is a flop. The girl everyone hoped would be a star is only viewed as a “specialty act.” Duke travels to New York and creates a new show for Ethel to star in to return their good fortune in a top nightclub act.
The Duke Is Tops storyline mirrors the truth of the entertainment industry for Black performers—one evidenced in Lena Horne’s own career. Like her character Ethel, she appeared as a specialty act for years, with walk-on singing parts in films from 1942-1956.
In 1943, bolstered by several film appearances and a long booking at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel, Horne achieved the spotlight and was signed to a seven-year contract with MGM. The Duke Is Tops was re-released the same year under a new title—The Bronze Venus—to capitalize on her fame.
Other than larger appearances in Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, both released in 1943, most of Horne’s film appearances were standalone sequences with no relation to the film’s storyline where she would perform a single song. Ensuring these sequences were not essential to the plot, this allowed filmmakers to edit Horne’s performances out of the films so they could be shown in theaters that would not show films with Black performers. Indeed, just as Ethel is labeled a specialty act in The Duke Is Tops, Horne was treated as a specialty act throughout her remaining film career.
The Duke Is Tops is essential viewing as the only film featuring Lena Horne in a leading role. It is equally important as a chronicle of what life was like for Black performers. As a film about the entertainment business through the work of a variety show producer, it includes within it a variety show on par with other films of the times. One could say that The Duke Is Tops serves as a specialty act showcase. Through the various Duke-produced shows in the film, a variety of talented acts are featured. The Duke Is Tops presents a unique opportunity to see the performances of these Black artists captured on film...
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Then, check out Lena Horne in The Duke is Tops (1938), now available to stream on The Film Detective app.