Release Date: 9/1/1938
Black & White
Directors: William Nolte, Ralph Cooper (uncredited)
Studio(s): Million Dollar Productions, Million Dollar Productions, Norman Distributing Company
Running Time: 72 mins.
Cast: Ralph Cooper (Duke Davis), Lena Horne (Ethel Andrews), Laurence Criner (Doc Dorando), Monte Hawley (George Marshall), Neva Peoples (Ella), Vernon McCallum (Mason), Edward Thompson (Ferdie Fenton), Johnny Taylor (Dippy, ‘Prince Alakazoo’), Ray Martin (Joe), Guernsey Morrow (Ed Lake), Charlie Hawkins (Sam, the Stage Manager).
Details: A producer’s romance with his star ends when the latter is offered a better job in New York.
Story: Duke Davis, singer Ethel Andrew’s sweetheart, manager, and producer, finds himself in a dilemma when George Marshall, a New York booking agent, offers Ethel an opportunity to leave the show “Sepia Scandals,” which is touring small towns, for New York City. Because Marshall has stipulated that Ethel must go without Duke, Duke anguishes over whether to encourage her departure, but he eventually consents to it when Marshall promises to launch her career. Ethel initially rejects Marshall’s offer when she realizes that she will be separated from Duke, but when Duke tells her that he has sold their contract for a personal profit, she is heartbroken and changes her mind. Later, Ethel’s friend Ella discovers that Duke, knowing that Ethel would never leave him willingly, intentionally angered her in order to force her to do what he thought was best for her. Ella agrees to keep his good motives a secret from Ethel.
While Ethel’s New York stint gets off to a successful start, Duke finds himself destitute and desperately seeks backing for his vaudeville show from booking agent Ed Lake. Lake, however, says that vaudeville is dead and rejects Duke’s proposal. Although Duke later convinces Mr. Mason to produce his new show, the show is a failure and Duke winds up working as a barker for Doc Dorando’s traveling medicine show. Duke injects some much-needed showmanship into Dorando’s pitch and, along with Dippy, an unemployed property man, they go on the road with their product, “Doc Dorando’s Universal Elixir.”
A year passes then one day, while listening to the radio, Duke hears that a show in which Ethel was appearing has flopped and he rushes to New York to be with her. Ella tells Ethel the truth about Duke, and when Duke arrives in New York, he meets with Ferdie Fenton, producer and club owner, who has been blamed for rushing Ethel’s career and causing her failure. Duke soon secures permission from Fenton to create a new show and he and Ethel appear on stage together, reunited at last.
Notes: The Duke Is Tops marked the film debut of Lena Horne, then just 20 years old, who had yet to develop the smooth, classy style she would distinguish herself with in her later films. A Variety reviewer called her “a rather inept actress, but something to look at and hear.” A modern source claims that Lena Horne replaced Nina Mae McKinney as the female lead in the middle of filming when McKinney became ill. Modern sources also note that the film was shot on a shoestring budget in ten days, and that Horne’s husband refused to let her attend the NAACP charity premiere of the film in Pittsburgh, PA because she was never paid for her work in the picture.
The Duke Is Tops was re-released in 1944 as The Bronze Venus, with Lena Horne’s name appearing above the title. Sources: tcm.com; IMDB; Wikipedia; Photo Sources: Daarac.org; entertainmenttime.com; moviesfortheblind.com.