The Duke Is Tops

Release Date:  9/1/1938
Black & White
Genre:  Drama/Musical
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:; IMDB; Wikipedia; Photo Sources:;;





Year of Release: 1939
Genre: Crime/Drama
Rating: N/A
Runtime: 60 mins.
Black & White
Studio: Dixon R. Harwin Productions/Argus Pictures
Producer: Dixon R. Harwin/George Randol
Director: Arthur Dreifuss

Monte Hawley (Jim McCoy)
Jeni Le Gon (Nita Walker)
Eddie Thompson (Dude Markey)
Florence O’Brien (Sally)
Freddie Jackson (Tommy McCoy)
Maceo Sheffield (Murray Howard)
Buck Woods (Sharpie)
Vernon McCalla (Inspector)
Charles Gordon (Lanny)
F. E. Miller (Slim)
Shelton Brooks (Himself)
Charles Hawkins (Snively)


Murray Howard owns a nightclub where entertainer Nita Walker performs.  Although admired by Dude Markey, she is in love with Jim McCoy. 

Dude is interested in Nita

Sally is not interested in SnivelySnively, the club manager, in turn loves Sally, a cigarette girl, aspiring performer and Nita’s roommate. Sally, however, likes the penniless, Slim.

Dude brings Tommy in on the job

Dude and Howard offer Jim’s little brother, Tommy, a job on the condition that he ask no questions. Tommy had earlier rejected his brother’s offer of a Pullman job, despite it being a respectable position.  Tommy discovers that Dude is a criminal when he accompanies him on a safecracking job at a jewelry store that results in the murder of a night watchman. Dude brings the stolen jewels to Howard, who puts them in his safe as Dude secretly notes the combination. In the nightclub, Dude asks Snively to fix him up with Nita, who then directs her singing of “Gettin’ in Right with You” toward Jim. Nita sings to Jim 2

Dude becomes jealous, goes to Nita’s dressing room and when Jim enters, a fight ensues between the two men. The fracas is broken up by Lanny, a policeman. When Jim escorts Sally and Nita to their rooms, he finds Tommy waiting for him. An inspector arrives and tells them of the recent robbery and murder. Tommy gets nervous and Jim tells him not to look so worried as he was not involved.

the guys play pokerLater, Jim joins Dude and some others in a poker game. Dude excuses himself from the game, goes to Howard’s office and removes the jewels from the safe. Later Dude accuses Jim in front of Howard of robbing the safe, having previously dropped a slip of paper with the combination into Jim’s pocket. Jim escapes and goes to Nita’s. He notices the number 271 on the back of the piece of paper that holds the safe’s combination and asks Slim to find out if it is someone’s “lucky” number. Nita gives Jim the gun she found in her dressing room

Meanwhile, Nita has found Dude’s gun in her dressing room with three cartridges missing and Jim asks Nita to lead Dude on until he can prove that Dude was the one who actually stole the jewels from Howard’s safe. Howard is unhappy that Jim got away, and Dude suggests they bring in Tommy instead. Later Dude tries to convince Nita to elope with him and she tells him to come by her place later and she will give him her answer then. Slim has found out that Dude was playing the number 271, and Nita tells Howard.

Howard is shotDude overhears and shoots Howard through the window and Tommy is blamed. That night, Jim catches Dude picking up the diamonds where he’d previously hidden them.

Dude goes to Nita’s and pulls a gun on her and Sally because he knows it was Nita who told Howard that Dude robbed the safe. Jim arrives and he and Dude fight. Lanny barges in and Dude is shot.Jim and Dude fight at Nita's

With the reward money for the recovery of the jewels, Jim becomes the new owner of the nightclub, which clears the way for his marriage to Nita.  Slim becomes the new club manager, while Sally becomes the new entertainer.Jim owns the club and Sally gets her big breakNotes

The file for the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library contains a letter dated October 19, 1939, in which the PCA warned producer D. R. Harwin to avoid filming the “bump and kootch movements” in the dance sequence, and to remove any sexual suggestiveness in the dialogue between “Dude” and “Sharpie.” In addition, the PCA urged the producer to “minimize the showing of the slot machines… details of the jewelry store break-in … and the killing of policemen by criminals.”

Soundtrack Titles
Hole in the Wall (written and Performed by Shelton Brooks)
Jitterbugs Cuttin’ Rugs (written by Shelton Brooks)
Gettin’ in Right with You (written by Peter Tinturin and Harry Tobias; performed by Jeni Le Gon)