The Duke Is Tops features the film debut of singer Lena Horne, then just 20, who had yet to develop the smooth, classy style she would distinguish herself with in her later films for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Notably, Horne has a major acting role in this film, something that save for 1943’s Cabin in the Sky, Stormy Weather and a few later films, she would rarely enjoy. The original top billed star, Ralph Cooper, was host of Amateur Night at the Apollo Theatre for 50 years. He also served as the movie’s production manager.
Duke Davis (Cooper) is a stage show promoter in love with Ethel Andrews (Horne), a popular singer in his company dubbed “the Bronze Venus”. Duke finds out that big-time promoters from New York City want to propel Ethel into the big leagues, but Ethel, out of loyalty and love for Duke, refuses to leave his small-time show. Duke, in a selfless act, orchestrates a deception to force Ethel to leave his show in order to better her career. However, the loss of the Bronze Venus causes Duke’s own career to collapse and he soon finds himself working on a travelling medicine show where he goes from town to town, introducing a series of specialty musical acts and helping to sell Doc Dorando’s all-purpose elixir. But when he hears that Ethel’s New York gig is a flop, Duke goes to New York where he is reunited with her. Soon after, Duke combines his stage show, the medicine show and Ethel’s singing into a top nightclub act.
Music and Distribution
The movie includes several outstanding artists, including Lena Horne and the Cats and the Fiddle. Lena Horne as Ethel sings the Harvey Brooks & Ben Ellison composition “I Know You Remember”, with lyrics apropos of the film, “You & I have made a small beginning…” Lena also sings “Don’t Let Our Love Song Turn Me Blue” with a lyric that foreshadows one of her future great roles: “True love will guide us through stormy weather.” And she reprises “I Know You Remember.” The Cats & the Fiddle sing “Killin’ Jive.” This is a great performance, four guys harmonizing on a very jumpin’ good song. The Duke Is Tops has been released on DVD in North America. The film is in the public domain in America, and as such is available in multiple editions.
By William Nolte (YouTube) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons