Mill Creek Musings: The Duke is Tops (1938)

Ethel Andrews (Lena Horne) is a talented singer. She has long collaborated with producer Duke Davis (Ralph Cooper), who is also her manager and  beau. Their current show is called “Sepia Scandals,” and at the latest performance, Ethel catches the eye of a couple of big-time show people from New York City.

Ethel gets discovered (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

Ethel gets discovered (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

It’s an exciting opportunity for Ethel, except for the fact that booking agent George Marshall (Monte Hawley) says that Duke won’t be able to come with her. She’s willing to give it all up and stay with him, until he tells her that he’s already sold her contract to Marshall and pocketed the profits.

Heartbroken, Ethel heads to the big city to become a star and put her life with Duke behind her. But her friend Ella knows the truth: that Duke intentionally made Ethel angry so she would be willing to leave him, for the good of her own career.

The Duke is Tops was directed by William Nolte and marked the screen debut of the very talented Lena Horne. With the popularity of two of Horne’s later films, Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, this film was re-issued under the title of The Bronze Venus.

Today, The Duke is Tops is probably most well-known for bringing Lena Horne to the big screen, but at the time of its release, Ralph Cooper was the film’s top-billed star. Cooper had previously starred in two gangster flicks — Dark Manhattan and Gangsters on the Loose — and would star in two more following his turn as Duke Davis. Gangsters on the Loose is now presumed lost, and Am I Guilty? (1940) seems very difficult to track down, if not impossible.

Duke travels with "Doc Dorando," selling elixir. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

Duke travels with “Doc Dorando,” selling elixir. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

This breaks my heart because I really liked Cooper’s performance in The Duke is Tops and would love to see more of his work. He has plenty of charisma here and, alongside Lena Horne, does a great job of building the romance between their characters. For the majority of the film, they’re separated, as Ethel pursues stage stardom and Duke travels the country with a medicine show. But in those early scenes before they split, and in later scenes where they’re reunited, the viewer believes in every second that Duke is completely in love with Ethel.

They make a terribly sweet pair. Horne’s inexperience with the movie camera shows a bit, but her scenes shared with Cooper are adorable, and of course her songs are delightful to listen to.

Duke’s devotion to his lady and his willingness to sacrifice his own happiness for her success are driving factors of the film’s story, but there’s plenty more going on. Duke’s adventures with the medicine show turn to mishap and comedy. And, of course, there are some wonderful musical numbers and dance sequences. Appearances are made by Basin Street Boys, Cat and the Fiddle, Willie Covan, and Rubberneck Holmes.

The balance between song-and-dance and story is quite nice. The Duke is Tops is still very much a feel-good flick packed with plenty of tunes, so if you’re looking for a complex drama about showbiz and its tendency to destroy relationships, look elsewhere. However, with so many special appearances and songs, I certainly expected the story to be much thinner.

Ethel and Duke share a squeeze. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

Ethel and Duke share a squeeze. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

I greatly enjoyed The Duke is Tops. Any fan of Lena Horne, forgotten-but-good flicks or classic films made outside of the major-studio Hollywood machine should not hesitate to tune in for this one! If you’re interested in watching this sweet musical romance, it appears in Mill Creek’s 50 Classic Musicals set and can also be viewed for free at the Internet Archive.

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