By Ed Garea
The Duke is Tops (Million Dollar Productions, 1938) – Directors: William L. Nolte, Ralph Cooper (uncredited). Writers: Phil Dunham & Ralph Cooper. Stars: Ralph Cooper, Lena Horne, Laurence Criner, Monte Hawley, Willie Covan, Neva Peoples, Vernon McCalla, Edward Thompson, Johnny Taylor, Ferdie Fenton, Ray Martin, Guernsey Morrow, Charles Hawkins, Basin Street Boys, Rubberneck Holmes, & Cats and the Fiddle. B&W, 73 minutes.
“Race films.” What an ugly term. But then it was an ugly period in America. There was the Depression, which despite massive government intervention, continued to plague American life. And on the social front, there was the treatment of the African-American, who benefited little in the years since slavery was abolished. One might say he moved up from being 3/5 of a person to being a second-class citizen. In many areas of the country, African-Americans could not vote and Jim Crow ruled, which made for a strictly segregated society, especially in the South, where a system of apartheid was in force.
In the South, to comply with the laws enforcing segregation, race films were shown at specially designated theaters. Though cities in the North were not formally segregated, race movies were shown in theaters located in black neighborhoods. Many large northern theaters that did show race movies usually showed them during matinees or at midnight showings.
While some race films were produced by African-American companies – most notably the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which existed from 1916 to 1921, and Oscar Micheaux’s Michael Film Corporation, which was based out of Chicago and lasted from 1921 to 1940 – most were financed and produced by white-owned companies outside the Hollywood mainstream, such as brothers Leo and Harry Popkin and entrepreneur Alfred Sack, a Jewish Texan, who headed Sack Amusement Enterprises out of Dallas. Although the financing was white, were there many instances of the product being written and directed by black talent such as Ralph Cooper (who originated the famous “Amateur Night” at the Apollo Theater in Harlem back in 1937) and Spencer Williams, who often starred in front of the camera as well. The Duke is Tops is a product of Million Dollar Productions, a company founded in 1937 by Ralph Cooper and actor George Randol with the financial backing of Leo and Harry Popkin. Astor Pictures, a distribution outfit founded and headed by Robert M. Savini, also occasionally produced race movies, most notably starring entertainer Louis Jourdan.
Most of the films were produced in northern cities and reflected the themes of middle-class urban values, industriousness, the “improvement” of African Americans, the supposed tension between educated and uneducated blacks and the tragic consequences in store for those who resisted liberal capitalist values. But these weren’t the only themes. There was a wide variety of movies: Westerns, musicals, dramas, thrillers, and comedies. What the audience didn’t see in these films were explicit depictions of poverty, ghettos, social decay and crime. If these themes appeared at all, they were often shunted to the background or used as a plot device, such as what happened with crime, which never went unpunished.
The films also assiduously avoided the popular stock African-American found in mainstream Hollywood productions, or else relegated these sort of characters to mere supporting roles or in the role of villain.
Race films began their decline in the late ‘40s, when the participation of African-Americans in World War II helped lead to starring roles for African-American actors in several major Hollywood productions, such as Pinky (1949) with Ethel Waters, Home of the Brave (1949) with James Edwards, and No Way Out (1950), the film debut of Sidney Poitier. It is said the last race film was a 1954 adventure shot in Key West, Fla., called Carib Gold.
The Duke is Tops is a good example of the backstage musical. Duke Davis (Cooper) is the beau and manager of the extraordinarily talented Ethel Andrews (Horne). Duke is also the producer of their latest show, called “Sepia Scandals,” which is on tour in small towns. One night, George Marshall (Hawley), a New York booking agent, catches the show and is bowled over by Ethel. He offers her a contract to come to New York, where her talent will be showcased in a major venue. There is one stipulation: Duke cannot accompany her. Duke is anguished by the decision, but eventually decides to let her go to New York, as it’s the best thing for her and her career. Ethel is also conflicted over leaving Duke and rejects Marshall’s offer. But Duke, knowing the New York offer is in her best interests, coldly tells her that he has sold her contract to Marshall and pocketed the profit. Ethel, heartbroken, changes her mind and goes with Marshall to New York.
Later, Ethel's friend Ella (Peoples) 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. Duke has Ella promise to keep her discovery a secret from Ethel.
While Ethel gets off to a great start in New York, Duke finds himself destitute. He turns to booking agent Ed Lake (Morrow) to secure backing for his vaudeville show. But Lake turns Duke down flat. In his view, vaudeville is dead. Duke later convinces theater owner Mr. Mason (McCalla), who had hosted his earlier show, to produce his new show, called “The Mobile Merry Makers.” The show is a flop and Duke ends up supporting himself by shilling as a barker for Doc Dorando's (Criner) traveling medicine show.
Duke injects some much-needed showmanship into Dorando's pitch and, along with Dippy (Taylor), an unemployed property man, they hit the road hawking “Doc Dorando's Universal Elixir.” As the show catches on with audiences, Duke becomes Doc's partner with an elaborate trailer and a company of entertainers, including Willie Covans, the Basin Street Boys, The Cats and the Fiddle, "Rubberneck" Holmes and Joe Stevenson. The show becomes a hit and the money starts rolling in.
Meanwhile, a year has passed. 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 (Thompson), the club owner who produced Ethel’s show. Fenton has taken the blame for rushing Ethel's career and thus causing her failure. Duke gets Fenton to agree to produce a new show that he will create, bringing in his specialty acts from the medicine show, and he and Ethel appear on stage together, reunited at last.
Most of the film’s acting is predictably stiff, but it has all the joys of a musical with several specialty acts not usually seen in mainstream Hollywood films, such as The Basin Street Boys (who had a long recording career highlighted by the postwar hit “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman”), Cat and the Fiddle, Willie Covan, and especially the amazing “Rubberneck Holmes.”
Shooting on The Duke Is Tops, scheduled for 10 days, ran into a major glitch when the producers ran out of money to pay the cast. Horne's husband at the time, Louis Jordan (to whom she was married from 1937 to 1944), wanted her to leave. However, she refused, partly from the show business ethic that performers never abandon a show, but also because there were so few roles for blacks even in low-budget films. She wasn’t alone. None of the other actors dropped out either and the film still finished on time. When the film made its Pittsburgh premiere at an NAACP benefit, Jordan wouldn’t allow his wife to attend.
The Duke is Tops is best known today as the film debut of Lena Horne, but at its time of release, Ralph Cooper was top billed. Cooper, known as “the Dark Gable,” started his movie career in 1936 with 20th Century Fox, playing a supporting character named Ali in the Warner Baxter drama White Hunter. Surveying the current Hollywood landscape, Cooper realized that the role of Ali would probably be the best offered him if he stayed in Hollywood. He decided to take his chances in the low-budget world of African-American cinema while keeping his regular job as an emcee, singer and dancer on the club circuit. During the course of his all-too short movie career (only seven films) he played gangsters in Dark Manhattan (1937), Gangsters on the Loose (1937) and Gang War (1940). His final role was as an idealistic doctor in Harlem who becomes involved with gangsters in Am I Guilty? (1940). The Duke is Tops was the only movie to offer him a multi-talented platform and he took full advantage, establishing a good chemistry with leading lady Horne.
As noted, this was Horne’s first film. Her acting is a bit wooden and the low-budget sound system does little justice to her rich singing voice. After filming ended, she returned to the world of the clubs. While performing at the Little Troc on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip, she was discovered by MGM scouts and signed to a long-term contract, the first black performer to do so, and made her Hollywood debut in 1942’s Panama Hattie, staring Ann Sothern and Red Skelton. While under contract, however, she had only two starring roles, in Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather (under loan to Fox), both in 1943 and both were aimed at African-American audiences.
Most of her appearances were as stand alone segments in musicals where her footage could be edited out for Southern audiences. She lobbied for the role of Julie LaVerne in MGM’s 1951 remake of Show Boat, but lost out to good friend Ava Gardner, a victim of the Production Code, which forbade interracial relationships. Increasingly disenchanted with Hollywood, she made only two films in the ‘50s: The Duchess of Idaho (1954), which was also Eleanor Powell’s final film, and Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956). She also found herself blacklisted in Hollywood for affiliations with Communist-backed groups, which she later disavowed. She concentrated instead on her singing and recording career, becoming a frequent guest on TV variety shows.
In 1981, she signed for a four-week engagement at New York’s Nederlander Theatre. The show was such a success that it was extended to a full year run as Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, for which she received a special Tony Award. The show toured the U.S., Canada and Europe until 1984. Active almost until the end, she died on May 9, 2010, in New York City. Her funeral held at St. Ignatius Loyola Church, attracted thousands, including Leontyne Price, Dionne Warwick, Jessye Norman, Liza Minnelli, Chita Rivers, Lauren Bacall, Robert Osborne, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll and Chita Rivera.
After Lena Horne signed with MGM, The Duke is Tops was re-released as The Bronze Venus with Horne being top-billed and Cooper’s name appearing in smaller type below.
Director William Nolte enjoyed a long career as a second unit, or assistant, director, mainly in the world of Westerns. One of his last assignments was as the assistant director on Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster (1955).