Thursday, January 16, 2014

Movie of the Week: "The Duke is Tops" (Review)

The Duke is Tops was the featured movie for the week of January 6-13

"A theatrical producer (Duke Davis--played by Ralph Cooper) puts aside his own success to boost the career of a talented singer (Ethel Andrews--played by Lena Horne)."--[IMDb]


The Duke is Tops is sort of an A Star is Born-esque movie, but with a twist--we see the story from the man's point of view. In fact, it's actually a very sweet movie that (unlike A Star is Born), ends on a happy note. However, I really did struggle watching this movie...

A couple of years ago, I borrowed a "Harlem Double Feature" DVD from my school's library. The DVD had Hi-De-Ho (starring Cab Calloway) and The Duke is Tops. My roommate and I invested deep interest in Hi-De-Ho and found it to be quite entertaining and when it was over, we popped The Duke is Tops in. Next thing I knew, we were having a conversation about God knows what and suddenly realized that a movie was playing. Well, this sort of thing happened again as I watched it by myself...



As I stated before, it was very hard for me to watch this movie. The pace was slow and the performances (both musical and acting) were pretty bland. Things didn't start picking up until about...I'll say late in the second act (about forty-fifty minutes into the movie) and by that time, it was too late--I was already anxious for the movie to end. As I stated before, it's an A Star is Born kind of plot--entertainment man's career is failing, his significant other's is blossoming, he makes way for her, but unlike Star and movies like it, we watch the story unfold from the man's point of view, and again, the two characters actually live happily ever after.


Like everything else, the look of this movie was simple. No camera tricks, which I didn't expect, anyway; neither set nor costume design was particularly extravagant, but I didn't look at this as a bad thing--in fact, I thought it made the movie more realistic. However, just a little splash throughout (we don't get any splashiness until the last ten-fifteen minutes) probably would have kept me from feeling like I was watching paint dry. 


From NNDB, Ralph Cooper

I'd heard the name of Ralph Cooper before and prior to watching The Duke is Tops for review purposes, I'd known him as "the man who played in The Duke is Tops". No, no, no, Adrienne:

Ralph Cooper, an actor and producer, started the original Harlem Amateur Hour in April 1933 at Frank Schiffman’s Lafayette Theater. In 1934, Cooper began the Wednesday Amateur Night at Sidney Cohen and Morris Sussman’s 125th Street Apollo Theatre. Cooper’s Amateur Night in Harlem radio shows were broadcast live from the Apollo over WMCA and carried on a national network of 21 stations. When Amateur Night at the Apollo debuted in 1934, it quickly became the leading showcase for many young, talented, new performers such as a 15-year-old Ella Fitzgerald, who went on to become one of the first Amateur Night winners. [Apollo Theater]

Also, according to Wikipedia (which cites Donald Bogle's Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films), Mr. Cooper founded Million Dollar Productions (which produced The Duke is Tops, of course) with actor George Randol and producers Harry and Leo Popkin. Mr. Cooper was more than just a legendary (and unsung) entertainer, he was a PIONEER; and ironically, he was born on this day in 1908. I bow to Mr. Cooper's greatness.

Ralph Cooper played the lead role of Duke Davis (he was also the co-writer and uncredited co-director of the flm). As the movie went on, it became clear to me that Mr. Cooper was more of a stage performer than a screen actor. Like most of the other actors, he recited his lines sort of cautiously--a bit dry. However, he began to pick things up in the middle of the movie: in scenes where he stood before various crowds as a seller of Doc Dorando's "universal elixir" (the old "all-healing bottle of medicine" salesman we've seen a hundred times before). Once he was off of that platform selling that elixir, it was back to lifeless script-reading. The liveliness returns near the end as his character leads a grand nightclub revue. 

I can't say that cameras made Mr. Cooper nervous (because I really don't know if they did), but I can say that his best moments in Duke were moments where he was standing on something and looking out at a crowd.


Lena Horne in 1941 (by Carl Van Vechten)

Ms. Lena Horne came a long way from her screen debut. As the promising songstress, Ethel Andrews, she too was reciting lines as though she wanted to put us all to sleep, but without a doubt, that unmistakable voice of hers made up for the acting performance.

In case you were wondering why the movie poster above says The Bronze Venus and not "The Duke is Tops", after the success of Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, this movie was re-released as The Bronze Venus with Lena Horne's named above the title. It was not only a great way to keep the Lena Horne buzz a-buzzin', but I assume that it also may have brought some good to Million Dollar Productions.

Other Performances

Laurence Criner (born John Lawrence, sometimes credited as "Lawrence" Criner) gave the best acting performance as Doc Dorando--a has-been vaudeville producer, now salesman of the "miracle medicine". Mr. Criner was actually one of the more experienced screen actors in the film, so I wasn't too surprised by his performance. He also starred in Miracle in Harlem and King of the Zombies--two films I've reviewed before.

Screenshot of Laurence Criner (left) with Ralph Cooper

Neva Peoples (as Ethel's friend, Ella) also gave a good acting performance. She was in about three or four scenes and to be honest, I found her to be the most memorable character. The movie definitely could have used a little bit more Neva/Ella. 

Neva Peoples (left) with Lena Horne

The musical/dance performances were just 'okay'. The best ones came from Rubberneck Holmes--an entertainer who certainly lived up to his name--and the Cats and the Fiddle--a group who never disappoints. Again, everybody else was okay. No standout acts in my opinion.


I wouldn't dissuade anyone from watching this movie. As I always say when it comes to race movies, it's good to watch for historical purposes. Today (and probably since it's 1940s re-release), it is mainly referred to as "Lena Horne's screen debut" and that distinction alone is probably what draws most of its viewers. However, as much as I love Lena Horne (and race movies), unless you paid me, I wouldn't watch this movie again.

See it for yourself!

Click here to watch The Duke is Tops on The Riverbends Channel on Youtube!


Unless noted otherwise, the images used in this post were obtained from Wikipedia. They are being used for informational purposes only. If the rightful owner(s) of any of these photos wishes to have them removed, please contact me, and I will do so immediately. 



Also, this is the last (planned) type review for People of Color in Classic Film! 

My video review for Buck Benny Rides Again (1940) will be coming soon!!!

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