Virtual Screening Room: The Duke is Tops (1938)

Streaming Online
Thursday, Jun 24, 2021 - 4:00pm to 5:30pm
black and white still image from the duke is tops

When Million Dollar Productions launched in 1937, the Atlanta Daily World ballyhooed that the new venture would marshal “unlimited capital” to “turn out first class pictures... for the entertainment and enlightenment of modern and discriminating Negro threatre-goers.” Million Dollar’s resources were, in actuality, something less than unlimited but the Daily World’s excitement was really inspired by company co-founder Ralph Cooper. The original master of ceremonies for the Apollo Theater, Cooper was then coming off the success of his (uncredited) directorial debut Dark Manhattan (1937) in which he also starred. Backed by his partners, white producers Leo and Harry Popkin, Cooper saw Million Dollar as a vehicle for his own career as well as for those of other African Americans working in front of and behind the camera. Cooper had learned filmmaking while under contract with 20th Century Fox so Hollywood was, for him, both competition and model. At Million Dollar that meant bringing as much polish as it could muster to popular genres, including gangster films and musicals.

In The Duke is Tops, Ralph Cooper plays Duke Davis, a charming songwriter who puts a young singer on the path from vaudeville to Broadway. The plot recalls A Star is Born—her career takes off as his stalls—only without the tragedy. Indeed, Cooper, in his element as a showman treading the boards, exudes a relentless optimism and ingenuity matched by a parade of “specialities'' that sparkle throughout, including Cats and The Fiddle, the Basin Street Boys, and dancer Willie Covan. For his ingenue, Cooper convinced Lena Horne to make her feature debut just four months after the birth of her first child and while she doesn’t yet exhibit the on-screen confidence she would a few years later in Cabin in the Sky (1943), Horne still smolders when performing “I Know You Remember” and “Don't Let Our Love Song Turn Into a Blues.” Breezy and buoyant—especially after Duke joins a travelling medicine show—the film is also fascinating for how it frames Black performers in relation to Black audiences which are represented on screen at every stop along Duke and Ethel’s criss-crossing trajectories.

The Archive is thrilled to present The Duke is Tops in a new digital scan with an introduction and post-screening conversation with film historian Miriam J. Petty, Associate Professor at Northwestern University and author of the award-winning study, Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood.

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black and white still image from the duke is tops