The Duke Is Tops
76 minutes / All ages / 1938 / United States of America / Average:
A producer's attempts to boost a singer's career.
"The Duke Is Tops" marks the debut of the legendary Lena Horne. She was twenty when she starred in this film as Ethel Andrews, an up and coming Jazz singer. It was one of her few starring roles: ironically, as her popularity rose and she became bankable in bigger and bigger films, the size of her roles shrank because the blockbuster musicals were marketed to white audiences. In many of her later movies, in fact, her appearance was limited to a standalone musical number—standalone to make it easier for Southern distributors to excise it from the film for Jim Crow audiences.
The male lead in "The Duke Is Tops" is Ralph Cooper, who had recently created Amateur Night at the Apollo, which he hosted for 50 years.
As a dramatic film, the plot of "The Duke Is Tops" (Ralph and Ethel and their changing musical fortunes; the mutual sacrifices to further one another’s career) is a bit thin. But this hardly matters: the film’s barely hidden agenda is as a vehicle for performances by popular Jazz artists of the day, including several wonderful numbers by Lena Horne that serve as a sad reminder of what future audiences would lose to prejudice and marketing temerity.