Classic Couple welcomes guest blogger Sharon Walters, sharing her reflections on The Duke Is Tops (1938)
It is Monday morning, and birds are singing. Yes, a beautiful sunny day and I remembered I had the next few days to myself. What better time to watch an old-time movie called The Duke is Tops. Other than a friendly discussion of the film the night before in a movie club—with passion and exuberance—I might add, I had never heard of it. Decision made, I poured myself a cup of coffee in my favorite cup and headed into the movie room.
The film opens with a truck rolling into town and on the side of the truck is a painted sign “Sepia Scandals” and a man giving out flyers for an upcoming show. It was about 20 minutes in that I decided to just roll with movie. I was loving it! I lost myself to it.
Other than Lena Horne, I did not know about any other performer in the film. Let me start with Lena Horne. Classy, stunningly beautiful and that smile! And her dreamy sultry voice that pulls you into her world. Twenty years old at the time, this is the only film featuring her in a leading role. To see Miss Horne in her first film was special.
Ralph Cooper plays Duke Davis a stage show writer-producer who loves and works to promote Ethel Andrews played by Miss Horne. They are a team; they love and trust each other. After Duke talks with two New York promoters and they tell him that they only want Ethel as a performer billed as “the Bronze Venus,” he realizes he cannot stand in the way of her success. I found myself becoming very sentimental and nostalgia took over as the selfless love story plot was revealed.
Watching the film, I was wowed by the specialty acts such as Rubberneck Jones. This man could do it all. I was certainly feeling those moves and laughing out loud watching him take those taps, move to the syncopated beat, and then twist his shoulders and head around. I was mesmerized. Other acts featured included Willie Covan tap dancer extraordinaire, Basin Street Boys, Cats and the Fiddle.
The film transported me to the past. I do not remember a lot about my Grandfather except he lived downstairs in our house in Jersey. My Mother would say because “everyone he knows is gone” it would be too lonely for him to stay in the city. He had a gravelly voice and was a very heavy smoker. My family said he loved to talk about the theatre willingly telling his favorites stories about all the vaudevillians he knew. He would say if he had to, he could sing and dance with the best of them. He worked behind the curtain in burlesque houses and one of his jobs was to keep the ladies zipped up before curtain time. He would say, “I seen ‘em all.” I know he would have loved all the chorus dancers singing Blackberry Baby in The Duke Is Tops!
Yes, this B movie musical had my heart. I was happily breathing it in, laughing out loud especially when Duke joins the Doc Durando medicine show. When Doc sits on his cat and he jumps, I jumped! When his cat jumps off the top of the wagon and Doc’s wig of full hair flies off his head right after Duke has claimed the elixir miraculously grew his hair back, I laughed out loud.
Isn’t it funny that there are moments in film that can conjure our younger days? Way back in my memory I could hear my Mother singing old songs such as Ragtime Cowboy Joe or Alexanders Rag Time Band. She would sing songs that I never heard of and teach me and my three older sisters how to dance and harmonize like the Andrew Sisters with that: beat me-daddy eight to the bar shoulder, arm and hand tilt. There were some good times, and I realize now it was the fabric of her generation. I miss those special and brief moments.
Lena’s song “I Know You Remember” was the lead song in this movie, but I am taken with the song called “Don’t Let Our Love Song Turn into a Blues.” In this song there is a line that says “True love will guide us through stormy weather.” How could she know that one day those two words would be her trademark song?
When the movie was over, I cried. I cried for all the Black entertainers and their struggles with oppression, and their talents not receiving the spotlight they deserved. It was a perfect day started by a small 1938 musical made with a mostly Black cast of talent. My day was filled with gratefulness that in our time there we are seeing real change for Black people and people of color. Just grateful.
By the way, Lena Horne and I share the same birthday – June 30th. I never knew that until today. Now that I do, I will always think of her on that day and raise a glass of wine to Miss Horne and quietly thank her for her bravery to never give up her career, being a dedicated Civil Rights Activist and sharing her personal losses and deep wounds that controlled her emotions for decades
Oh, and about that cup of coffee, I forgot all about it until later in the evening. My wish for anyone that may be reading this; that you have an unexpectedly fulfilling day soon enjoying a new experience.