The Duke Is Tops

The Duke Is Tops is a 1938 American musical film released by Million Dollar Productions and directed by William Nolte. The film was later released in 1943 under the title The Bronze Venus, with Lena Horne given top billing. The film was one of a number of low-budgeted musicals (or "race movies") made in the 1930s and 1940s for the African-American market. The casts and production teams of these films were almost all black, and the music reflected current tastes in jazz and rhythm and blues.

The Duke Is Tops
The cover of a video-tape release. The film was also released as The Bronze Venus.
Directed byWilliam Nolte
Produced byLeo C. Popkin
Written byPhil Dunham
StarringRalph Cooper
Lena Horne
Music byHarvey Brooks
Ben Ellison
CinematographyRobert E. Cline
J. Henry Kruse
Edited byAlice Greenwood
Distributed byMillion Dollar Productions
Release date
  • June 8, 1938 (1938-06-08)
Running time
73 minutes
CountryUnited States

The Duke Is Tops features the film debut of singer Lena Horne, then just 20, who had yet to develop the smooth, classy style she would distinguish herself with in her later films for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Notably, she has a major acting role in this film, something that save for 1943's Cabin in the Sky, Stormy Weather and a few later films she would rarely enjoy. The original top-billed star, Ralph Cooper, was host of Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater for 50 years.[1] He also served as the movie's production manager.


Duke Davis (Cooper) is a stage-show promoter in love with Ethel Andrews (Horne), a popular singer in his company dubbed "the Bronze Venus". Duke finds out that big-time promoters from New York City want to propel Ethel into the big leagues, but Ethel, out of loyalty and love for Duke, refuses to leave his small-time show. Duke, in a selfless act, orchestrates a deception to force Ethel to leave his show in order to better her career. However, the loss of the Bronze Venus causes Duke's own career to collapse and he soon finds himself working on a travelling medicine show where he goes from town to town, introducing a series of specialty musical acts and helping to sell Doc Dorando's all-purpose elixir. But when he hears that Ethel's New York gig is a flop, Duke goes to New York, where he is reunited with her. Soon after, Duke combines his stage show, the medicine show and Ethel's singing into a top nightclub act.


  • Ralph Cooper – Duke Davis
  • Lena Horne – Ethel Andrews
  • Laurence Criner – Doc Dorando (credited as Lawrence Criner)
  • Monte Hawley – George Marshall
  • Neva Peoples – Ella
  • Vernon McCalla – Mason (credited as Vernon McCallum)
  • Edward Thompson – Ferdie Fenton
  • Johnny Taylor – Dippy, 'Prince Alakazoo'
  • Ray Martin – Joe
  • Guernsey Morrow – Ed. Lake (credited as Guersney Morrow)
  • Charles Hawkins – Sam, the Stage Manager (credited as Charlie Hawkins)

Speciality acts appearing throughout the film: Willie Covan, Basin Street Boys, Rubberneck Holmes, Cats and the Fiddle, Marie Bryant, and Swing Band Harlemania Orchestra.

Music and distribution

The movie includes several outstanding artists, including Lena Horne and the Cats and the Fiddle. Horne as Ethel sings the Harvey Brooks & Ben Ellison composition "I Know You Remember",[2] with lyrics apropos of the film, "You & I have made a small beginning..." Horne also sings "Don't Let Our Love Song Turn Me Blue", with a lyric that foreshadows one of her future great roles: "True love will guide us through stormy weather"; and she reprises "I Know You Remember". The Cats & the Fiddle sing "Killin' Jive." This is a great performance, four guys harmonizing on a very jumpin' good song. The Duke Is Tops has been released on DVD in North America. The film is in the public domain in America, and as such is available in multiple editions.


  1. Richard Corliss, "Top 25 Important Movies On Race", TIME, February 6, 2008.
  2. "I Know You Remember" sung by Lena Horne (video).
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