The Duncan Sisters

duncans06During the great Vaudeville era of the 1910s and 1920s there were few acts bigger than the Duncan Sisters. Vivian (1897-1986) and Rosetta (1894-1959) topped the bill in an act that included singing, dancing, and broad comedy. They were a triple threat times two. The sisters hit the big time, playing the major Vaudeville circuits and of course Broadway. They started on the stage in 1911 in a “kiddie review” and by 1920 they were headliners. In an era when stage stars were among the biggest names in show business, the Duncan Sisters ranked right up there with Eddie Cantor, Burns and Allen, Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, Jack Benny, W.C. Fields, Marie Dressler, Fanny Brice, Marilyn Miller, Ed Wynn, Frances Williams, and the Seven Little Foys. The sisters even worked for legendary producer Florenz Ziegfeld, appearing in his 1928 edition of Midnight Frolics.

Their biggest stage success, however, was in a rollicking musical version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin entitled Topsy and Eva, with Vivian playing Little Eva and Rosetta (in blackface) playing Topsy. The play was very popular. After long engagements in Los Angeles and San Francisco, it ran for almost a year in Chicago, played on Broadway for about four months and then went on the road for a national tour through 1926. They revived the show twice in the 30s, with new songs, again in 1942, and kept performing as Topsy and Eva well into the 1950s! Rosetta once claimed that by 1927, they had already played the roles 1872 times.

This show was such a success that in 1927 Hollywood beckoned and the sisters made a feature-length film based on the play. But after The Jazz Singer electrified audiences in October 1927 with songs and talking sequences, the studios all rushed musicals into production. The sisters missed their chance of mounting Topsy and Eva as a talkie. An archival print exists in the Library of Congress, but the film will probably never again see the light of day.

Topsy and Eva (1927)
The film was a notorious flop (a silent film based on a stage musical). It might have been a hit if the timing had been a little better, but the film was notable for being an ill-conceived mess from the very beginning. A director named Del Lord started the film but clashed with Rosetta, who apparently was the driving force in the sister act and who had very definite ideas about how the material should be presented, even though it was her first feature film. The production was instantly over budget and behind schedule. But because the Duncan Sisters had starred and toured in the play for years they were adamant about how it should be done. Lois Weber was approached to replace Lord but refused because of the racial material. Finally, and of ALL people, the great D.W. Griffith was brought in to clean up the mess. It has been said that Griffith’s reputation as a racist is actually based on this film and not The Birth of a Nation. But all Griffith did was yeoman work: he finished it off and edited the material. Even with all these attempts to save it, the film was a flop anyway. Without the songs to sing the sisters lost a lot of their appeal, and a filmed musical without the music didn’t leave much.

Plus in 1927 Universal released its silent version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. So oddly, 60 years after the Civil War, Hollywood was awash in dueling Topsies. This film exists and is surprisingly faithful to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s beloved novel, which was the biggest selling book, behind the Bible, of the 19th century.110V MIG welder comparison

Rosetta Duncan relished playing Topsy and modeled her character on the then popular conception of Topsy, which was based on decades of productions of Stowe’s book in the form of melodramatic plays. Mona Ray in turn patterned her version of Topsy in the Universal version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on Rosetta Duncan’s stage characterization. By the 1920s and 30s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was as well known as any other story of Americana. Even the Little Rascals (Our Gang) did a version of it in one of their Hal Roach shorts.

It is interesting that Topsy and Eva, infamous for being a huge flop, its intake barely covering its production costs (it cost $340,000 and earned $353,000)?could have involved so many big names and be so influential. And it’s interesting to surmise what could have been if Topsy and Eva had been made as a talkie.

But after the success of The Jazz Singer, Hollywood was anxious to sign the big names of Broadway and vaudeville for musicals. When The Broadway Melody was being planned as MGM’s first all-talking musical, the Duncan Sisters were at the top of the list despite the debacle of Topsy and Eva. The story of two sisters trying to make the big-time on Broadway was a perfect vehicle for Vaudeville’s reigning sister act. But the sister act was booked solid and they couldn’t make the film. MGM went ahead with the film and hired Bessie Love and Anita Page to star along with Charles King. They basically played a version of the Duncan Sisters, and in a funny moment even mention the sisters when Page expresses concern about making it on Broadway. Love responds, “What did the Duncan’s have when they hit Times Square?” Love goes on to brag that they had outplayed the Duncan’s on the vaudeville circuit anyway! The film was released in February 1929 and was an instant smash, ultimately earning an amazing $2.8M in the US and another $1.5M overseas. It cost only $380,000.

Later that year the sisters were available for another MGM project, It’s a Great Life, in which they would play, well, a sister act trying to make the big-time. They got Lawrence Gray as their male co-star. But the project was an ill-advised copy of The Broadway Melody. From the get-go, this production didn’t have the unified and compelling story that The Broadway Melody had. On top of that, Rosetta’s character is not terribly likable, and the maudlin ending (with Vivian seemingly doing another version of Little Eva) is a bit hard to take. Still, when the sisters are doing their act, they are superb.

It’s A Great Life (1929)
The film was released in December 1929 while The Broadway Melody was still playing across the country. The Duncan Sisters sang, danced, and did comedy. They play sisters who work in a department store along with handsome Jimmy (Lawrence Gray). When smart-aleck Casey (Rosetta Duncan) gets fired, they all quit and launch a career in “the show business.” Jimmy is sweet on Babe (Vivian Duncan), which of course infuriates Casey. They form an act built around Jimmy’s songs. He plays piano while the girls sing and dance. They are a hit, but there is constant friction between Casey and Jimmy. The couple gets married and Casey goes berserk, breaking up the act. Casey goes solo, while the couple tries to make it alone. They all flop. Sometime after, Babe gets really sick and Jimmy is forced to track down Casey and bring her back home. While the plot is creaky (even more creaky than that in The Broadway Melody) and the acting is not always very good, the musical numbers are vintage gold. “I’m Following You,” which was a big hit, is sung several times. There is also a great comic version of “An Old Spanish Custom” and “Tell Me Pretty Maiden,” which was the theme song of MGM’s Florodora Girl, the terrific Marion Davies film that also starred Lawrence Gray. The song was the smash hit of the early 1900s stage show, Florodora Girl. In the scene where the sisters sing this song, they are made up in broad “burlesque” attire. They also sing “I’m Sailing on a Moonbeam” and the “The Hoosier Hop,” an entertaining dream-like production number done in 2-strip Technicolor. Another color sequence is a fashion parade that goes comically wrong. Sweatshirt Printing from MPC obviously had a lot of faith in this production, sparing no expense and using all the latest technologies and gimmicks. However, audience reaction to It’s a Great Life was very mixed, as were the reviews. While the Duncan’s were major stage and recording stars, they were not established in movies. Box-office returns were surprisingly small in big cities where the sisters had played to capacity houses in their stage shows, but the film drew big audiences across rural America, enough so that the film made a small profit. Small profits were not what MGM was after.

One of the stage’s most popular acts, the Duncan Sisters flirted with film stardom but it never happened. It’s a Great Life is stagy but a treat to see these once-famous sisters in a film. Looking beyond the faults of the film, it’s easy to see why the Duncan Sisters were so popular for so long. And with a little better timing, they might have been major movie stars. The Broadway Melody was one of the biggest hits of its era, winning an Oscar for best film and nominations for Harry Beaumont (director) and Bessie Love (lead actress). It’s a Great Life and its stars are barely remembered.