For a half century, Ralph Cooper was the host of Amateur Night at the Apollo, the vibrant showcase that launched the careers of stars from Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn to Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson and Lauryn Hill. But in the 30s he was also the star of black-cast movies — quickie musical melodramas produced by whites but filled with the teeming acting and singing talent of African American denied the chance of mainstream movie stardom. In the custom of the day, the hero and heroine tended to be light-skinned, the comedians and villains dark. These “race movies” had minuscule budgets and a three- or four-day shooting schedule; they are as unpolished as a hobo’s footwear, but some of them have a raw energy that eluded Hollywood.
Cooper got top billing in The Duke Is Tops, a genial backstage story about a producer who lets his protege find her own way to stardom. The ingenue was played by 20-year-old Lena Horne in her movie debut. When Horne was signed by MGM, the film was rereleased, this time as The Bronze Venus; Horne’s name was now at the top, Cooper’s in agate print below. A slim, beyond-beautiful singer-actress, Horne had graduated to “real” movies. She could have been Hollywood’s first black-glamour musical star, but when she played in films with a mixed-race cast she was given discrete musical numbers that could be excised when shown at white theaters in the South. She lost the role of the mulatto Julie LaVerne in 1951’s Show Boat to Ava Gardner. That was about it for Horne, who got out of town just before it cracked opened the door to black actors.
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