Duncan Sisters

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Vivian and Rosetta Duncan
Duncan sisters 02.JPG
L-R Rosetta and Vivian Duncan c. 1912
  • November 23, 1894 (Rosetta)
  • June 17, 1897 (Vivian)

  • December 4, 1959 (Rosetta)
  • September 19, 1986 (Vivian)

Years active1911–1959

The Duncan Sisters (Rosetta and Vivian Duncan) were an American vaudeville duo who became popular in the 1920s with their act Topsy and Eva.


Early career[edit]

Rosetta (November 23, 1894[1] – December 4, 1959) and Vivian Duncan (June 17, 1897[1] – September 19, 1986) were born in Los Angeles, California, the daughters of a violinist turned salesman.[2] They began their stage careers in 1911 as part of the cast of Gus Edwards' Kiddies' Revue.

L-R Vivian and Rosetta Duncan c. 1912

During the next few years they perfected their act with Rosetta as a foghorn-voiced comedian and Vivian as the pretty-but-dumb blonde type. Within a few years they "matured into first-rate vaudeville troupers who wrote much of their music in dialogue."[3] They subsequently played not only in vaudeville, but also in night clubs and on stage in both New York and London.[2] They made their first important Broadway appearance in 1917 at the Winter Garden Theatre in a show with Ed Wynn and Frank Tinney entitled Doing Our Bit.

In 1923 the Duncans created their signature roles in Topsy and Eva (Rosetta as the former, in blackface, Vivian as the latter), a musical comedy derived from the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. For this production they wrote and introduced the songs "I Never Had a Mammy" and "Rememb'ring". A huge hit in its day, Topsy and Eva was subsequently adapted into a 1927 silent movie, directed by Del Lord with some additional scenes by D. W. Griffith.[4]

It's a Great Life[edit]

In 1929 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released their early sound musical The Broadway Melody, starring Bessie Love and Anita Page as the fictional Mahoney sisters. The film proved to be highly successful so MGM decided to follow it up with a similar film, this time starring the real-life Duncan Sisters in the leads. The result was It's a Great Life (MGM, 1929), directed by Sam Wood and featuring three sequences filmed in Technicolor.[5] In the film the Duncan Sisters performed two of their most popular songs, "I'm Following You" and "Hoosier Hop."

Photoplay magazine stated in their review:

Vivian and Rosetta Duncan have made a snappy, hilarious comedy of the life of a vaudeville sister team in this elaborate picture. It is crammed to the gunwales with Duncan comedy, and they do a lot of the vocalizing that made them famous. Listen for "Following You" – you'll care for it.[6]

Unfortunately, the film "faltered at the box office and helped to cut short the Duncans' movie career."[3] The movie, seldom seen for decades in part due to the color footage being missing, resurfaced in 2010 in a restored print released by Warner Bros. Archive.[7]

MGM did cast the Duncans in their all-star 1930 extravaganza The March of Time, but that film was never completed. In 1935 the Duncans returned to the screen in the short musical Surprise! which featured footage of them reprising their Topsy and Eva characters.

Later years[edit]

In 1930 Vivian married actor Nils Asther, who had co-starred with her and Rosetta in the film version of Topsy and Eva. Rosetta (who was lesbian)[8] attempted a solo career for a few years, but was rejoined with Vivian in 1932 after Vivian's divorce from Asther.[3]

The Duncan Sisters as Topsy and Eva, circa 1945

Although by now past their prime, the Duncan Sisters continued as a popular night club entertainers act for several more decades.[2] They also appeared in several soundies[1] and also on television's You Asked For It. In the late 1940s the Duncans wrote and recorded four Christmas selections for the Hollywood Recording Guild Inc.: "Dear Santy", "The Angel on the Top of the X-mas Tree", "Twimmin' de Cwis'mas Twee" and "Jolly Ole Fella". These appeared on 7" extended play 78rpm kiddie records.

In 1956 both Rosetta and Vivian appeared on Liberace's television show. They sang some of their songs and did their Topsy and Eva routine.

Their act ended in 1959 when Rosetta died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident, where she apparently fell asleep at the wheel while returning from a performance engagement, in Cicero, Illinois.[9] Vivian, who by that time had remarried to Frank Herman, subsequently continued performing as a single act on the club circuit.[2] She died of Alzheimer's disease in 1986.

Unrealized movie project[edit]

In 1946, Twentieth Century-Fox considered making a musical biography about the sisters' life after the success of a film of another sister act, The Dolly Sisters. The project never got beyond the idea stage.

In 1952, Paramount Pictures announced plans for a biopic on the Duncans to star Betty Hutton and Ginger Rogers. Ms. Hutton demanded a rewrite after reading the first script draft and soon afterward walked out of her contract with the studio. Production plans for the film were then abandoned and never resumed.

Broadway appearances[edit]

# Title Dates Rosetta's Role Vivian's Role Notes
1 Doing Our Bit Oct 18, 1917 – Feb 9, 1918 Herself Herself Their Broadway debut.
2 She's a Good Fellow May 5, 1919 - Aug 16, 1919 Mazie Moore Betty Blair
3 Tip Top Oct 5, 1920 - May 7, 1921 Herself Herself A revue.
4 Topsy and Eva Dec 23, 1924 - May 9, 1925 Topsy Eva St. Clare Their biggest success, a musical comedy adapted from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Screen appearances[edit]

# Title Year Rosetta's Role Vivian's Role Notes
1 Topsy and Eva 1927 Topsy Eva A silent film adaptation of their stage hit. Partially directed by D. W. Griffith.
2 Two Flaming Youths 1927 Herself Herself A now-lost silent film starring W. C. Fields, with the Duncans doing a cameo appearance.
3 It's a Great Life 1929 Casey Hogan Babe Hogan An early sound musical with Technicolor sequences.
4 The March of Time 1930 Herself Herself An all-star extravaganza - never completed.
5 The Voice of Hollywood No. 7 1930 Herself Herself Documentary
6 Hello Pop! 1933 Herself Herself
7 Surprise! 1935 Rosie and "Topsy" Vivian and "Eva" A two-reel short.

Selected recordings[edit]

Year Title Year Title Year Year
1923 The Music Lesson (Do-Re-Mi) 1924 In Sweet Onion Time 1929 Just Give the Southland to Me
Baby Sister Blues Mean Cicero Blues Hula-Hula Lullaby
The Argentines, The Portuguese, and the Greeks Cross Word Puzzle Blues 1930 I Got a "Code" in My "Doze"
Stick in the Mud 1926 The Kinky Kids' Parade It's an Old Spanish Custom
Remembr'ing Happy-Go-Lucky Days Hoosier Hop
I Never Had a Mammy Lickens I'm Following You
1924 Um-um-da-da 1927 Black and Blue Blues 1947 I Never Had a Mammy
Aunt Susie's Picnic Day Dawning Rememb'ring
Bull Frog Patrol Baby Feet Go Pitter-Patter White Christmas
Tom Boy Blues 1928 The Music Lesson Jingle Bells
Vocalizing The Argentines, The Portuguese,

and the Greeks

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Sources differ on their birth dates. These are taken from the Internet Movie Database.
  2. ^ a b c d Springer, John, and Jack Hamilton. They Had Faces Then. Secaucus, NJ. Castle Books, 1974.
  3. ^ a b c Bradley, Edwin M. The First Hollywood Musicals. Jefferson, NC, and London. McFarland, 1996.
  4. ^ Wagenknecht, Edward, and Anthony Slide. The Films of D. W. Griffith. New York, NY, Crown Books, 1975.
  5. ^ The sequences are a fashion revue in the first part of the film, and two musical numbers - "Hoosier Hop" and "I'm Sailing on a Sunbeam" - at the end. It's a Great Life, which survives with all the color footage, is occasionally broadcast on TCM. Some of the color scenes were released on laserdisc as part of the "Dawn of Sound" series and a brief clip was used in the compilation film That's Entertainment, Part III.
  6. ^ Kreuger, Miles (ed.). The Movie Musical. New York, NY. Dover, 1975.
  7. ^ "It's a Great Life". Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. 2009. Retrieved May 18, 2010.
  8. ^ Vaudeville, Old and New, By Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman, Donald McNeilly Page 338, see: https://books.google.com/books?id=XFnfnKg6BcAC&pg=PA338&dq=duncan+lesbian+rosetta&hl=en&ei=BzwnTd6cHsX7lwfdmd3xAQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCMQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=duncan%20lesbian%20rosetta&f=false ;Eccentrics of comedy By Anthony Slide, Page 3, see: https://books.google.com/books?id=TyFaAAAAMAAJ&q=duncan+lesbian+rosetta&dq=duncan+lesbian+rosetta&hl=en&ei=BzwnTd6cHsX7lwfdmd3xAQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CCoQ6AEwAQ
  9. ^ Chicago Tribune, One of Duncan Sisters Badly Hurt In Crash. December 2, 1959, pg D3.

External links[edit]