Vivian and Rosetta Duncan
L-R Rosetta and Vivian Duncan c. 1912
Los Angeles, California (both)
The Duncan Sisters were an American vaudeville duo who became popular in the 1920s with their act Topsy and Eva.
Rosetta (November 23, 1894 – December 4, 1959) and Vivian Duncan (June 17, 1897 – September 19, 1986) were born in Los Angeles, California, the daughters of a violinist turned salesman. They began their stage careers in 1911 as part of the cast of Gus Edwards' Kiddies' Revue.
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." They subsequently played not only in vaudeville, but also in night clubs and on stage in both New York and London. 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, 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.
It's a Great Life
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. 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.
Unfortunately, the film "faltered at the box office and helped to cut short the Duncans' movie career." 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.
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.
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) attempted a solo career for a few years, but was rejoined with Vivian in 1932 after Vivian's divorce from Asther.
Although by now past their prime, the Duncan Sisters continued as a popular night club entertainers act for several more decades. They also appeared in several soundies 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 in Cicero, Illinois. Vivian subsequently continued performing as a single act on the club circuit. She died of Alzheimer's disease in 1986.
Unrealized movie project
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.
|#||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.|
|#||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|
|7||Surprise!||1935||Rosie and "Topsy"||Vivian and "Eva"||A two-reel short.|
|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
- Sources differ on their birth dates. These are taken from the Internet Movie Database.
- Springer, John, and Jack Hamilton. They Had Faces Then. Secaucus, NJ. Castle Books, 1974.
- Bradley, Edwin M. The First Hollywood Musicals. Jefferson, NC, and London. McFarland, 1996.
- Wagenknecht, Edward, and Anthony Slide. The Films of D.W. Griffith. New York, NY, Crown Books, 1975.
- 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.
- Kreuger, Miles (ed.). The Movie Musical. New York, NY. Dover, 1975.
- "It's a Great Life". Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. 2009. Retrieved May 18, 2010.
- 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
- Chicago Tribune, One of Duncan Sisters Badly Hurt In Crash. December 2, 1959, pg D3.
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