BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE JOSEPHINE BAKER COLLECTION

By • May 15th, 2007 •

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(Kino Video)
SIREN OF THE TROPICS. France, 1927. 86 minutes. Silent, color tinted.
ZOU ZOU. France, 1934. 93 minutes, black and white, French, subtitles.
PRINCESS TAM TAM. France, 1935. 77 minutes, black and white, French, subtitles.

Josephine Baker (neé Frieda McDonald) was born in St. Louis in 1906. Her mother was a laundress, her father may have been a musician–he did not stick around. The family was very poor, and by the age of thirteen Baker was supporting herself by touring Vaudeville with the dance group The Dixie Steppers. In New York, she appeared on Broadway in Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along, where she charmed crowds by crossing her eyes and dancing with goofy abandon. It was extremely difficult for a Black woman to strive to be a star in early twentieth century America. Baker’s luck turned when she traveled to France, to appear in La Revue Nègre where she created a sensation performing the Danse Sauvage (a short clip of this frenzied dance is available on YouTube). Shortly thereafter her performance at the Follies-Bergère in nothing but a skirt made of bananas cemented her status as the exotic icon of Le Jazz Hot.
Kino’s release of Baker’s three major movies arrives just after the centennial of her birth. While none of the three could be called a great movie, each plot-packed potboiler is entertaining; and they are cumulatively fascinating. In all three films, Baker is positioned as the vibrant naïf against a social backdrop that is jaded and not quite savory: a whiff of incest in Siren of the Tropics, a faint suggestion of same in Zou Zou, plus chorines stepping out on their meal tickets; extramarital affairs for sport in Princess Tam Tam.
In the silent film, Siren of the Tropics, Josephine doesn’t come into the story at the beginning; there’s an excess of back-story. The rich Comte Severo (Georges Melchior) and his wife (Régina Dalthy) are near divorce. She, however, will not give him his freedom, because he has designs upon his own goddaughter Denise (Regina Thomas). Denise is in love with André (Pierre Batcheff). When André goes to ask her hand in marriage, Comte Severo pretends to be thrilled. He even sets up a business appointment for Andre in the Parisian Antilles, to prospect for precious jewels and metals. In the meantime, he sends a letter to his henchman Alvarez (Kranine), asking him to make sure that the young whippersnapper never leaves the Antilles alive.

That set up is a movie in itself, and we haven’t even met Baker’s little native girl, Papitou, yet. The scene shifts to the Antilles, where we see Alvarez putting the moves on Papitou. She scampers up his bookcase and poses there, fetchingly, laughing at him. Later, however, when Papitou goes skinny-dipping, Alvarez is lurking in the bushes. Before he can force himself upon her, Andre arrives. Papitou falls hard for her rescuer.

So when Alvarez attempts his dirty deed—I think it’s letting Andre fall through a rope bridge while they are on a prospecting trip, but I’m not sure, because there appears to be a big piece of film missing from the print used in making the DVD–she is there to save him.

When Andre returns to Europe, Papitou decides she must follow the man she loves, dresses up in European style clothes, and attempts to board a boat. Since she doesn’t have money for passage, she ends up swimming to the boat and becoming a stowaway, which results in a lot of a lot of Lucille Ball type high jinks, as people chase the bedraggled native in sopping Western clothes about the ship, only to find her enjoying a bath in a private cabin–providing another opportunity for the camera to admire her pert breasts.

Before she can be kicked off of the boat, a fellow passenger, who must admire her for her resourcefulness, offers to hire her as a nanny. Once they arrive in France, it’s not long before Papitou’s amazing natural talent is revealed. As she dances to amuse her young charges, she is spotted by an agent, who promises to make her the toast of Europe. She has no interest in that, but she agrees to perform for him, if he will help her find her beloved Andre. He agrees, not because he means to make good on the promise, but because she is obviously his hot ticket to fortune.

In the meantime, the Comte discovers that Papitou is in Paris. He decides to set up a meeting between Papitou and Andre. The real reason for his altruism is of course, to besmirch his rival in his Denise’s eyes. Papitou, now the toast of Paris, rushes out of a performance to reconnect with the man of her dreams. However, when she gets to the house, she realizes that he is for another, and she leaves him to find happiness with his white girlfriend, while she returns to her compensation, the stage. It’s not as good as love, but if you cannot have the love of one, you must settle for the adulation of many.

In the second movie in this set, Zou Zou, Josephine plays the adopted daughter of a circus barker, who has also adopted her white “brother,” Jean (Jean Gabin). Zou Zou grows up to be a laundress. She works with a cadre of female laundresses, all of them very French and very white, and very impressed with the natural talents of Zou Zou. She is never too tired to show them a little song or dance that mimics the theater folk they wash for. Jean gets a job as a stagehand at the very same theater that Zou Zou does wash for, and Zou Zou eagerly introduces him to her best friend Clare (Yvette Lebon), a fellow laundress. Clare and Jean fall in love. Zou Zou is also in love with Jean, who loves her, but alas, only as a sister.

The theater is producing a spectacle that stars the untalented mistress of one of the producers. Miss Barbara (Illa Meery) would rather be with her Brazilian lover. One day the chorus girls dress their little laundress Zou Zou in sparkles, and she runs out onto the stage to show her brother. Jean asks her to pose while he focuses a light and she begins to play in the spotlight. She notices her own shadow looming large, and creates dancing shadow figures with her fingers.
This is actually the image that Kino uses for the opening credits of these three movies, and it is disturbing, these enormous fingers wiggling around a nappy shadow head. There is something so foolish and childish and inelegant about it, but, when you think about it, it’s not a bad icon. Those wiggling finger shadows capture Baker’s appeal. She allows us to see her doing something that only children should be caught doing; she charms us with her vulnerability and her rawness.
Then Zou Zou starts to dance with wild abandon, a bizarre mixture between recognizable dance steps like the Charleston and seemingly out of control crawling, wiggling, body part isolations–ecstasy. While she is taken over by the dance, Jean raises the curtain, and the producers who are sitting out in the house, see her and are instantly smitten by her talent. Since Miss Barbara has run off to be with her lover, they want Zou Zou to take over the show, but Zou Zou runs away. And that would be it, except that later that night Jean is wrongfully arrested for murder. Realizing that she will need money to get him out of prison, Zou Zou reluctantly agrees to become a star. What follows here is a series of Busby Berkeley like numbers with smiling awkward dancing girls in matching costumes, dancing on waterfalls and oversized beds, and the whole thing ends up looking clumsy and ill-at-ease, but of course it’s impossible to tell (and the DVD is free of any details concerning the restoration) whether this is because the dancing was ill-conceived and poorly shot, or if it is because footage was lost.

In the midst of the show, Zou Zou learns that the man who actually committed the murder has been captured, and she leaves the theater to clear her brother’s name. So much for the holiest tenet of show business: “The show must go on.”

Earlier I mentioned that the Busby Berkeley-like spectacles disappoint. In addition, it’s a no-brainer that this film turns the 42nd Street story on its head. In 42nd Street aspiring chorine Peggy Sawyer gets a chance to fill in when the star of the show breaks her ankle. Given that opportunity, she must sweat her way through endless hours of rehearsal before she goes out there a chorus girl, but comes back a star. Zou Zou, in contrast, does not work at all to become a star. She has natural talent, she apparently needs no rehearsal, and being a star is an incidental, and uncoveted, prize.

In the end, Zou Zou must face the painful truth that Clare and her brother are meant for one another, whereas all she has is the theater. Relegated, once again, to the adoration of many rather than the love of one.

In an interview included on the disk extras, Jean Claude Baker, one of Baker’s adopted children and the owner of the restaurant Chez Josephine in New York (and “a professional Frenchman,” as my husband observed), comments that Baker’s characters are loved by white men who don’t love her well enough and she is left in the end. Even in France, it may have been impossible to portray a sanctioned interracial romance during this era. However, it seems to me that the filmmakers went out of their way (at least in Siren and Zou Zou) to present relationships that were not sexual. Never in Zou Zou did I get the sense that there was a sexual relationship between Zou Zou and Jean, although there was unrequited love. I have read commentary about Siren that insists that Andre uses Papitou for her body and then abandons her, but I honestly didn’t have a sense of that. Papitou certainly falls for him, but he seems to see her as a child. Admittedly, however, I may be a bit dim about implied sexual relationships in old movies.

PRINCESS TAM TAM

In Princess Tam Tam, Baker once again plays an exotic primitive—this time Alwina, a Tunisian beggar girl. This is the only movie where a sexual relationship between protagonist and Baker is strongly implied, but the structure of the movie makes it hard to know what is supposed to be “real” and what is supposed to be “fiction.” Max (Albert Prejean), a well-known author suffering from writer’s block, takes off for Tunisia. There he hopes to find a muse, and also a respite from his wife Lucie’s (Germaine Aussie) penchant for swanning around with high society swells. This film, unlike the others, posits social class as a forefront issue. Even though he has come to Tunisia to write and to get away, Max finds that he can’t steer clear of upper crust European tourists. Max meets Alwina in the market where she is stealing fruit. He finds her amusing, so he takes her with him to a picnic in the ruins. His white friends are appalled and make remarks about Alwina’s odor. In retaliation, she fills a saltshaker with dirt and passes it around the diners.

A la Pygmalion, Max and his writing partner Coton (Robert Amoux), decide to remake Alwina as the fictional Princess Tam Tam, and turn her into the toast of Europe. If they succeed in reinventing her, they reason, they will have also made themselves material for a new book. All goes as they plan, and Tam Tam is celebrated by society (here the film shows all the pieces of art that celebrate Tam Tam, which all look like art made to fete Josephine Baker, but there’s no explanation if this is modern addition to the film or if it goes back to the original).
However, Tam Tam is always on the lookout for some relief from the boredom of being too well dressed and too well behaved. She relies on Max’s Arab retainer Dar (Georges Peclet) to secretly escort her (he’s nuts about her, you can see it in his eyes as he watches her sing) to places where real people hang out. In fact her downfall (engineered by Lucie’s best friend) comes about when she drinks too much at a fancy gathering and ends up ripping of (most of) her fancy dress and dancing with the band, for which she gains a standing ovation, but loses her social standing.

This is the only film of the three where I thought the Baker character was a kept woman; surprisingly it’s also the only one where her character maintains an emotional distance from her white protector. She’s happy to take what he has to offer, but there’s none of the desperate love that is so much a part of Baker’s characters in the other two films.

These movies are worth seeing. It’s a treat to get to see the legendary Baker in action, just to see how she compares to her reputation. The nudity here is sexy, but not sexual. It may be gratuitous, but it feels like Baker is proud of what she’s got, she’s not demeaned. While it is amusing to look back and see the racism, classicism, and colonialism blithely and blatantly on display in these films, it’s amazing to see three major films from the early part of the twentieth century, starring a beautiful black woman. Some people have pointed out that in all three of the films the story echoes the actual trajectory of La Baker’s life–poor girl is lifted out of poverty because of her natural talents, eventually realizes that fame and fortune is no substitute for personal happiness, but at that point it’s too late to return to her roots, so she has to settle for entertaining the sophisticates instead.

The documentaries on each of the disks include interviews with the same people: Lynn Whitfield, who played Baker in HBO’s Josephine Baker Story, the aforementioned Jean-Claude Baker, Margo Jefferson, a theater critic for the New York Times, and dance critic Elizabeth Kendall. Although they all have interesting perspectives, if you watch all three documentaries the range of information is cumulatively thin. The subsidiary material does not mention that Baker worked for the Resistance during World War II and that France awarded her the Medal of the Resistance after the war. She also adopted twelve children of different races, whom she called her rainbow tribe (Jean-Claude is one of them). When she returned, periodically, to the United States, she worked with the Civil Rights movement. Like many legendary divas, she mismanaged her money horribly, and at one point would have ended up penniless and homeless, had it not been for the intersession of her friend Princess Grace of Monaco.

Although she was a much bigger star in France than she ever was in the United States, in later life her countrymen feted her when she appeared on stage in a series of comebacks. In fact, the night following her final comeback, in 1975, She had a cerebral hemorrhage, and was found, in a coma, surrounded by glowing newspaper reviews. She died a few days later.

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One Response »

  1. i love the movie’
    and all of josephines baker
    books they are very interesting
    to read i have read like three
    of them i reall like learning about
    josephine baker….!

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