DirectorEdmond T Greville/Marc Allegret
Release Date(s)1935/1934 (February 8, 2022)
Studio(s)Arys Production (Kino Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: See Below
- Audio Grade: See Below
- Extras Grade: B+
- Overall Grade: B-
Josephine Baker was an American-born Black entertainer who refused to be relegated to the servile roles offered in American venues and worked mostly in France, where she headlined revues in the Folies Bergere in Paris, her skimpy costumes and spirited dancing becoming symbols of the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties. She also starred in a few films. The most famous of these, Princess Tam Tam and Zou-Zou, are newly double-billed in a Blu-ray release from Kino Classics.
In 1935’s Princess Tam Tam, beautiful young Bedouin beggar Alwina (Baker) becomes the object of desire and inspiration for an idealistic French writer, Max (Albert Prejean). Max intends to write a book about molding the ragged girl into an alluring sophisticate dressed in the most elegant French fashions. He brings Alwina back to Paris, presenting her as an Indian princess, and immediately causes problems with his wife, Lucie (Germaine Aussey). To make her husband jealous, Lucie flirts with a Maharajah (Jean Galland). Against these romantic goings-on, the city becomes delighted with the free-spirited, sensual Alwina.
This variation of the Pygmalion tale is slight, but it benefits from Baker’s electric presence. Running, jumping, or hopping on a moving automobile, she’s a fearless physical performer with a child-like sense of humor, and delights in being introduced to new experiences, such as the opera and the racetrack. Whenever she’s on screen, the film sparkles. When she’s offscreen, it sags.
Director Edmond T. Greville, inspired by Busby Berkeley’s Hollywood musicals, stages an elaborate climactic production number with a revolving stage, outrageous costumes, African drummers, even a team of plate spinners. And yes, there are many overhead views of girls creating kaleidoscopic patterns on the floor. The number features Baker stripping off some of her clothing and performing a wild dance, driven by the steady percussive beat. Earlier in the film, Baker, sitting at a bar, spontaneously sings Under the African Sky.
1934’s Zou-Zou stars Baker as a Creole laundress brought up in the circus with her foster brother, Jean (Jean Gabin). He becomes a music hall electrician. She yearns for Jean, but he pursues her best friend. When Jean is falsely charged with a murder, Zou-Zou becomes desperate to raise money for lawyers to get the charges dropped. She gets it by appearing on the stage, replacing a temperamental performer in a stage revue, and becomes an overnight star. This Cinderella tale was Josephine Baker’s favorite film.
With its routine, flimsy plot, Zou-Zou has life only because of Baker’s charismatic performance. Her acting is only fair, but she makes up for that with her singing and especially her dancing, which adopts movements from contemporary dances while showcasing her unique style. A rehearsal scene is similar to one in 42nd Street. As in Princess Tam-Tam, there’s a big production number, this one opening with two dancers sleeping in a gigantic bed. When the sheet is pulled back, dozens of chorus girls in revealing costumes stand up and start their routine. A huge comb is played like a xylophone and Baker, in glitter and feathers, swinging in a large bird cage, sings Haiti before diving into a line of chorus boys. There’s even a water ballet segment, reminiscent of the classic By a Waterfall number choreographed by Busby Berkeley.
Josephine Baker grew up poor in St. Louis and moved to New York at the height of the Harlem Renaissance when she was 13. Through determination and drive, she achieved early success in the chorus lines of musical revues featuring Black casts, but it wasn’t until she emigrated to Paris in 1925 that her career took off. She achieved international stardom over the next few years. Opportunities in Hollywood films for Black performers in the 1930s were limited to supporting roles, usually as servants, making Baker’s success as a movie star especially notable.
Both Princess Tam Tam and Zou-Zou were shot on black-and-white 35 mm film, finished photochemically, and released in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1 (the Blu-ray features an aspect ratio of 1.33:1). For Princess Tam Tam, the picture quality is only fair, with scratches visible throughout, particularly during the opening credits, and many dirt specks. Scene transitions are either abrupt or use wipes, a common technique in films from the 1930s. The big musical production number features varied, imaginative camera angles. Frame compositions tend to be long or medium shots, with few close-ups. Outdoor locations are used liberally, giving the film a realistic grandeur absent from studio-bound Hollywood films of the same period. Zou-Zou contains scratches throughout. Heavy black scratches mar the opening credits. Mostly shot on interior sets, the film captures the excitement of live theater. Baker’s appearance in the second half of each picture is chic and glamorous thanks to the make-up, hair, and costume departments.
The soundtracks for both films is presented with French dialogue in 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional English subtitles in white appear at the bottom of the screen, making them difficult to read against light backgrounds, which is frustrating. A far better choice would have been easier-to-read yellow subtitles. Musical numbers lack depth and sound flat, failing to enhance the elaborate visuals. Baker’s speaking voice is light with a pixie-like quality. Her singing voice is high and plaintive. On the Zou-Zou track, there’s an audible crackling sound.
PRINCESS TAM TAM (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C/C/B-
ZOU-ZOU (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B-/C/B-
Bonus materials include the following:
- The Films (17:46)
- The Performer (18:40)
- The Woman (12:23)
- Video Tour (4:45)
- The Fireman at the Folies-Bergere (7:42)
- The Charleston (:59)
- Memoirs (:48)
- Oh Papitou (4:50)
Three documentary shorts focusing on Josephine Baker—The Films, The Performer, and The Woman—examine her life and career, and include interviews with actress Lynn Whitfield, theater critic Margo Jefferson, dance historian Elizabeth Kendall, and Baker’s adopted son, Jean-Claude Baker. Next is a Video Tour of Chez Josephine, Jean-Claude Baker’s exhibition of rare Josephine Baker paintings and posters in New York City. The Fireman at the Folies-Bergere features an inebriated fireman seeing things—naked dancing girls, naked firemen, and a Metro rider (Baker) in a skimpy outfit performing a wild dance. On a bus, seated between a priest and a woman, he imagines both of them stark naked.
The Charleston is an excerpt from the final number in Siren of the Tropics (1927). Baker is shown performing the dance zestfully, clad in her trademark feathers. Memoirs is a silent clip with musical accompaniment. Baker—between two scenes in Siren of the Tropics—recounts episodes from her life to novelist Marcel Sauvage, while Paul Colin, her sketch artist, does a few drawings. In Oh Papitou, Jean-Claude Baker introduces a piano performance by Steve Ross at Chez Josephine.
Princess Tam Tam and Zou-Zou serve as introductions to Josephine Baker, who was never as popular in the United States as she was in Europe, and especially France. Her athleticism, exuberance, and bubbling energy along with a lusty love of life and a personality that nearly bursts from the screen, elevate pedestrian material to showcase a unique artist at her peak.
- Dennis Seuling