Josephine Baker at the NFT
osephine Baker was a black American singer and dance who moved to France in 1925 - largely to escape racial prejudice in the USA - and became a sensation, notorious for dancing at the Folies Bergère clad only in a skirt of bananas (though to put that in perspective there were often nude dancing girls in the shows). She stayed in France during the Second World War and was decorated for her work in the Resistance: though her fame was mostly in the 1930s she went on singing until her death in 1975, appearing at Carnegie Hall to a great ovation in 1973.
She made a number of films, though these are very rarely shown today, so the short season of three recently shown at the National Film Theatre was very welcome.
The earliest, La Sirène des Tropiques, a silent film made in 1927, is the weakest: the silly plot veers uncertainly between melodrama and knockabout comedy, and though Baker certainly has a strong on-screen personality she hadn't at that point learnt to restrain her stage acting style for the camera, and it shows.
ZouZou (1934) is a sound film constructed round her abilities, and works rather better. Her co-star is Jean Gabin, later the most famous French star of his day, though his restrained style and her over-the-top acting don't mesh any too well. The plot is the old standby where an amateur takes over in a musical show from the star (who in this case has eloped rather than broken her ankle - as in 42nd Street). There are a couple of deranged Busby-Berkely-style musical numbers, and Baker has a lot of charm in the early scenes: but with her two songs at the end the film really comes to life and lets her show the star quality that made her famous.
Princesse Tam Tam (1935) is the best of the three, though rather choppily constructed and edited (many shots cut away too early for comfort). Here her co-star is the French light comedian Albert Préjean, and as she has now learnt to moderate her acting (somewhat) they mesh together quite well. The plot involves his coming across her as a Bedouin beggar in Africa, educating her in 'civilised' manners and passing her off as a princess in France. There are a couple of dance numbers in imitation of Busby Berkely (though distinctly lacking his logical construction - frankly they are a bit of a mess) but Baker's songs come over well and again show her star quality, and the film is pleasant lightweight entertainment.
These three films seem to be the most important of the eleven or so she made, and though some aspects of her performances jar a little in today's racially sensitive atmosphere she still has a lot of charm and appeal - it's a pity that she isn't better known.
Link: Wikipedia entry
Posted: Mon - October 16, 2006 at 10:45 AM by Roger Wilmut
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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM