Josephine Baker hit Paris like a storm. At the age of 18 the young
black dancer had gone to Paris with a revue of African-American music and
dance, La Revue Negre, and was an instant success. Her rapid
semi-nude dancing was seen and primitive and erotic. When that show
closed Baker took a job dancing at the famous Folies-Bergère, a
rival of the Moulin Rouge. She was so popular there that for the
next season, 1926-27, they designed the show around her act. Not
only did she dance at the Folies-Bergère, but after closing she
danced at a club named after her, Chez Josephine. Her fame grew.
It was at this time that she was approached to do a movie. She
had been filmed before, dancing at the Folies-Bergère, but she had
never acted in a feature film. Though it sounds a little odd nowadays
to make a silent movie with dance numbers, no one at the time seemed bothered
by it. The incredibly energetic star signed on and agreed to star
in Siren of the Tropics.
Henri Etievant directed the film, and a young Luis Buñuel as
assistant director. They definitely had their hands full with their
temperamental star, and the filming wasn't a smooth affair. The bright
Klieg lights that were needed to illuminate the set would burn Baker's
eyes making her very grumpy. But a bigger problem was that Baker
was almost never satisfied with anything at this time in her life;
She always wanted more. At one point, half way through filming, she
demanded to be given a fur coat or else she wouldn't complete the movie.
(This wasn't an idle threat, she would break contracts on a whim.
The producers gave in.)
It seems that no one really had a good time making this film.
In his autobiography, Buñuel writes about this film: "I must confess
it wasn't one of my nicer memories; the whims of the star appalled and
disgusted me. Expected to be ready and on the set at nine in the
morning, she'd arrive at five in the afternoon, storm into her dressing
room, slam the door, and begin smashing makeup bottles against the wall."
One way or another though, the filming was completed and Siren of
the Tropics was released.
The Marquis Severo is a lazy and unscrupulous, though rich, man who
has fallen in love with his young goddaughter, Denise. (Much to the
disgust of his wife.) Denise is in love with someone else though,
the young engineer Andre. In order to get his rival out of the picture,
Severo tells Andre that he can marry his ward, but only after he has become
successful. To help him out, he sends the engineer to the Antilles
to survey and prospect land that he's recently purchased there. When
he returns, Andre and Denise can be married. The Marquis has no intention
of letting Andre marry the woman he lusts after however. He sends
a letter to his man in the Antilles, Alveres, instructing him to make sure
Andre never returns to France.
Soon after arriving at his destination, Andre sees a young native girl,
Papitou (Josephine Baker) fighting off Alverez who is attempting to rape
her. Coming to the girl's rescue, Andre gets Alverez to back off,
and earns Papitou's eternal gratitude.
The next day Andre and Alverez, along with some guides, head off to
explore Severo's new land. Papitou knows that Andre is in deadly
danger so she follows the group. When they get far from the town,
Alverez pushes Andre off a cliff. He miraculously survives with no
broken bones, and Papitou nurses him to health.
With Andre recovered, he has Alverez arrested and heads back to France.
Papitou isn't going to let her man get away however, and stows away aboard
a ship heading for Paris. When she gets there, she has trouble finding
the man she loves, but becomes a dancing sensation quite by accident.
Will she ever be able to find Andre, and if she does, will he leave Denise?
This wasn't the greatest movie. The plot was very contrived and
the drama wasn't very effective. I never really cared about Andre
or which woman he'd choose, or if the Marquis would ever be brought to
justice. The script just wasn't strong enough to pull me into the
The acting wasn't very good either. Josephine Baker just wasn't
a good actress at this stage of her career. While she does a splendid
job in a lot of the low key scenes, such as when she's playfully running
away from Alverez by climbing over the furniture in her first scene, in
the more dramatic sections she overacts to a great extent. She clutches
one hand to her chest with the other flung out and a look of anguish on
her face when something bad happens. Another example occurs in one
of the last scenes in the movie, Papitou asks Denise for a prayer book.
As she takes it, Papitou's hand is visibly shaking, as if she was an addict
going through withdrawal. This might have been okay fifteen years
earlier, but by 1927 actors realized that the camera could pick up subtle
Josephine also thought that the role she was playing was undignified,
and she was right. In one part of the movie when she's trying to
hide on a cruise ship, she climbs into a bin to avoid discovery.
When she gets out of the bin, it turns out to have been filled with flour,
and now she white all over. She runs through the ship like this for
a few scenes. She couldn't have been proud of scenes like this, and
they most likely added to the disharmony on the set.
There are a couple of dance numbers in this film, and that's where the
movie really shines. Josephine does a fast jazzy routine while they
are still in the Antilles (really a forest outside of Paris) and then she
has a big dance number for the finale. In both of these Baker's energy
and enthusiasm for dancing shine through. She wiggles and moves so
fast in parts, she seems like a humming bird, with her torso almost stationary
while her legs vibrate at a fantastic rate. I'll be the first to
admit that I don't know much about dance, but I was impressed with the
show she put on and can see how she became a star.
The direction was actually quite good in parts. Though a lot of
the movie is filmed with medium shots, there were some interesting techniques
and camera angles used. While Papitou was trying to hide on the ship
she's stowed away on, they recorded some of the scenes with hand held cameras,
giving the film the appearance of a ship at sea, and also bringing life
to Papitou's nervousness. Other scenes were filmed with the camera
raised up high to the ceiling, or at unusual angles. Though
these were uncommon, there were enough sprinkled through the film to make
it more interesting.
Josephine herself didn't like the movie after she saw it either.
"The finished film brought tears to my eyes. Was that ugly silly
person me?" She later confessed.
The soundtrack composed and performed by Donald Sosin is very good.
His score fits the tone of the movie very well. The dance sequences
has jazzy fast paced music that really works to bring the movie to life.
I can only imagine how this film would suffer if it were scene without
a good score. As with all of Kino's recent recordings for silent
film, this one sounded very good, with the full range of the music being
clear and audio defects being nonexistent.
It was thought for years that only three reels of this film had survived,
but Kino has managed to come up with a fairly complete version. There
are some short sequences missing from this print, and while some are fairly
important to the plot, you can still make out the story. The section where
Alverez springs his trap to kill Andre is probably the most significant
loss, though there are only a few seconds missing. When all has been
said and done, this version of the film is very nearly complete, which
is much better than I was expecting.
One thing that I found a little odd was the tinting scheme used in this
film. They use a different colors than the ones commonly used in
silent films. The night dance scene is red instead of the more traditional
blue, and many of the scenes in Paris at the beginning are pink. (!)
This wasn't distracting, but it was easy to see that the tints were a contemporary
enhancement, though they may have used the colors from an original print.
(Though I tend to doubt it.)
Aside from that, the video quality is excellent.. The image is
very crisp and strong. There is a lot of detail in the picture, much
more than I was expecting. There are a couple of scenes where there
is some blooming of white objects, but the tinting minimizes that, so it
isn't noticeable unless you look for it. Even with the tinting and
missing segments, this is an outstanding looking movie.
Kino often puts together a nice package for their DVDs, and this is
no exception. It starts off with a 20 minute documentary Josephine
Baker: The Performer. Dance critics and historians, as well as
one of Josephine's adopted sons, talk about her role as a dancer and how
she influenced the Jazz age as well as it's effects on her.
This was a little academic for my tastes and dry in parts, but still worth
One short that I was very eager to see that is included on this disc
is The Fireman of the Folies-Bergère. This is a one
reel comedy short that features Josephine's first screen appearance.
A fireman stops in at a bar after attending a performance at the Folies-Bergère.
He has a bit too much to drink, and starts imagining that everyone he sees
is a naked woman. When he goes to a Metro station, he sees Josephine
do a comic dance number. Ironically, she is the only woman in the
film who isn't topless. A funny, if a little bit odd, short.
There are other early Josephine appearances too. She is seen in
a brief newsreel segment jumping around as the co-writer and illustrator
of her first book, The Memoirs of Josephine Baker, try to get some
time to work with her. A funny but very short piece. An excerpt
from the movie's closing segment of Josephine dancing the Charleston is
also included seperately.
In addition, a song recently discovered that was written for, or about,
this film, Oh Papitou, is preformed on the piano by Steve Ross.
There are also a couple of galleries that include stills of Josephine
at the Folies-Bergère, images from her first book, and sheet
music for some of the songs that are preformed. A trailer for the
film is also available. This is a very inclusive set of bonus material
that is sure to please any Josephine Baker fan.
This movie, most of which was thought lost for years, was interesting
to watch. Josephine Baker's dance sequences are a pleasure, and there
are some parts in the film where she really shines. Overall though,
the movie isn't very good. The plot is convoluted, the characters
dull, and the acting is embarrassing in parts. On the positive side,
the dance numbers are great, the print is excellent, and the package Kino
has come up with for this release is top notch. People who are slightly
interested in the film are better off renting it, but Baker fans will want
to pick up a copy for the dances and the copious extras. To those
people this disc is Recommended.
For reviews of the other films in the Josephine Baker Collection
click on the titles: