Josephine Baker was an African-American dancer who first came to prominence
at the height of the Jazz Age in the 1920's. There were few opportunities
for black entertainers, especially dancers, to gain real fame in the US
at that time, so when the opportunity to appear in a show in Paris presented
itself, Josephine took it. In France Baker become an overnight sensation.
A year after landing on the continent, Josephine had a show at the famous
Folies-Bergère based around her act, and soon after that toured
Europe. She endorsed a line of hair gel and shoes, there were songs
written for her, and she even had a night club, Chez Josephine.
Her first feature film was 1927's Siren of the Tropics, a silent
movie. Both the filming and the final product were very distasteful
to the energetic dancer, so it wasn't until 1934 that she made another
feature. This time the script was written by her manager's brother,
and she put up some of her own money so that she'd have some say in the
direction that the production would take. The result was Zouzou,
a fairly successful film that Kino has just released as part of their Josephine
Zouzou (Josphine Baker) and Jean (Jean Gabin) are orphans (who are not
related to each other) but were adopted by a circus barker Papa Melè
(Pierre Larquey) and grew up in the traveling show. When the circus
finally folds, Papa Melè and his two wards, now adults, relocate
to Paris. There Jean gets a job as an electrician in a music hall,
while Zouzou becomes a laundress.
One afternoon Zouzou delivers some laundry at the music hall where Jean
works and takes a minute to say 'hi.' Jean is focusing a spot light
and has Zouzou stand on stage, while the orchestra is rehearsing, so that
he can adjust it properly. While she's up there, she starts dancing
around. The producers of the show notice, and decide that she'll
be perfect for the lead role in the new show, the previous star having
abruptly quit. Zouzou isn't sure that she wants to be in the show though.
In another concurrent plot line, Jean and Zouzou go out dancing with
Zouzou's best friend Claire. Claire and Jean hit it off, and they
find themselves falling in love. In classic romantic triangle fashion
though, Zouzou is also in love with Jean, but Claire couldn't bare to hurt
her best friend. Things get worse when Jean stumbles upon a murder
scene and is arrested for the crime. In order to get the money for
a lawyer, Zouzou will have to go on stage and dance and sing.
This film was enjoyable, especially if you like movies from this period.
The plot wasn't anything new or exciting, but they did a solid job of making
the viewer interested in the love triangle. There are some aspects
of the film that are fairly surprising too, but part of that is the fact
that it was made in France.
This movie was quite different from American movies made at the same
time. Though the plot was similar to most musical dramas, the presentation
made me sit up and take notice. First of all, there was frank, and
humorous, talk about sex, something that never happened in the States under
the watchful eye of William Hays. In one scene the first star of
the show, Barbara (Illa Meery), is talking to the older woman who is dressing
her, telling her how her lover is a jaguar in bed, a real wild animal.
When the older woman says she never thought that M. Saint-Levy, the producer
of the show, would act that way, Barbra replies "Not Saint-Levy!
My lover!...I'm [Saint-Levy's] mistress." It would be decades after
this film was made before someone in an American film could so casually
talk about having a lover and being a kept woman.
Another difference is that the plot isn't as predictable. Sure,
some things turn out the way you would expect, but in an American film
from the mid 30's, the two stars always end together at the end.
It's just one of those things that always happens. If Clark Gable
and Claudette Clobert hate each other at the beginning of It Happened
One Night (made the same year as Zouzou) you can bet that by
the end that they'll be married. That wasn't necessarily the case
in this film.
Josephine Baker's acting ability really improved since her previous
movie, 1927's Siren of the Tropics. In that she overacted
to a great extent. In this film she is much better, appearling more
natural. Only occasionally does it look like she is following stage
directions. The biggest problem is that she is opposite one of the
greatest French actors to ever grace the screen.
Jean Gabin has a very natural style, it never looks like he's acting,
and his reactions are always understated. A good example is the scene
where he is dancing with Claire. A man pulls Zouzou onto the dance
floor against her will, and when Jean see this he stops dancing.
He expression doesn't change, but you can tell that he's filled with rage.
The fact that he doesn't react to the situation makes the scene more powerful,
and Jean a more intimidating character.
The scenes where Baker and Gabin are acting together it is easy to see
the differences in the two stars acting ability. Josephine would
have done fine playing opposite most other people, but Gabin really brings
her slight overacting to light.
Another interesting thing about this movie is that Josephine Baker doesn't dance much. There are three musical numbers, but Josephine spends just about all her time singing. Her voice is okay, but it isn't as strong as a some other actresses of the time. Josephine's dancing in this film is actually more refined than in her previous feature film, what little she does of if. She seems more precise and trained in this film, and less like she's making it up as she goes along. She doesn't have a number that has as much impact as her Charleston in Siren of the Tropics. It's too bad that she doesn't spend more time dancing.
This movie was presented with the original French soundtrack (in two
channel mono.) There are optional English subtitles, but there isn't
an English dub. The soundtrack is very clean, and doesn't have any
hiss or hum at normal volumes, something I was expecting. Unfortunately
the recording technology back in 1934 wasn't very advanced, and the movie
doesn't have a lot of dynamic range. This normally isn't a problem,
but in the musical numbers this limitation is obvious. When Josephine
sings high notes, you can tell that not everything she's singing is being
recorded. Aside from this, the audio is very good.
The full frame video quality was generally pretty good for a film of
this age. The image was a little soft, and the beginning of each
reel are badly scratched. The ends of the reels are also marred,
having large X's scratched in as reel change marks. There are also
a fair number of torn frames and scratches. Some scenes are a little
dark, with details being lost, but this isn't a major problem. Aside
from these defects, the film looked good. The image is clear, and
the level of detail is good. Aside from the beginnings of each reel,
the image easy on the eyes.
Like the other volumes in Kino's Josephine Baker Collection,
this disc has a good number extras. The special features section
starts off with Josephine Baker: The Woman. This 13 minute
featurette has historians and dance critics as well as Lynn Whitfield,
who played Baker in a biopic, talk about the star. This wasn't the
greatest biography I've ever seen. Everyone really admires Josephine
and they can't really see her flaws. At one point, Baker's son, Jean-Claude
Baker, states that "Josephine Barker was kind of a Mother Teresa
of entertainment." There's just a little too much worshiping at the
Baker alter in this for my tastes.
A Tour of Chez Josephine is a look at the art in the New York
club that Jean-Claude Barker opened in his mother's honor. They show
vintage drawings and posters of Josephine that are in the club. Jean-Claude
talks about some of the art and it's significance.
There is also images of the sheet music for the songs in the movie,
and a gallery of promotional stills.
In the end, Josephine was happy with this film, and the movie did well
at the box office too. While some viewers today might find the plot
a little trite and contrived, it isn't any worse than many of the musicals
from the mid 30's. Though Josephine does an acceptable acting job,
the film is especially worth watching for the early appearance of Jean
Gabin. Though Josephine doesn't dance as much as in her previous
film, the three musical productions are pretty entertaining. Another
solid entry in Kino's Josephine Baker Collection. Recommended.
For reviews of the other films in the Josephine Baker Collection
click on the titles: