John Sinnott reviewed all three discs for DVD Talk during their original release, and I'll be linking to those reviews throughout this article, to avoid repetition of information and to allow for a second opinion.
"Siren of the Tropics" (1927)
"Siren of the Tropics" remains best known today for Baker's outstanding Charleston dance routine and little else - which is about right, because the rest of the film is clumsy, flat melodrama. The filmmakers (among them a young Luis Buñuel as assistant director) make the dreary mistake of building a story that essentially shoves its star into the background again and again, to the point where Baker could be removed completely with little change to the overall plot.
In another film, perhaps this could work, but in "Sirens," where Baker is the only lively aspect of the entire picture (and even then, her acting is amateurish and sloppy; only her dancing saves her), her character's continual insignificance to the proceedings brings the film to a screeching halt.
The plot involves the villainous Marquis Severo (Georges Melchior), who has fallen for his goddaughter, Denise (Regina Thomas). Denise, meanwhile, has fallen for André (Pierre Batcheff), an engineer under the Marquis' employ. The Marquis allows the two to marry, but only if André takes an assignment in the Caribbean first - an assignment from which the Marquis schemes to ensure André never returns.
Upon arriving in the Caribbean, André finds the native girl Papitou (Baker), and over the course of several adventures, the two end up befriending each other, with Papitou falling in love with the Frenchman. When André sets out to return to France, Papitou slips on board the ship as a stowaway, in hopes of reuniting with her true love.
The result is a love triangle that's never properly presented - at times the movie is all about André and Denise and how they will soon find happiness, and at other times the movie is all about how Papitou can work to cram herself into a story where she doesn't actually fit. The movie strains to squeeze her into the proceedings, and once she's in, it becomes a series of awkwardly placed showcase pieces for Baker's natural talents. But even then, she never shines (slapstick pantomime scenes fail to inspire laughs; her attempts at drama never amount to much) until the finale, when Papitou has somehow become a stage sensation, leaving her to break out into dance. Her take on the Charleston - the perfect dance for the energetic performer - is brilliant, but to get to this point, the audience has to slog though too much uninteresting, undercooked melodrama.
John covers the muddled backstory of the film in his review, so I won't repeat those legends here, other than to say Baker's own selfish behavior more or less sabotaged the production from the beginning, leaving everyone else on set unhappy to work with the diva. And yet Baker's behavior alone cannot be to blame for the film's failures, as the script is such a lazy work that it never really gets around to doing what it set out to do - namely, making Baker a screen star to match her stage fame, with some pleasant romance along the way. Instead, Baker's first film is also her worst, too dull and too clumsy to be worth one fine dance routine.
Baker's return to the screen would not come for another seven years. For "Zouzou," Baker would retain more control over the production, and while the finished product would become more of a successful showcase for Baker's talents (now we can hear her sing!), it would also contain another clichéd, unimaginative love triangle, and while the film is often entertaining, the drama never lives up to its potential.
Zouzou (Baker) is an orphan who, along with Jean (Jean Gabin), was raised in a traveling circus. As adults, the duo wind up working backstage at a Paris theater - he as an electrician, she as a laundress. He winds up falling for her best friend Claire (Yvette Lebon), unaware that Zouzou has been in love with him for years. Later, after the star of the current show walks out, the producers discover Zouzou dancing around on stage. They've found their new star.
It's the same sort of thing that you'd find in every backstage drama being churned out in Hollywood during the same time. And on that level, "Zouzou" (also spelled "Zou Zou" in some sources) works - it's an unassuming romance with song and dance. Baker's rendition of "Haiti," sung while she swings away in a lonely, oversized birdcage, is a treat, as is a late dance number featuring a handful of chorus girls splashing around in eye-popping on-stage recreation of the Seine, a sight to rival the work of Busby Berkeley.
But then the film goes and adds too much. Jean is accused of a murder he didn't commit. Zouzou dances to raise money for his defense. As a subplot, this angle feels too contrived and desperate. There are some exciting moments that come from this storyline, but even then they feel out of place.
Of course, we're really just here for the music and for Baker's electric charms, and on those levels, "Zouzou" succeeds. Her charisma carries the film, even if the script bungles too many opportunities along the way.
(Read John's review of "Zouzou" here.)
"Princess Tam Tam" (1935)
Baker's follow-up, "Princess Tam Tam," maintained that kind of 1930s Hollywood sheen, this time in an updating of sorts on "Pygmalion."
Famed novelist Max de Mirecourt (Albert Préjean) fears his wife (Germaine Aussey) is being unfaithful, and the stress of this possibility leads him to flee to Africa, where perhaps he can find inspiration for a new novel to take his mind off of his problems. There, he finds Alwina (Baker), a poor but lively shepherd girl. She proves to be his muse, and when word reaches him that his wife is indeed having an affair, he strikes a plan: return to France and pretend Alwina is a glamorous princess, whose presence will send his wife into fits of jealousy - and hopefully back into his arms. Alas, he is unaware that Alwina has fallen for him.
For all of these films' efforts to buck racial trends of the era - little, if any at all, is made of potential multiracial romance - there remains an ugly tinge of racism in these pictures. Baker's characters are always introduced as exotic beauties to be admired for their charms, but never a heroine that will get her man. A sign of the times, I know, and a far step up from what was happening at America in the same decade, and yet, for a set of films that promise a celebration of a black performer in an era when such a thing was too rare, the undertones remain distracting - and, perhaps more importantly, it keeps the dramas from working out the way they should.
The film itself pauses repeatedly for grand song-and-dance numbers, and, as with "Zouzou," it's here "Tam Tam" wins out. The choreography is stunning, the music thrilling. The story itself is a cheap excuse to get us to each music interlude, and on that level, the clumsiness of the plot (we never really care about any of the characters, not even Alwina) is forgivable.
"Tam Tam" is a bigger film, in scope and budget, than its predecessor. Unlike "Zouzou," "Tam Tam" was shot on location in Africa. Its staged dance routines, meanwhile, take on an even grander scope than the Seine sequence from the previous film. We can ignore the mediocre storytelling that fills the film and skip directly to the musical scenes, as these are wonderful chunks of pure entertainment. When the music's off, though, the movie's a dud.
(Read John's review of "Princess Tam Tam" here.)
Video & Audio
The prints used on all three titles are well-worn, with a washed-out softness and the occasional dirt and scratch. ("Zouzou," the worst of the bunch, is riddled with print defects.) These issues are forgivable - "Siren" was thought missing for years, so its reappearance marks the best possible condition. The silent film is given brand new title cards, which look fantastic (although their sharpness only makes the actual film look worse in comparison.) "Tam Tam" comes off the sharpest, with nice, rich detail to the black-and-white photography. All three films are presented in their original 1.33:1 format.
The soundtracks on "Zouzou" and "Tam Tam" are in their original mono, with optional English subtitles. While nothing impressive, they're mostly free of hiss and pops, and the musical numbers come through nicely. For "Siren," Kino provides us with a newly-recorded piano score, which sounds very good.
Kino fills out each disc quite nicely, most notably in a three-part documentary (one part per disc) covering Baker's career: "The Performer," "The Woman," and "The Films." These short pieces, approximately 53 minutes in total, combine talking head footage of critics, historians, actress Lynn Whitfield (who played Baker in a TV movie), and Baker's son (who runs Chez Josephine in New York). Separately, they are a bit too light, but together, they add up to a more complete picture of the dancer, even if they do refuse to discuss Baker in anything other than a glowing light.
"Siren" also contains the short film "The Fireman of the Folies-Bergère," which contains Baker's first on-screen appearance. (She plays an exotic dancer who appears briefly in a fireman's fantasies of countless naked women.) The Charleston scene is included in a section that also features the song's sheet music. A song written for the film ("Oh Papitou") is showcased in a performance by pianist Steve Ross. Silent newsreel footage of Baker and a stills gallery round out this disc.
"Zouzou" also contains a five-minute tour of Chez Josephine, hosted by Jean-Claude Baker; sheet music for three of the movie's songs (plus clips from the film to match); and another stills gallery.
"Tam Tam" again includes sheet music of three for that film's songs (again, plus clips), plus yet another stills gallery.
Only serious fans of Josephine Baker who haven't yet purchased these discs separately need to bother with picking up this box set. The films serve more as curiosity pieces than must-have classics, and while this set serves as a fine introduction to Baker's legacy, there's nothing here that commands repeat viewings. Rent It for the exceptional musical sequences.