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Siren of the Tropics

Kino // Unrated // June 21, 2005
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted May 15, 2005 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

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 story.

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 gestures.

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 DVD:


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 watching.

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.

Final Thoughts:

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:

Siren of the Tropics
Princess Tam Tam

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