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Zou Zou

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 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 Baker Collection.

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.

The DVD:


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.

Final Thoughts:

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:

Siren of the Tropics
Princess Tam Tam

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