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Princess Tam Tam
Kino has released all three of Josephine Baker's starring roles in a trio of DVDs collectively labeled The Josephine Baker Collection. While none of these can be considered great films, they all show Baker at the height of her career, and her performances are all entertaining. The third and final film in the series is her 1935 vehicle Princess Tam Tam, a retelling of Pygmalion.
Max de Mirecourt (Albert Prejean) is a famous and wealthy writer who is suffering from a case of writer's block. The main reason for this is that his wife, Lucie (Germaine Aussey) enjoys the Paris night life and stays out until all hours. Max fears that his wife is being unfaithful, and this thought drives him to distraction. With the deadline for a new book coming up, he decides a change of scenery is what he needs, so he goes to Tunisia.
In Africa he encounters Alwina (Josephine Baker), a poor thief and begger, and she gives him an idea. What if he can take this 'savage' and make her civilized and cultured enough to introduce to polite society. Wouldn't that make an interesting novel. So he teaches Alwina how to eat with utensils, how to walk in high heel shoes, and how to act like a lady. Then he takes her to Paris.
When he gets there, Max hears that his wife has been seen with a wealthy Maharajah (Jean Galland). In order to make her jealous, Max proclaims that Alwina is a fabulously wealthy princess who will be staying with him. The plan works and soon Lucie is fuming and Alwina, the exotic princess is the toast of Paris. The young girl doesn't want all of the attention she's been getting though. The only thing she wants is Max who she is in love with, but he is still hoping to get his wife back.
Princess Tam Tam is a rather mediocre film. The script, written by Pepito, Josephine's lover and manager, just wasn't very strong. Though it is better than Siren of the Tropics, there really aren't many sympathetic characters. Max and Lucie both act like spoiled children, and Alwina, though sympathetic, doesn't do anything to shape her own destiny, she just does whatever Max tells her to do.
That is one odd thing about these three Baker movies: her characters are never responsible for the fame and adulation that they receive, it's always a matter of luck. Since Josephine was a self-made star, it is curious that all of the roles she plays would owe their fame to someone else.
Getting back to the movie, the film is filled with fancy (for the time) wipes and lap dissolves, but these tricks fail to make the story interesting. They just stick out and call attention to themselves. (I'm of the school that thinks that editing should be invisible.)
The song and dance numbers also didn't really fit in with the film either. (In this film, unlike the previous Zouzou, Baker does dance. She has three dance numbers and sings a pair of songs.) Unlike the two previous films, however, there really wasn't any reason for Josephine to break into song or to start dancing. She does, but there isn't any motivation. The big production number at the end was mildly interesting, but didn't really have anything to do with the film. It really felt like these numbers were forced in, and the movie suffers for it.
There were some positive aspects to this film though. The Tunisia sections of the film were shot on location, and because of that, this film is the most visually interesting of Josephine's three features. This added expense gives the film a more authentic feel. The scene where Josephine dances on, and through, some Roman ruins was my favorite part of the movie.
Josephine herself was pretty good in her role too. She doesn't have as much screen presence as you would think she'd have, but her smile is disarming and she does have a great amount of energy. Her acting comes along nicely, and she's more natural in this picture than in her other two. Of course she really shines when she's on a dance floor. Her dance numbers are always the highlight of her films, and this one is no exception.
In a way, it is sad that this is Josephine Baker's last starring role. She never really had a good script to work with, and though she isn't a strong actress, I can't help but think that she would have done better in a different role. All three of her films have basically the same plot, and while it works well enough, none of these films are as good as they should be.
The two channel mono soundtrack was in the original French with optional English subtitles. Unfortunately the recording technology back in 1935 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. There is also hiss in the background that isn't distracting, but easy to hear in the quiet sections. A standard sounding disc for a movie of this age.
This movie is the best looking entry of the three films in the Josephine Baker Collection. The full frame black and white image is very good, with a good amount of contrast and a full range of grey tones. The picture was generally sharp and the contrast was good also. The print used for the transfer had little damage to it. A vert good looking disc.
This disc features the third part of a Josephine Baker documentary. This section, Josephine Baker: The Films, presents the same scholars and commentators to discuss Baker's three feature films. As with the other two thirds of this documentary, I thought the comments weren't critical enough, and a little too scholarly. None of the people interviewed saw any flaws in these films, and were too enamored of Josephine to look at the movies objectively. Still, it is worth watching.
There is also images of the sheet music for the songs in the movie, and a gallery of promotional stills.
Josephine Baker was a talented performer, but in all of the movies she starred in she was hampered by mediocre scripts. While this film isn't bad, it isn't great either. The saving grace that this film has is some fun dance numbers by Baker and that makes it worth watching. As with the other titles in this series, this disc is Recommended, especially for Josephine Baker fans.
For reviews of the other films in the Josephine Baker Collection click on the titles: