Empress Josephine: Baker's Empowering Eroticism Reborn

My beautiful laundress: With Gabin in Zou Zou
photo: Kino International
My beautiful laundress: With Gabin in Zou Zou

A key, recently rediscovered figure in the history of racial cinema and an early-20th-century pop phenom, St. Louis-born Josephine Baker was a larger-than-life performer whose childlike aggression, outsize physique, and faux-exotic style of sexually ravenous dance once made her the most highly paid live performer in France. She made only a handful of films, and here are the first three features, in all of which Baker embodies the charismatic but primitive woman-girl tragically hooked on a white man. Her love stories never end well, but at least in France she had them. In Zou Zou (1934), she's a laundress mad for adopted bro Jean Gabin and destined for cabaret fame (warbling from inside a giant birdcage); for Princess Tam Tam (1935), shot largely in French-occupied Tunisia, she's a shepherdess shoved into the society limelight by bored writer Albert Préjean. Her only silent feature, Siren of the Tropics (1927), tracks her heartbroken jungle-to-stage arc from the Antilles to Paris alongside rich boy Pierre Batcheff—who, on the set, made friends with assistant director Luis Buñuel and starred two years later in Un Chien Andalou. All of the films are agog at Baker's gifts, but the fiery tangle of outlandish racial stereotypes and pioneering empowerment upstages even her semi-nude vivacity. The supplements include a series of talking-head docs, sheet music, stills from Baker's Folies Bergère days, isolated songs, and a so-rare-IMDb-doesn't-know-about-it promotional short, The Fireman of the Folies Bergère(1928), a gag reel of drunken comedy and dance hall nudies in which Baker hoofs up a storm.

 
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