Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis, raised in Harlem, and employed on Broadway, but she could have become a superstar only in Paris. By the late ’20s, Baker was the toast of Montmartre, the personification of “le jazz hot,” and the high priestess of primitivism, as well as the highest-paid entertainer in Europe.
The Museum of the Moving Image is marking Baker’s centennial with a retro of her films (February 17 through 26), including a week-long run of the newly resurrected La Revue des Revues. Pieced together over the course of a decade, from footage found in multiple archives, La Revue des Revues seems to have been something of a patchwork even in 1927. The movie is part city symphony, part backstage Cinderella story, and part canned theater. The main attractions are extended recordings of lavish music hall acts in which plumed, pastied chorines cavort with golf clubs and walk like Egyptians. (Among the acts are the legendary Tiller Girls, who, not too impressively, dance sitting down.)
As restored by Serge Bromberg’s Lobster team, La Revue des Revues is enriched with exquisitely tinted color sequences and marred by the addition of an assertive, anachronistic free-jazz score. Context is everything. Twice during the movie, La Baker bursts on the scene—antic, free, and joyfully eccentric. Her clownish backfield-in-motion Charleston shimmy is unlike anything else in the movie and perhaps unlike anything else anyone ever did. You’ll be able to see alternate versions, this weekend and next, in her three French vehicles—the silent Siren of the Tropics (1927) and the talkies Zouzou (1934) and Princess Tam Tam (1935).