Josephine Baker, the black chorus girl who left Broadway to become the queen of Parisian nightlife, is one of the indelible legends of the 1920s. But her movies, made in France in the ’30s, don’t wear as well as her myth. Baker’s lover and promoter, Pepito Abatino, scripted two films centered on her charismatic personality. In each case, however, her character’s personal life is sacrificed to sentimental notions about artistic purity and alienation.
Like many of the movies made by Al Jolson and Elvis Presley, Baker’s films are basically different versions of her own conquest of show business. In Zou Zou, she is a circus-bred orphan who works in a laundry and gets her big chance when a music-hall star goes A.W.O.L. The plot is strictly 42nd Street, with the big musical numbers delayed until the end (in the convention of the time). Director Marc Allegret’s vision of life in and around the theater is strikingly sanguine and candid (there’s even some casual nudity). Zou Zou, like Baker, is a natural, and Paris falls at her feet. Yet she cannot win the love of her childhood companion, Jean, portrayed by the great Jean Gabin, who underacts as much as Baker overacts.
In Princess Tam Tam, Baker plays a Tunisian servant who is transformed into an exotic princess by a visiting French novelist (he wants to embarrass his wife, who is reportedly involved with a sleek maharaja). In a climactic dance sequence almost worthy of Busby Berkeley, Baker once again conquers sophisticated Paris. But the writer, with whom she has fallen in love, is reconciled with his wife, and Baker returns to Tunis to marry another servant. For all the suggestions of adultery and some mild satirical pokes at upper-class social mores, it’s a chaste film that might have been made in Hollywood — except for the relatively clear-eyed depiction of blacks that remains the film’s strongest attribute. Zou Zou: A- Princess Tam Tam: B