Directed by Mario Nalpas and Henri Etievant
Starring: Josephine Baker;Pierre Batcheff; Regina Dalthy; Georges Melcior; Kwanine
Siren of the Tropics (1927)
With her infectious smile, almost child like enthusiasm and kinetic energy, Josephine Baker steals every scene in her feature film debut, Siren of the Tropics. Unabashedly overacting, her performance oozes an efferveciant charm that is simply irresistible. With a plot that ranges from pure melodrama to exotic adventure; from slapstick comedy back to melodrama, Siren of the Tropics has something for everyone, including Baker’s spirited “Charleston.”
The wealthy Marquis Severo (Georges Melchior) wants to get a divorce from his wife so that he can woo their young goddaughter, Denise (Regina Thomas). When he learns that Denise is engaged to André Beval (Pierre Batcheff), the Marquis schemes to get rid of the engineer by offering him a position at his place in the Antilles. The Marquis has written a letter to one of his cohorts in the Antilles, arranging for a little “accident” to befall the unsuspecting André. Fortunately for André, the young native girl, Papitou (Josephine Baker) has taken quite a shine to him, and after realizing that his life is in danger, she manages to come to his rescue. The smitten Papitou decides to follow André back to his homeland, so she stows away on board a ship heading for Paris. Once there, it isn’t long before Papitou is the headliner at swank music hall. Still in love with André, Papitou refuses to perform until she sees her love. But the managers bring Marquis Severo backstage instead, and he still has a few tricks up his sleeve…
The tropical location was ideal for showing off the exotic Baker and its a shame the film decided to shift gears so drastically because the first half of Siren in the Tropics is a nice little action/adventure film. Too quickly, and never exploiting the possibilities the locale offered, the film meanders off into a wacky near Keystone comedy as Baker tries to hide from the various authorities while on board the ship. The silly plot is picked up again back in Paris, but, by now, nobody really cares because all we really want to see is Baker dance. Fortunately, we do.
Josephine Baker is the whole show in Siren of the Tropics, and what a show. Her acting is both frenetic and yet somehow natural. Rarely is she still, and she is frequently smiling; a gloriously infectious smile that makes one feel that Baker was having the time of her life. Nothing seems to faze her, even the silliness on the boat, where she first slips on some coal, turning herself black, and then falling into a container of flour, turning herself white. It’s weak humor, but because Baker appears to be having fun, it is not really offensive. Baker is equally uninhibited showing off her “assets”, and her nude scenes, while surprising in a film from 1927 (even a French film), are not particularly gratuitous and again, Baker seems to be enjoying herself. Of course Josephine Baker is most remembered as a dancer and we get a good look at what made Baker famous. In her version of the Charleston, Baker tosses in among others,a duck walk and the cake walk, all the while moving her legs as if they were made out of rubber. You loose your breath watching her.
Directors Mario Nalpas and Henri Etievant (and assistant director Luis Bunuel!) move the camera a great deal, probably trying to keep up with Baker. As mentioned, they missed some real opportunities shooting the action scenes in the Antilles. There is never any real sense of peril, and the bad guys are dispatched with fairly easily. They do capture Baker very well, however, and that’s what really matters.
Aside from the coal=black and flour=white gag, race is interestingly never alluded to in Siren of the Tropics. Other then the fact that Papitou’s father, Diego, is a drunkard, we know little else about him, except that he’s white. This we learn simply by seeing him, no explanation necessary. The idea that Papitou is in love with the white André is also never in question. The dilemma is, that he’s already engaged, nothing more. A plot like this, even in a silly movie like Siren of the Tropics, would never have been possible in the United States in 1927, or for years after. (Anna May Wong had a similar situation, having to go to London to star in Piccadilly, because a mixed race story just wouldn’t be acceptable).
Siren of the Tropics has been restored and released on DVD by Kino Video. Only fragments of the film had thought to have survived, but Kino’s restoration is nearly complete. The tinted image is in fair shape, with detail not always sharp and a good deal of ghosting. But once Baker appears on the screen your eyes never leave her so the aged-related wear is not too distracting. The musical score by Donald Sosin is wonderful, capturing the essence of each scene perfectly and always enhancing the film. Kino has included a number of special features including a so-so documentary on Baker, a still gallery, and a cabaret performer doing a song written for the film. They also include the short film, The Fireman of the Folies-Bergere, about a fireman who has had a bit too much to drink and imagines every woman he sees is naked. It’s a hoot!
Kevin M. Wentink