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They called her "Black Venus," the first African-American woman to become an international sex symbol. As such, she paved the way for such later entertainers as Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt and Dorothy Dandridge. But to do all that, Josephine Baker had to leave the U.S. for Europe.
After two marriages and a hit on Broadway, all while she was still in her teens, Baker sized up the racism of her native country and fled to France, where she became a headliner at the Folies Bergere within a few years. She tried film in the silent era, but that wasn't the best medium for a musical star. She came back to the movies for a hit in the 1934 French film Zou Zou. That rags to riches story about a laundress who becomes a musical star, was such a hit that her manager and fiance, Pepito Abitano, used the same formula for her follow-up, Princess Tam Tam, the following year. This time, however, he added a touch of the Pygmalion myth, with a French novelist (Albert Prejean) converting her from Tunisian street urchin to high-society sensation in order to get back at his straying wife.
Producer Arys Nissotti gave Baker the kind of backing her star presence deserved. For the African scenes, the company went on location in Tunisia, capturing street scenes of life there in the '30s. As back-up singers for her big production number, they tapped one of Europe's top singing groups of the decade, the Comedian Harmonists, a German act that would soon be disbanded by the Nazi government of their homeland because three of its members were Jewish. They would later be the subject of a successful film and stage musical, both called The Harmonists.
But the center of the film was Baker, who got to showcase her skills at singing, dancing, acting and comedy, not to mention the intense sensuality that made her a legend in France. The latter may have been too much for U.S. audiences, particularly given the film's depiction of interracial romance. Although the film had a successful opening in New York, it was denied the Production Code Administration's Seal of Approval, keeping it out of most mainstream theatres in this country. Yet it remained a popular offering in independent theatres catering to black audiences through the '40s. The picture was rediscovered in 1989, when the print was restored by Eastman House in Rochester, New York.
Director: Edmond T. Greville
Producer: Arys Nissotti
Screenplay: Yves Mirand (dialogue), Pepito Abatino (scenario)
Cinematography: Georges Benoit
Art Direction: Guy de Gastyne
Music: Arthur Nissotti
Principle Cast: Josephine Baker (Alwina/Princess Tam Tam), Albert Prejean (Max de Mirecourt), Robert Arnoux (Coton), Germaine Aussey (Lucie de Mirecourt), Georges Peclet (Dar), Jean Galland (Maharajah of Datane)
by Frank Miller