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Zou Zou
Remind Me

Zou Zou

The French film Zou Zou (1934) is a rare opportunity to see one of the great African-American entertainers of the 20th century. Josephine Baker, known primarily as a singer/dancer on the stage, cabaret, and music halls, made only a handful of films, and Zou Zou was her personal favorite, the closest, she said, to whom she was in real life.

Zou Zou is a Creole laundress, brought up in the circus along with her foster brother, Jean. She yearns for a life onstage, and longs for the love of Jean, who falls for her best friend. Zouzou manages to save Jean from a false murder rap, and to become an overnight star as well. The screenplay, based on a novel by Baker's then-lover and mentor, Pepito Abatino, was tailored for her talents.

Born in St. Louis, the daughter of a laundress, Baker was a Broadway chorine by her early teens. In the 1920's, she went to Paris and starred in Le Revue Negre and the Folies Bergere, causing a sensation by dancing topless, clad only in a bunch of bananas. By the time she made Zou Zou, Baker was one of the biggest stars of the French music hall.Zou Zou's big musical number, "Haiti," features Baker in a skimpy feathered costume, recalling her early Paris success.

Baker's co-star in Zou Zou was Jean Gabin, a young actor just starting out in films. He would become one of France's leading actors, sometimes called "the French Spencer Tracy," for his subtle, earthy acting style. Gabin, too, had begun his career in the music hall, and he and Baker became lifelong friends. Over the years, Gabin would frequently join Baker onstage at her nightclub, Chez Josephine, and they would sing and dance together.

The ad campaign for Zou Zou imitated the Hollywood campaign for Garbo's first talkie, Anna Christie (1930), which proclaimed, "Garbo Talks!" -- "Baker Talks!" But even that didn't get the film distribution in America. Baker was never as big a star in America as shee was in France. She made a few more films, but film never quite captured what made her so special. Baker was philosophical about her failure to score in movies: "Everybody has a place. Some stars are Broadway stars, and some are film stars, and some are recording stars. I happen to be a stage star." She always maintained a fondness for Zou Zou nevertheless.

Director: Marc Allegret
Producer: Arys Nissotti
Screenplay: Carlo Rim (based on the novel by G. Abatino)
Cinematography: Boris Kaufman, Michel Kelber, Jacques Mercanton, Louis Nee
Editor: Denise Batcheff
Set Direction: Lazare Meerson, Alexandre Trauner
Music: Alain Romans, Vincent Scotto, Georges Van Parys
Principle Cast: Josephine Baker (Zou Zou), Jean Gabin (Jean), Pierre Larquey (Papa Mele), Yvette Lebon (Claire), Illa Meery (Miss Barbara), Palau (Saint-Levy).

by Margarita Landazuri