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Siren of the Tropics (1927): Josephine Baker is reborn on screen

The best thing I’ve seen so far at this year’s online Slapstick Festival is the French film Siren of the Tropics (Mario Nalpas & Henri Étiévant, 1927), starring one of the all-time greats of the dance world, Josephine Baker. With this movie, Baker became the first Black woman to star in a major studio picture. And it’s a triumph. I was lucky enough to see the film at the festival with an excellent live score played by Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius, which definitely brought up the best of this vivacious film.

Siren of the Tropics may feature one of America’s greatest stars, but it’s a film that could never have been made in America at the time, or for decades later. In the silent era, Anna May Wong set sail for Europe to play romantic leads, escaping Hollywood’s prohibition on what it called miscegenation. In the classical Hollywood musical, Black performers from The Nicholas Brothers to Lena Horne were seen only as “featured players” with no connection to the story – so their show-stopping sequences could be excised from the film for exhibition in the South.

In Siren of the Tropics, Josephine Baker isn’t just the star of the film, she is giving a career-defining star performance. Not least because this film fictionalises the creation of her star persona. It’s the story of a young woman from the Caribbean who falls in love with a white man and follows him to Paris. While searching for him, she is scouted by nightclub impresarios and becomes the toast of the city. Finally reunited with her love, she sees that they can never be together and she makes a sacrifice for him before sailing away to America to start a new life.

Siren of the Tropics (1927)

It’s a complete fiction, but one that hits on all the aspects of Baker’s persona that would have been familiar to her audience. It’s her A Star is Born. Baker’s character, Papitou, displays natural dance talent at home in the fictional Caribbean mining colony of Monte Puebla, grooving on the sand with her friends. She eventually travels to Paris where she becomes feted on the nightclub circuit with an act that involves her both performing an eccentric dance in the torn blouse and satin rompers of her famous plantation routine and also bringing the house down in sequins, lace and feathers as she twirls her limbs in the Charleston: two of her signature moves. Although Papitou is a dancer, not also a comedienne, the film supplies plenty of setpieces for Baker to prove her skills in both disciplines. At the end of the film that Papitou travels to Baker’s actual birthplace, the US.

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