Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Siren of the Tropics (Henri Etievant, Mario Nalpas) 1/2*

Director: Henri Etievant, Mario Nalpas

Cast: Josephine Baker, Pierre Batcheff, Regina Dalthy, Regina Thomas, Georges Melchior

Josephine Baker started dancing proffessionally at the age of 13 and later performed as a chorus girl on Broadway. In 1925, she became a huge star in Paris where she didn't have to deal with the same prejudices that would'v elimited her in the United States. As her popularity began to rise, she began to appear in French films designed to take advantage of her talents. The first of these was The Siren of the Tropics.

Story: Andre Breval wants to marry his girlfriend, but her godfather also has his eyes set on her, and refuses to allow the marriage. He sends Andre on a business trip to the tropics, with a plan for him to never return. While there, he interrupts the attempted rape of an island girl named Papitou (Baker). She returns the favor and later saves his life. She falls in love with him, but he spurns her advances. Undaunted, she flees the islands to make her way to Paris and try to win his love.

Thoughts: Wow, this is a big pile of steaming crap and by far the worst silent movie I have seen to date. Josephine Baker is certainly a talented entertainer, but like Al Jolson, she is not a very good actress (at least she wasn't at this point). Her reactions are overwrought when they should be subtle and blank when they should be overwrought. She isn't helped by the (maybe unintentionally) racist screenplay. For some reason they have Papitou speaking in horribly broken language like "Papitou not go there" throughout the film. However, her father is a white man who speaks perfect English eventhough he's a drunk. It doesn't make any sense. Not only that, but they constantly have her hopping around on bookshelves and chairs and tables like she's an uncivilized creature, despite no one else in the movie acting like this. Maybe the intent was to show off her physical skills, but it came across all wrong. The French may have been more progressive on racial matters than the US at this time, but this film sure makes it look like they still didn't have an overall positive view of minorities. Of course, there are problems of this nature in many films during this era and some people argue that exceptions should be made. The problem with this film is even if you do that, it's still an incredibly stupid story with dull direction and an idiotic resolution.

Postscript: Baker would make a few more movies after this, but would never really gain notoriety as a movie star. She attempted to come back to the U.S., but received terrible reviews from critics and audiences not used to work, or they wer ejust plain racist. Afte rthis, she returned to Paris where she was a major star. She did join the civil rights movement later on and even spoke at rallies with Martin Luther King Jr.

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