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The Siren of the Tropics and The Other (other) Josephine

 


Josephine Baker as she SHOULD be remembered:
on stage, in costume, mid-song

 

 

Josephine Baker has been an idol of mine since I was a child.  That she was born on my half-birthday (June 3rd), is from my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, and became a star in France sparked my affinity for her.  Learning the details of her life deepened my admiration.

I proudly defended her my junior year of high school when my English class was given the assignment to do a research paper on an American who changed the culture of our country. My teacher rejected my subject; he didn’t consider Josephine Baker an American.  I protested, reciting her accomplishments of which he was likely unaware.  In retrospect, perhaps my indignity was an overreaction, but as a high school junior I milked it and wore it as a badge. (This teacher wasn’t my favorite.)

Watching this documentary as a more mature adult, I realized that it’s very likely most Americans are unaware that Josephine Baker did more than dance naked in a banana skirt.  But my argument persuaded him (and I got a high grade!).

The post banana- skirt dance life of Josephine Baker in Philip Judith-Gozlin’s documentary The Other Josephine most likely are unfamiliar to most Americans, who have not idolized her as I have which deserve to be known and remembered.  Snob that I am, this other Josephine in the title was the Josephine I already knew.  Cue comeuppance.

However, in researching this review, I discovered that there is in fact another Josephine whom I didn’t know.  M. Judith-Gozlin reveals clues that point to this more sinister, unstable Josephine.

I do not blame the director for not including the details I uncovered:  perhaps he wasn’t aware, perhaps his project did not permit the time, or most likely, he wanted to ensure Josephine’s legacy includes her accomplishments outside of entertainment.  While the Josephine I discovered is not the Josephine I thought I knew, she remains my hero.

Even though this movie is a documentary, I’m going to issue a semi-spoiler alert,  because I share many details that are in the movie.  To learn and discover from a movie is preferable to learning from my (or any) summary and opinion. That’s not false humility, I promise.

Having said that, reading my post won’t spoil the movie should you choose to attend.  It’s a real treat to see her on film and hear the interviews with her children.

Josephine Baker was born with the name Freda Josephine McDaniel.  Her mother was a laundress, the daughter of slaves, and the movie claims her father, whom she never met, was a white man.  This detail remains in dispute, so I will not claim it as fact, but some sources claim that because of this, he never met his daughter due to the social damage an interracial relationship would inflict on both parties at that time.

She acquired the surname Baker upon her second marriage to a William Baker when she was fifteen years old.

She taught herself to dance; one source claimed her motivation was to busk for money, others that she was motivated to escape the intense racism of St. Louis.  She moved to New York just as the Harlem Renaissance began.  She danced at the Cotton Club, among other venues.

She loved living in New York where she didn’t experience the same degree of discrimination that she had in St. Louis.  She never planned to move to Paris; fate made that decision for her.

Word of the Harlem Renaissance reached Paris, a city that believes it must be on top of every art movement as it emerges.  Donc, a wealthy socialite named Caroline Dudley was tasked with the errand of assembling a troupe of exciting “Negro” dancers for Champs-Elysées Theater owner André Dewers.  Josephine was selected to be part of the Revue Nègre (Negro Revue), a program that sounded more exotic than offensive than it does today.

Doing my research, I was stunned to learn that Josephine did not want to dance naked.  At all. She wanted to wear costumes, but Dewars had cast her in a scene titled La Danse Sauvage (The Dance of the Savage).  He had a clear vision of her evoking the primitive existence Europeans ascribed to Africans before they were enslaved and/or “civilized.”  She shed many tears before allowing herself to follow his dictate.

I find it ironic while Paris may well have been less racist than the United States, Dewars’ insistence on her appearing as a “naked savage” was dehumanizing and not far removed from the racism she believed she left behind in St. Louis.  I believe that it was not until she became famous and her name was known that she was treated as fairly as a French person. The film notes that Josephine never permitted her children to see pictures or films of that era of her life.  It is not clear whether she was ashamed or wanted to limit their exposure to such sexual material.

 


Josephine as she appeared in the “Danse Sauvage.”

 

It’s clear that Josephine was not doing the Can-Can.

Becoming a an overnight star probably made her even less protective of her modesty. She kindled the sexual excitement elicited by her sexual choreography and did not resist her new role as the sex symbol.   She traded in the banana skirt for an even skimpier one made of feathers and danced nude as the Revue toured the continent.

As a celebrity, she began to live her life with the same inhibition, claiming to have slept with thousands of men and women.  While not mentioned in the movie, this is not a rumor.

The exoticism of her dance overlapped into her lifestyle, she spent thousands of dollars on clothes, jewelry, and animals, exotic animals of course:  among the creatures she owned were a cheetah, a goat (Toutoute), a pig (Albert), and seven dogs.  To get an idea of just how famous she was in her heyday, she was the third most photographed woman in the world, after Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford.

The 1920s stopped roaring when the economy killed the fun.  While Josephine could have only become a superstar in Paris, being famous all over the world, she looked forward to performing in her native country.  She was booked to star in a show at the famed Ziegfield Follies in 1936, a venue as prestigious as the Folies Bergères where she regularly headlined.   It proved an early example of her lifelong pattern of miscalculations that brought about painful consequences.

In this instance, the pain was for her.  Josephine changed the rules of the game:  just as Paris allows what will be art, New York anoints stars.  They could not accept a black woman arriving on the Great White (!) Way without their consent.  I think the truth is she had become more sophisticated in Paris than any of the ladies in the audience could ever hope to be.  The New York Times referred to her as a “Negro wench.”

Wounded, she returned to Europe and even moved family members from St. Louis to France. She married a fourth time, to Frenchman Jean Leon.  This marriage allowed her to become a French citizen and inspired her to convert to Judaism.  I found no information claiming she ever renounced her new religion, nor that she practiced it.

Among her many firsts, she, not Sammy Davis Jr., was the first black performer to publicly convert to Judiaism.  (At least he can still be remembered as an amazing tap dancer; Wikipedia should add an asterisk next to the schticky “one-eyed black Jew” jokes that made up a large portion of his act.)

Ultimately, the racism she experienced at home renewed her life’s purpose.  During World War II, she risked her life working for the French Resistance.  She used her fame and contacts to smuggle secrets in her sheet music and was a semi-lieutenant in the French Air Force.  It is interesting to contrast her service during the war with that of her Hollywood peers-  I’m intentionally referring to female stars (male movie stars like Jimmy Stewart did actually risk their lives). Betty Grable posed for a poster, most (not all, but I’m not researching this) actresses never left Hollywood as they filmed public service announcements to buy war bonds and persuade women to be patriotic by sacrificing their pantyhose.  Josephine’s bravery earned her another first:  she is the first American woman to receive a French military medal,and she earned two:  the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de Résistance.

Having helped save the world from Hitler, she dedicated herself to the emerging civil rights movement in America.  She wanted to prove to the world that racism is learned, not intrinsic. Her plan was to adopt a dozen children from different countries, of different races who would grow up together parented by Josephine and her fifth husband, band leader Jo Boullion. She bought a 30 room château in the Périgord region.  This is another first that should be credited to Josephine.  She was the first celebrity to adopt children of different races, not Angelina Jolie.

I appreciated the movie’s interviews with several of her children.  While brief references were made concerning her temper and lack of compassionate parenting skills, I’ve learned that life at the Château des Milandes was not as rosy as Josephine and the movie portrayed.  She forbade the children from studying music and art.  Jo Bouillon organized the house, the finances, and was the more compassionate parent.  Their marriage had become unhappy, and he eventually left Josephine, abandoning the children when he could no longer tolerate her temper and spendthrift ways.

As this occurred during the childrens’ adolescence, it has scarred them.  One child became schizophrenic and according to Der Speigel  in 2009 was living in an institution.  When it became apparent that two of her sons were homosexual, she was surprisingly intolerant.  She reprimanded them, and isolated them from their siblings lest they “infect” them.  Yes, this is the same woman who was openly bisexual and fought for civil rights.

From the movie, I learned that she was the only woman invited by Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at the 1963 March on Washington. “Salt and pepper. Just what it should be,” she said as she looked on the crowd.  Her speech was not as flippant as that one remark.

Remarkably, it changed her:  “Until the March on Washington, I always had this little feeling in my stomach. I was always afraid. I couldn’t meet white American people. I didn’t want to be around them. But now that little gnawing feeling is gone. For the first time in my life I feel free. I know that everything is right now.”

By the late 1960s/early 1970s, Josephine’s poor judgment and financial irresponsibility had finally summoned the Piper.  She had turned the family home into a tourist attraction, but it failed to bring in the necessary income to sustain them and disrupted the children’s lives. She was forced to sell the château at a loss;  international superstar Josephine Baker and her Rainbow Tribe were homeless.  A pathetic photo of Josephine sleeping outside in the rain on the steps of her former home was published worldwide and caught the attention of an old friend.

By the grace of Princess Grace of Monaco Josephine and her children were rescued.  The Princess bought a smaller château in the principality where the children lived until they turned eighteen.   Having achieved stability for herself and her family, Josephine turned her attention back to show business.  She starred in a revue at the Bobino in Paris to commemorate her half-century in show business.   She sold out the house and earned rave reviews.   Four days after her triumphant return to the stage, she was found dead in her bed, surrounded by glowing reviews.

Even in death, Josephine added another first to her list:  she was the first American woman to receive a formal French military funeral.  Despite enjoying acclaim on the stage during her final days, I think she would have been grateful for this gesture.  In France, at least, she was bid adieu in recognition of her bravery, not for having danced in a banana skirt.

 

The Other Josephine is part of a double feature that includes La sirène des tropiques (The Siren of the Tropics), a silent movie in which she starred in 1927.  I strongly recommend taking advantage of this rare opportunity to see Josephine on the big screen.  Unfortunately and predictably cast as a savage who becomes civilized in Europe, her latter incarnation is how I imagine Josephine appeared at her most famous in the 1920s:  gorgeous, glamorous, elegant, captivating, and not platinum blonde!  The movie will have live music performed by the Poor People of Paris, which is the name of their band, not an act of musical charity provided by the St. Louis International Film Festival.  A good friend assures me they’re talented and not French, however, it’s possible that they are poor.  Chépa, moi.

 

 

About 

This site was borne of my passion for movies, particularly French films. I have spent time in France and am fluent in the language, hence the “le”. The “snob” part, while of French origin, is not meant to intimidate, but rather an effort to reclaim the word from the pretentious, just as the gay community has done with the word “queer.” We’re all snobs; we all like what we like.

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