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Kino on Video presents
Siren of the Tropics (La Sirène de Tropique) (1927)

"Me forbid you insult Papitou. Papitou an honest girl."
- Papitou (Josephine Baker)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: June 20, 2005

Stars: Josephine Baker, Pierre Batcheff, Georges Melchior
Other Stars: Regina Dalthy, Regina Thomas, Kwanine
Director: Henri Etievant

Manufacturer: Saga Productions
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nudity, brief violence)
Run Time: 01h:26m:46s
Release Date: June 21, 2005
UPC: 738329039929
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ BBA- B

DVD Review

Josephine Baker, while not appreciated in her home nation, quite quickly found favor in France as both a novelty act and as a serious dancer. She wasn't just a stage performer, however, but also made a handful of films in France. This disc (one of three being simultaneously released by Kino) presents the earliest of those pictures, a silent that nonetheless capitalizes on her music hall dance performances.

The middle-aged Marquise Sévéro (Georges Melchior), a wealthy investor, wants a divorce from his wife Agnes (Regina Dalthy) to marry their young goddaughter, Denise (Regina Thomas). But she wants to marry engineer André Berval (Pierre Batcheff), so the Marquis sends him off to his holdings in the Antilles, with orders to his agent Alvarez (Kwanine) to arrange for a little accident. But Berval ends up rescued by Papitou, a young native girl (Baker) who is exuberant and loves to dance. She immediately falls in love with him, and when he returns to France to marry Denise, Papitou stows away on board the ship too. Once in France, she loses track of Berval, but her dancing catches notice and Papitou is soon the toast of Paris. But the Marquis still has a few tricks up his sleeve.

This picture apparently was meant to serve as a very heavily fictionalized account of Baker's actual rise to popularity. There's more than a little bit of French colonial sneering at her character, and she's considered far outside anything that could be accepted by polite society. That attitude is maintained by the film in her Parisian dance numbers (which seem to be those she actually performed in France), which play up her race and give her a jungle heritage (never mind that she grew up in St. Louis). Although Baker went to France to escape racial discrimination, it seems that things weren't all that much better in France, but she is certainly enthusiastic nonetheless.

Baker very much carries the picture, which is otherwise populated by stiffs and caricatures such as Alvarez. The only exception is Melchior's portrayal of the Marquis, which occasionally gives some glimpses of depth but is mostly enjoyable just for being the villain of the piece. Baker, on the other hand, lights up the screen whenever she's there, with an effervescent attitude, a winning smile and a kinetic athleticism that just doesn't stop, from her physical comedy with a dog to her practically violent Charlestons onstage. There's a certain exploitation element here too; Baker frequently appears topless or nude, helping to magnify that aspect of her persona. The French attitude is exemplified by an officer of the ship on which she has stowed away, when he discovers her in a bath: he puts his hand up in front of his face, but slyly peers around it to get a better look. Perhaps a sense of Baker's own thoughts on the subject can be seen in a sequence where she languidly fans herself with an ostrich feather; for quite some time she appears to be unconscious of her sexuality; then at the last instant before the camera cuts away, she looks full into the camera and gives the faintest of Mona Lisa smiles, as if to say she has caught us naughty boys too.

The camera is nearly as much a part of the film as Baker, with a couple handheld shots, a fair amount of movement and a number of intriguing POV shots. Perhaps the hand of Luis Buñuel, who served as assistant director, can be seen in some of these creative flourishes. The art direction has quite a bit of art deco influence, especially in some of the French interiors, with extravagant semi-circles and thin lines making appearances in unexpected spots. While there are some technical merits, any value or interest that the movie has derive from Baker, and she's certainly worth seeing.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The original full-frame pictures is decent enough for the most part. PAL/NTSC ghosting is visible if you step-frame, but in motion it's barely noticeable. The source print is from an early generation, since it's lovely in its clarity and detail, but the print is unfortunately rather splicey. Missing frames are peppered throughout the running time, and some integral bits of action seem to be completely missing, such as Baker's entrance (which appears to be the punch line to a gag, its setup gone missing) and the attempt by Alvarez to kill Berval. What's here looks very nice, though, and the missing footage may very well be gone for good.

Image Transfer Grade: B

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0(music only)no


Audio Transfer Review: The prolific Donald Sosin contributes yet another score to this DVD, and it's quite appropriate in mood and follows the action well without necessarily Mickey-Mousing it do death. His often frantic piano stylings mix with a cool jazz sense that mirrors Baker and her character quite nicely. The piano segments have excellent presence and resonance. Some portions are played by guitar or a jazz combo, but these lack reverberation and sound somewhat synthetic (though if they are synthetic the technology is definitely improving).

Audio Transfer Grade: A-

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:02m:37s

Extra Extras:
  1. Song Oh! Papitou
  2. Still gallery
  3. Short Fireman of the Folies-Bergere
Extras Review: The first part (18m:38s) of a documentary about Baker, emphasizing her performing career, includes Lynn Whitfield (who played the title role in The Josephine Baker Story), Baker's son Jean-Claude, and others. They discuss her dancing and brief film career as well as her acceptance of nudity as part of what was expected of her. The song Oh! Papitou, written to capitalize on Baker's character in the film, is performed by Steve Ross (English subtitles would have been nice for this song in French). A "scrapbook" section includes stills, a little film clip promo for the picture, and her debut performance in Fireman of the Folies-Bergere, a short (7m:42s) comedy about a drunken fireman who sees himself surrounded by the nude dancers of the music hall. Finally there's a trailer. The layer change is very badly placed in the middle of a musical phrase.

Extras Grade: B

 

Final Comments

Josephine Baker's debut feature (and her debut film appearance in the extras) are given a fine presentation, though the plot is little more than drawing room melodrama for the most part.

 


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