Josephine Baker in Princesse Tam-Tam (1935)


(director: Edmond Greville; screenwriter: Pepito Abatino; cinematographer: Georges Benoît; editor: Jean Feyte; music: Jacques Dallin/Walter Goehr/Eliseo Grenet/Alain Romans; cast: Josephine Baker (Alwina), Albert Prejean (Max de Mirecourt), Robert Arnoux (Coton), Germaine Aussey (Lucie de Mirecourt), Viviane Romance (Lucie’s Friend), Georges Péclet (Dar), Jean Galland (Maharajah); Runtime: 76; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Arys Nissotti; Kino International; 1935-France-in French with English subtitles)
“The film had bounce despite the slight story, due to the whimsical Baker’s great screen presence.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Edmond Greville in this film variation of the Pygmalion theme uses satire to contrast French civilization with a “primitive” African. The film stars the legendary American Negro singer Josephine Baker, who was an exile living in Paris as a famous cabaret entertainer fleeing to escape America’s racism. The film is written by her then real-life husband Pepito Abatino.

Baker is cast as Alwina, a Bedouin beggar who is spotted stealing oranges by wealthy French novelist Max de Mirecourt (Albert Préjean) and his secretary Coton (Robert Arnoux), visiting African Tunisia as tourists after Max had a fight with his wife Lucie (Germaine Aussey) and is suffering from writer’s block. As a pet project to help him overcome his writing lapse, he decides to educate her and then uses her in an imaginary way to write a novel. This effort succeeds and he brings her back to Paris disguised as Indian Princess Tam Tam to introduce to his society friends.

Meanwhile Lucie has been flirting with a Maharajah (Jean Galland) to make hubby jealous, as Max reads about it in the newspaper society pages and rushes to finish his novel and return home to confront his wife. To give this dull tale a little pep, Alwina falls in love with her mentor in a PG-13 kind of way–though interracial affairs were tabu in Hollywood films during those days, as this controversy caused the film to be banned in the States.

There are spectacular production numbers with chorus dancers. And, Baker, at last, is allowed to be erotic as African drums play and she strips off some clothes to do a native-style dance at a gathering. The high society Parisian crowd loves it, to Max’s chagrin. But when Alwina sees Max kiss his wife, her reason for being here ends and she returns home to live in Max’s African villa. The film concludes as the now more sophisticated Alwina watches a donkey eat a copy of Max’s novel, Civilization.

The film had bounce despite the slight story, due to the whimsical Baker’s great screen presence and the animated musical numbers belted out. The film’s best musical moment comes with Baker spontaneously singing at a bar “Under the African Sky.”

This film was one of the few Baker ever made that were worthwhile seeing. Her 1934 Zou-Zou would be the only other one I could recommend.