Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
Original Title: La sirène des tropiques
France, 1927. La Centrale Cinématographique. Screenplay by Maurice Dekobra. Cinematography by Paul Cotteret, Albert Duverger, Maurice Hennebains. Produced by Louis Aubert. Music by Scott Paulson. Production Design by Eugène Carré, Pierre Schild
Josephine Baker gives a terrific performance in a featured role in this exotic romantic drama. Engineer Pierre Batcheff wants to marry Regina Thomas, but he has a rival in the young woman’s godfather (Georges Melchior), who wants to divorce his wife and take the young girl for himself. Melchior sends the prospective groom on a voyage to “the tropics” on a mining expedition with the intention of never seeing him return, sending along a letter for a local brigand to take care of his romantic competition. Batcheff meets Baker, a native girl who falls deeply in love with him without knowing he is betrothed to another, and who then follows him back to France when he learns of the treachery attempted upon him. Once in Paris, Baker at first works as an au pair before becoming, what else, the toast of the City of Lights in a nightclub dazzling everyone with her Charleston moves. It’s interesting that at least two of Baker’s major roles have her falling in love with white men she can’t have, as if the French couldn’t fully commit to treating black artists such as herself better than they were treated at home in the Jim Crow USA (while claiming otherwise). That said, Baker always preserved a sense of agency to whatever she did, both in taking command of a character that reads as an offensive stereotype, and showing off her dancing skills despite being associated with terms that encourage ideas of her being a “force of nature” (and therefore not sophisticated). Here she also elicits good natured laughs as the rambunctious character who ably performs slapstick comedy in the film’s middle section, where she stows away on Batcheff’s ship heading home. Various scenes are tinted to encourage an impression of the settings (the images turn a bright yellow in the tropics, and night scenes have a dark purple tinge to them), and while the plot outside of Baker’s character has little that is unfamiliar even for audiences of 1927, directors Henri Étiévant and Mario Nalpas move through their cliches with dramatic strength.