Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
France, 1934. Les Films H. Roussillon, Productions Arys. Screenplay by Carlo Rim, based on the novel by G. Abatino. Cinematography by Boris Kaufman, Michel Kelber, Jacques Mercanton, Louis Née. Produced by Arys Nissotti. Music by Roger Bernstein, Georges Koger, Louis Wins. Production Design by Lazare Meerson, Alexandre Trauner. Costume Design by Pascaud, Zanel. Film Editing by Denise Tual.
Josephine Baker stars in her first talkie, a charming romance co-starring Jean Gabin. As children they were raised by their adoptive father in the circus, performing as “twins of the south seas”, then grow up to still retain deep affection for each other, though he only sees her as a kid sister and she loves him deeper than that. He was recently expelled from the Navy and now works backstage in a musical revue, while she gets a job as a laundress and quickly becomes one of the most popular girls at the shop. Much to her disappointment, Gabin falls in love with one of Baker’s fellow laundresses, then has his life upended when he is wrongly accused of murder because he stopped to help a man who had been shot in the street. When the star of Gabin’s show takes off for Rio de Janeiro to be with her lover, Baker steps in in her place, deciding the money will help her brother, and is soon, yet again, the toast of Paris, performing in giant plumed dresses and singing lavish musical numbers that rival the most dazzling pieces that Busby Berkeley ever put on screen. It’s another case of Baker being kept from fulfilling a romance with a white man, but her commanding charm never lets her presence feel like it is being manipulated by anyone’s limitations from behind the screen. Baker isn’t entirely a natural in talkies, she shouts a great deal of her dialogue and overexaggerates her mannerisms as if wanting to make sure she reads clearly in the second balcony, but she does it with so much good-natured joy that it’s hard to let it ruin your experience of watching her. The early scenes of domestic family life feel like a Pagnol adaptation of the time, while the lush musical second half shows the legendary performer off at her most powerful.