Last month (July, 2008) the US Post Office released a pane of stamps featuring “Vintage Black Cinema.” (These are truly lovely, and the only glossy postage stamps I’ve ever seen.) In addition to this one, they are Black and Tan (1929), a 19-minute short featuring Duke Ellington and his band, The Sport of the Gods (1921) written by black poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar (and I can’t find out anything useful about this one), Caldonia (1945), four songs by Louis Jordan, Cab Calloway, and others, linked by a rudimentary plot, and Hallelujah! (1929), the first all-black film produced by a major studio, directed by one of the greats of his day, King Vidor, who apparently convinced MGM to back his labor of love by taking no salary. The last one and this one, starring the incomparable Josephine Baker, are available on DVD, and we decided to watch them.
None of these films really qualify as what were known as “race movies,” which I have some personal memories of. Not that I saw any of them; it would have been unthinkable for a white boy at the time. These were films with all-black casts, designed to appeal to black audiences. Most of them were probably pretty bad, B-movies, but not many of them survive now, so who knows? What I remember is that at the Ideal Theater, just around the corner from my granddaddy’s Duke & Ayres 5 & 10-cent store in Corsicana, Texas, there was an arrangement that was common at the time for Hollywood studio movies. Whites sat on the main floor, and blacks in the balcony. When I went to the movies there (which I did, often) I could turn around and see the Negroes up there, way in the back. And from time to time the Ideal would show a race movie, which only blacks attended. I can’t remember if it was a regular thing, “Negro night” (though in Corsicana at that time another word might have been used), or it might have been matinees only, as it was in some northern theaters. (Yes, there was racism in Yankeeland, too!) I wish I could have seen some of them.
The French Princess Tam-Tam seems at first an odd choice to honor in what is otherwise a selection of American movies. But on reflection I can see the reason. Josephine Baker fled to a more civilized country, France, to make her mark as one of the greatest entertainers of the century because she would not tolerate having to sneak in the back door of American vaudeville theaters, or perform solely in Harlem, which was one of the few places where blacks and whites mixed. (As late as 1951 she was refused service at the Stork Club in New York, which caused Grace Kelly, who was there at the time, to take Baker’s arm and storm out of that snotty shithole with her entire party, vowing never to return. Which she never did. They remained close friends until Baker died.) (Great story!)
So that’s the background. What about the movie? Well, it’s not very good, and quite conflicted about race. (Isn’t just about everything?) Max is a novelist looking for inspiration in Morocco. He discovers Alwina, a childlike, poor girl, and decides to write his next novel around her. He and a friend clean her up, dress her up, teach her how to wreck her feet in high heels, how to talk and walk and generally become as useless as the white women around her. It’s Pygmalion, with racial overtones. There’s even a scene at a racetrack where she becomes too excited, and one at an embassy ball. The snotty French upper crust keep referring to any people with dark skin as “savages,” even a Maharajah who is a more civilized and dignified man than they are. Good, that’s cool, the writer and director clearly want to contrast the naturalness of the Moroccan woman and the artificiality of the whites in a way favorable to the darker races. And yet it is assumed that Alwina will be unable to resist the beat of the “jungle drums” at a fancy party, and thus disgrace herself. (The reason for Max to “civilize” Alwina becomes an attempt to win back his wife … who is totally worthless, just as Max is totally self-absorbed; they deserve each other.) Alwina, naturally, falls in love with Max, but the idea of interracial romance was clearly not on the program. (Lucky Alwina, not to marry that jerk) But the movie ends with her back in Morocco, in a villa that Max has given her (I wish I made that sort of dough as a novelist), feeding goats and chickens in the fancy rooms, married to a suitably dark man, with a suitably dark baby, happy as a savage. What a distasteful muddle this film is. The only thing that rescues it, as a story, is to realize that even this tepid thing could not have been even imagined in America at the time.
But hold on! I’m recommending it. Not highly, but it’s worth 77 minutes of your time to see just a few of the scenes. There is a good one in the opera, savagely exposing the triviality of all the “better” people, and a fantastically good one in a dive bar frequented by dark-skinned people who sing wistfully about how out of place they feel, how they long for their homelands, and Josephine joins in, singing and dancing up a storm. There is a solo song on a boat, and a huge production number at the end with wild dancing from her. My only regret? Josephine Baker famously used to dance in the Folies Bergère wearing pretty much nothing but a few strings of pearls and a skirt made from bananas. Now that I’d like to have seen filmed for posterity!