Apr 14, 2021

Book Review--Josephine Baker's Cinematic Prism


Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism 
Terri Simone Francis 
Indiana University Press, 2021 

Josephine Baker was an anomaly in the early days of black representation in cinema. She never played a maid or a cook and she was always the star of her films. As the energetic star of films including Zouzou (1934), Siren of the Tropics (1927), and Princesse Tam-Tam (1935), she offered a new perspective on Black actresses on the screen. That said, the way she was presented to her public had its complications. In a new book, Terri Simone Francis explores the legendary performer’s image and accomplishments on the screen. 

Before I picked up this book, I’d never watched a Josephine Baker film. I’m not sure why. I’ve enjoyed clips of her singing and dancing, I’ve read two biographies about her, I’ve even read a whole book about her Rainbow Tribe of adoptees from around the world. The only conclusion I can come to is that I assumed that a woman who walked down the streets of Paris with a Cheetah on a leash, had men fighting duals over her, and lived in glamour and chaos for decades could never be half as amusing in a film as she was in real life. 

I’m glad this book inspired me to fill in that hole in my cinematic education. I’m also happy to have been wrong, because while Baker didn’t think much of her films, she had presence and the camera loved her. This academic, but accessible deep dive into her film career and the impact of her image in the movies is thorough in considering what influenced her, how she reflected the current culture, and how she continues to be an influence today. 

Francis explores how Baker’s performance style was inspired by African dance and blues singers like Ethel Waters, Ma Rainey, and Clara Smith (with whom she performed in the US). She put her own comic lens on these varied influences and presented her take with a boldness that would later show in the style of top stars like Diana Ross and BeyoncĂ©. That vibrancy would translate well to the screen, where her mere presence was invigorating in addition to her energetic, unique dance style and solid comic chops. 

Baker’s films were intricate in the way they approached her role in society. While she was the glamorous and charismatic focus of attention, there was always a flavor of exoticism in the way she was portrayed. French colonialism also had a steady pull, keeping her centered, but not quite free. Wealthy white men might have found her alluring, but she was never the romantic focus. Francis thoughtfully details that uneasy balance of stardom and restriction that affected her film work, placing Baker in the complicated history of minstrelsy, Hottentot Venus, and other modes of Black performance and spectacle. 

This is an impressively thorough examination of a relatively short period of Baker’s career that nevertheless had a significant impact on her image and legacy. 

Many thanks to Indiana University Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

Apr 7, 2021

On Blu-ray: Ronald Colman in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (1935)

The 1935 MGM production of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities was the fourth screen adaptation of the novel and the first to be made with sound. It followed the similarly grand David Copperfield, which had been released earlier in the year. While the film explores the drama of the French Revolution on a large scale, it is almost intimate in the way it explores love and sacrifice. I recently watched it on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive. 

The casting of the film for the most part is perfect because it is utterly unsurprising. Basil Rathbone settles cozily into his role as an icy, cruel Marquis, Edna Mae Oliver ties her bonnet and plays the perfect protective servant, and Elizabeth Allen performs with the reserve of someone who knows she is meant to be decorative. 

Ronald Colman on the other hand is a revelation. Throughout most of his career, he tended to play dashing, romantic, and plainly heroic characters. It’s fascinating to see him play a more downbeat and morally complex character. Much like Cary Grant, he could skate by on his charm and handsome face, but he had more to offer as an actor. This was a role he had long wanted and studied for and his total commitment shows in the performance. 

A Tale of Two Cities is a busy film. You get the feeling of a bag being quickly packed, stuffed full of important things that can’t be missed though there really isn’t enough room for everything. It’s a familiar issue for classic adaptations and especially the character-filled stories of Dickens. 

Still, it is an effective production and grand in a way only MGM could achieve at the time. While the crowds and clatter can be invigorating, the best moments focus on Colman and his personal response to public chaos. When in the midst of coldly efficient violence and cruelty he calmly meets his fate, it is immensely touching. In fact, it’s one of the great moments of classic cinema. 

Special features on the disc include a theatrical trailer, the cartoons Hey, Hey Fever and Honeyland, audio of a radio adaptation of the story also starring Colman, and the amusing stereoscopic demonstration short Audioscopicks, which was nominated for an Oscar. 

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection .