Zou Zou / Princess Tam Tam

Two fascinating relics of the French cinema in the mid-30s, both semimusicals starring the great black dancer Josephine Baker in all her glory, and both very interesting for the racial attitudes they reveal. In each feature Baker is paired with a white male star–Jean Gabin as a brother-by-adoption and sailor-turned-electrician in Marc Allegret’s Zou Zou (1934), and Albert Prejean as an aristocratic novelist in Edmond Greville’s Princess Tam Tam (1935)–who is set up as a potential lover, but who eventually passes her up for a white woman. (Even with these supposed safeguards, these movies were deemed virtually unexportable to the U.S. at the time, when big-budget movies starring blacks were unheard of; Princess Tam Tam, the more racist of the two, had a brief American run during the 40s, but only in a highly censored version.) In Zou Zou, which has the somewhat more plausible plot of the two (and was one of the biggest French box-office hits of its year), Baker and Gabin grow up together in the circus and wind up working at the same Paris music hall; in Princess Tam Tam she’s a Tunisian native–almost a Rousseau-like noble savage–discovered by Prejean, a Parisian abroad who uses her as the raw material for his novel, in which he imagines her taking Paris by storm (as Baker herself did in the 20s) and making his wife jealous. Both movies were scripted by Baker’s real-life manager and lover Pepito Abatino and are contrived to show off Baker as the ultimate in exotic chic; and both feature delirious climactic production numbers inspired by Busby Berkeley that shouldn’t be missed. (Music Box, Sunday through Thursday, April 23 through 27)

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