Nationalizing and Segregating Performance: Josephine Baker and Stardom in Zouzou (1934)

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Josephine Baker's first appearance before the motion picture camera as "star" was, by most accounts, a disheartening experience for the famous African American performer. La Sirene des Tropiques (1927) was co-directed by Henri Etievant and Mario Nalpas, with the help of assistant director Luis Bunel. The silent film tells the story of an innocent girl from the tropics who does the Charleston and eventually brings the dance to Paris. Based upon an idea suggested by her manager and lover Giuseppe "Pepito" Abatino, who also costarred, the production was considered by most critics nothing more than a curiosity even upon its release. (1) Many involved with the film, such as Bunel, characterized the finished product as a joke exemplified by tasteless moments featuring the star falling into a flour bin, thus becoming "white," and later suggestively bathing herself to restore her color. Baker found the entire experience humiliating, stating that the "'film brought tears to my eyes. Was that ugly, silly person me?'" (Rose 120). When she once again ventured before the cameras in the 1930s, Baker and Abatino made certain that her first sound production reflected a star persona that the famous dancer could comfortably embrace. Of all her motion picture appearances, Marc Allegret's Zouzou (1934) became Baker's personal favorite. During its production, she said, "'The film enchants me.... Everything seems easy, because I feel the story so very strongly. It all seems so real, so true, that I sometimes think it's my own life being played out on the sets'" (Wood 182).

Such sentiments seem more than just groundless publicity since the film contains a plot purposely reflecting Baker's personality and life story. Zouzou (Baker), a Creole laundress, grows up in the circus along with her foster brother Jean (Jean Cabin). She yearns for stardom onstage and longs for the love of Jean, whom she eventually saves from a false murder charge. Despite her inevitable rise to stardom as a revue singer, Zouzou is left heartbroken as Jean falls in love with her white best friend Claire (Germaine Aussey). The story, based on an idea by Abatino, was tailored for Baker's talents and stage persona. Oddly enough, much of this storyline's construction with its "rags-to-riches" dynamic heavily resembles American musicals, especially the backstage musicals popular at Warner Bros. during the period. Baker's love of the production as a reflection of herself, something definitely not the case with La Sirene, exemplifies Zouzou's position as a star vehicle of a distinctive sort. Typical of many French motion pictures of the early 1930s, the film basically was independently produced, with Arys Nissotti, a Tunisian casino owner, funding the majority of the production. Most likely, Abatino and his client also invested in the film--which, along with its follow-up Princess Tam Tam (1935), showcases specifically how they wished Baker to be seen onscreen. The production intends to redefine how the famous dancer and singer would transition into motion pictures, thus specifying her persona for future star vehicles by correcting the mistakes of La Sirene.

Recent critical responses to Zouzou often focus on the text as an illustration of complex colonial, social, and communal issues prevalent within Paris during the early 1930s. Elizabeth Ezra sees the film as a reflection of a Parisian society in flux between traditional and new communities. By questioning French national identity through multiple presentations of exhibition and theater, the venues depicted in the film establish how "traditional structures of community were being threatened by both the right and left; between the right-wing leagues and the Popular Front." She ties this concept to how cinema was rapidly refashioning "new representations of community as well as new communities of spectators" that ultimately "played into the debate of national identity, eliciting some hostile reactions that fed into a more general nostalgia for a community perceived to be on the wane. …