During the 1930s, Josephine Baker was the toast of the Paris stage due to her unique talents as a singer and dancer. Mixing raw sensuality with cheerful self-effacing humor, she was an extraordinary force of nature who had no peers among the theatrical elite of her day.
But as an African-American, Baker would never have enjoyed that level of stardom in her native country. Indeed, her attempts to capture American audiences were not successful, due to both her race and the exoticism of her act. These two factors also limited her in finding parallel success in movies. Hollywood was off-limits to her, of course, but in Paris she also found difficulty landing roles take took full advantage of her talent. The fact she was able to find film work at all is a testament to her star power, and while her movie work was spotty she nonetheless made the most of the circumstances.
The 1935 feature “Princess Tam Tam” is typical of what Baker had to work with. It is basically a silly but entertaining farce in which a French aristocrat in Tunisia (Albert Prejean) decides to bring a vivacious sheperdess (Baker) back to France under the guise of being a North African princess. He works to polish her free-spirited personality edges and make her into the very essence of a lady. And Baker is perfect as both the diamond-in-the-rough and the polished gem.
If that sounds suspiciously like the plot of “Pygmalion,” you’ve caught on fairly quickly. But the vehicle is fashioned to Baker, particularly at the raucous climax dance where her character forgets all of her training and engages in a wild dance display after consuming too much bubbly and getting carried away by the beat of a nightclub tom-tom drum. Baker is more sedate performing two songs that reveal an amazing voice – many people forget Baker’s singing equaled her legendary dancing.
What is fascinating, from today’s standpoint, was how Baker was the center of white male attention throughout “Princess Tam Tam.” While she doesn’t get a white guy in the conclusion (that would be asking too much of that era), she nonetheless basks in the glow of male attention and clearly works overtime to raise their arousal. From a sociological standpoint, it is a significant cross-racial celebration which Hollywood would not address until many decades later.