Considered lost for many years, the 1927 French production “Siren of the Tropics” would’ve probably remained lost and forgotten had it not been host to the feature film debut of Josephine Baker, the dynamic African-American star of the Folies Bergere. While this silent film denies audiences the chance to hear Baker’s wonderful singing voice, the production nonetheless offers a wonderful display of her extraordinary dancing (including her classic rendition of the Charleston), and it also shows that Baker was more than gifted as an actress.
“Siren of the Tropics” surrounds a nasty marquis in love with his comely goddaughter. The goddaughter wants to marry a handsome engineer, and the marquis’ wife will not grant him a divorce because she knows the old goat desires the young girl. So the marquis arranges for the engineer to go on an assignment to the French Antilles, where he runs into the free-spirited Papitou. That’s Baker, who takes what could’ve been a lousy stereotypical part and transforms it into a sensual, funny and genuinely human character. Papitou gets the hots for the engineer and follows him back to Paris. She doesn’t get her white man, but she gets something bigger: stardom as a dancer in a major Paris music hall.
From a sociological standpoint, “Siren of the Tropics” is unusual since the interracial aspect of the film was unusual for its time (over in Hollywood, any mixed race romance involved whites with Pacific Islanders, Asians or American Indians, but never with blacks). Yet it is obvious from the beginning that the love between Papitou and the engineer is strictly one-sided (did anyone really expect miscegenation to triumph in the 1920s?), and it does not help that Pierre Batcheff (as the engineer) is so weak and wooden to the point that Papitou’s infatuation seems a bit weird. In fact, nearly everyone in the cast is pretty awful: the notion of overstated silent movie emoting is on terrible display here, with plenty of teeth gnashing and hand clasping to spare. (The hideous art deco set design will inspire more than a few titters.)
The exception, of course, is Baker and she is clearly superior to her surroundings. She was a natural actress, adept at both broad comedy and weepy melodrama, and her presence is so vibrant that it often feels she’s in her own movie. Whether she’s eating cherries, brushing a cat, or just peering from a window, she is a force of nature and beauty. Even confined to a silent movie, her presence and movements are pure music. Had the climate of that distant era been different, she would’ve been a major movie sex symbol.
“Siren of the Tropics” is not a great movie, but Baker was a great star. It is not asking too much to excuse the film’s inadequacies to appreciate her talents.