Viewed through the lens of intermittent slumber, Princess Tam Tam (1935) seems surreal, a wonderful fever dream comprised of exquisitely beautiful close-ups, exotic landscapes and shadowy, opulent interiors -- sometimes a woman throws herself around in an obscure ecstasy; a grinning African beats wildly on a tom-tom. On first viewing, between sleep and waking, the film seemed as gorgeous and hectic as one of Guy Maddin's extravaganzas. Unfortunately viewed from one end to another without interruptions for sleep, the picture seems less visionary and its pervasive racism more troubling.
Princess Tam Tam is a French musical comedy starring Josephine Baker. The premise of the film is that Baker is a Bedouin shepherd girl -- she is supposed to be a desert wanderer and not from sub-Saharan Africa, the first of many peculiar incongruities in the movie. A famous French novelist is suffering from writer's block and vexed with a glamorous blonde wife who not only berates him for his indolence, but, also, repeatedly slaps his face in the frantic opening scene. With a comical side-kick, a bespectacled and staid collaborator, the author flees Paris for Tunisia. There he meets the desert girl, Alwina, played by Baker. The two men are fascinated by the girl who they regard as a kind of noble savage, an exemplar of care-free uncivilized existence -- in fact, the girl is a beggar, kin to the tramp Boudu played by Michel Simon in Renoir's Boudu saved from Drowning. Hovering around the girl, we see a sinister haggard-looking man in a fez named Dar -- a role that would be played by Boris Karloff in dark-face if this were an American film. When this fellow strips Alwina and raises a whip to beat her, the Frenchmen intervene. They decide that they will write a novel about Alwina, a variation of Pygmalion -- the two Frenchmen teach the girl to wear shoes and speak eloquent French and they dress her in haute couture. Her education complete, the novelist and his collaborator travel to Paris where they introduce Alwina as Princess Tam-Tam, an Indian princess, to polite society. Part of their scheme is to induce jealousy in the novelist's beautiful wife who is engaged in a scandalous flirtation with a devilishly handsome Maharajah. (Husband and wife are both hoping to revive their marriage by making the other spouse jealous). In Paris, Alwina's primitive instincts urge her to dance -- she sings and dances in a sailor's dive, an ecstasy witnessed by slumming gossip-mongers associated with the novelist's wife. These trouble-makers get Alwina drunk at an elaborate party hosted by the Maharajah and, once again, the throbbing rhythm of the tom-toms seduces her -- she leaps up and dances frenetically with a mob of blonde chorus girls. Instead of being scorned, Alwina is the toast of the town, renowned for her prowess as a dancer. The novelist's wife flees the party in tears and drives wildly through the streets of Paris. The novelist chases her in his car. There is a wreck, a reconciliation, and, then, it is revealed that we have been watching an enactment of the novel written by the hero -- in fact, the two men have not left Tunisia and Alwina has not been transformed into a socialite, nor has she traveled to Paris. In the end, we see her happily helping her husband, revealed to be Dar -- he is a potter and she holds their baby in her arms.
Obviously shot in a French studio, the film ineptly combines footage of Tunisia with immense, radiant close-ups. The editing is very bad and the suture between the studio imagery and the plein-aire shots in north Africa imparts to the movie some of its dreamlike aspect. In one scene, Alwina sings while her husband Dar rows her about an exotic harbor -- it is a gorgeous sequence, but entirely faked in the sense that Baker is clearly posing with a wind machine and a tapestry-like sail in a studio; when we see the two on the boat, the camera focuses obtusely on Dar's strong corked-up hands on the rudder and the chanteuse strangely turns her face away from the camera, dreamily looking out to the open sea -- this is intercut with spectacular inserts of Baker singing. It's wonderful but completely illogical as mise-en-scene, a characteristic of much of the movie. The movie is full of every kind of good-natured racism that you can imagine: Dar portentously intones the words: "African flowers aren't meant for parlors" -- obviously referring to his crypto-spouse, Alwina. The Maharajah is filmed like a sinister magus -- he hides in dense, moire-like shadows and has a censer leaking picturesque fumes into his expressionistic apartment; the censer looks like it is left over from a Chinese film and has little bronze dogs veiled in haze on its top. In the first scene, we see Alwina rustle a sheep -- she just flings the animal over her shoulders and hurries away with it. The influence of von Sternberg's more extravagant pictures is everywhere evident -- the film features meltingly beautiful close-ups shot in soft-focus using the rim-lighting techniques that silent films employed to make their leading characters so transcendently gorgeous. At the climax, Baker plunges into a baroque whirl of chorines, shimmying wildly and stretching out her limbs to make her body seem huge, a vast black idol spinning around the set. (The Maharajah's party features a wedding cake set with wildly cantilevered steps, the whole thing rotating like a lazy-susan.) Baker's dance numbers are relatively short, but they are exhausting -- she hurls herself around with stage with a kind of unique barbaric splendor: she can kick about twice as high as she is tall. The big dance scene near the end of the film is an eruption of motion cut Soviet-style with montage that grows faster and faster as the dance becomes more frenzied -- the grinning African drummer is intercut in shorter and shorter shots with Baker's vast dance. Here is the key thing about Baker's choreography -- it looks gargantuan; when she spreads her legs to squat on the stage, upper body convulsed in a shimmy, her body occupies the whole image; it's a strange effect but she makes herself look rough-hewn, the opposite of delicate, robust and colossal. Although its a cliché, Baker's dancing is evidence of a savage vitality, the embodiment of some sort of primitive energy -- all of her dances are militant war dances.
In close-up Baker is peculiar-looking. She has bulging eyes and no chin whatsoever, although, in profile, she has a couple of fat deposits on her upper throat -- she isn't conventionally pretty and, in fact, looks a bit like a bug, a cartoon ant, perhaps, cute but a little grotesque. It's hard to imagine her figure under the clothes she is made to wear -- obviously she has very long legs and fantastically muscular buttocks. The film's racism is as pervasive as it is hard to decipher. India, and the mysterious sinister Rajah, is portrayed as an ancient mediator between East and West -- "my house," the Rajah says, "has windows that open to the East and the West." Africa is viewed as part of the East, at least, the Mahgreb has that status -- apparently, Orientalism and the Orient begins just south of the Pillars of Hercules. Baker's dancing is viewed as a primitive attribute -- something that she just does naturally. (In fact, I imagine her every move is intensely studied and practiced.) Baker's ethnicity as a sub-Saharan African is simply denied by the film. The movie ends with the proposition that Oriental women are slaves to their husbands and, perhaps, like to be beaten -- Alwina, certainly, seems happy with Dar, a man that the Europeans could not imagine as her lover since he is seen preparing to flog her for some minor infraction in the garden to the novelist's home. In the end, Alwina has imported ducklings, chickens, goats and sheep into the novelist's villa -- in the final shot, a goat happily eats a book labeled "Civilization." But, perhaps, we should be grateful -- the film's racism is a kind of bitter herb that has embalmed for our delectation several amazing example of Baker's art.