Woody Allen’s new film Midnight in Paris is an entertaining nostalgia trip in which Owen Wilson’s wistful modern day writer is transported every night to 1920s Paris. Allen indulges us in loving, atmospheric recreations of the Jazz Age buoyed by his characteristic wit, this time delivered by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Luis Buñuel .
But the scene most evocative and rich with mystery is one— anomalous for Allen—without dialogue. At a nightclub, Wilson is transfixed by the sight and sound of Josephine Baker. But she is obscured from our view so that we’re not watching her as much as we’re witnessing her hypnotic effect on Wilson.
One can’t help leaving Midnight in Paris with a nagging curiosity, wondering what it was like to witness this phenomenon in the flesh, to see the woman whom brass-voiced Bond movie chanteuse Shirley Bassey called her primary influence. “I swear in all my life I have never seen, and probably never shall see again, such a spectacular singer and performer,” Bassey stated. Though there is no taxicab to transport us to see Baker’s nightclub act, she did make a few films, most notably Siren of the Tropics, Princess Tam Tam, and Zou Zou.
Zou Zou is a star vehicle as well as a fictionalized account of Baker’s rise to fame, co-starring Jean Gabin as her adopted brother and love interest. As a thuggish sailor, Gabin is passionate, earthy, attractive and oh-so-French. When the hilariously lumbering blonde star of the nightclub act complains to Gabin about her Latin lover’s abandonment, Gabin quickly offers the solution: “Kill him.” When that suggestion is rejected, he offers the next best, “Sucide?” Eventually he convinces her that she should run after him whether he wants her or not, because “love is like electricity, it needs contact.” And soon after he pushes her out the window into the rain, Baker gets her shot at the spotlight.
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In watching Baker’s performance scenes, one is struck by a few things that seem to belie and complicate the Baker mystique. While her dancing is undeniably erotic, it seems unconsciously so, more natural and wild than intentionally hypnotic. She doesn’t stop jittering, like a hyperactive child. She is the opposite kind of performer from Marlene Dietrich’s mechanical erotic machine, whose every slow muscle movement seems contrived to turn you on. While there is a wry humor in Dietrich’s knowing winks, Baker’s performance in Zou Zou is overtly comic; she is a clown. This, too, is surprising. Photographs of Baker, with her slicked down hair and slinky poses, do not convey her mugging, endearing, goofball persona. No wonder the French loved her; she was like a dancing Woody Allen! Or a sexy Jerry Lewis (if that description makes any sense): desperately seeking approval.
What kind of animal is Josephine Baker? She certainly has that animal instinct, sometimes as eager to please as a pet and sometimes dangerously feral, that all the sexiest women stars have had. Elizabeth Taylor was nicknamed Kitten and played Maggie the Cat in one film. The fluffy, leonine Kim Novak qualifies as feline. Charlotte Rampling is also like a cat, or a sleek mink. But Josephine Baker may not even be a mammal. Her eroticism is exotic, cold and distanced, and caged. And setting aside for a moment her unforgettable dancing, when she sings it’s like the aural lightning to Bassey’s thunder—clear, bright and electric. So Josephine Baker is a bird, as breathtaking to watch and hard to hold, with a voice that can stop you in your tracks at its mysterious, depth and intricacy. And so it makes sense, then, that she seems much more comfortable when not weighed down by clothes, when she appears wearing only a few feathers.