Sunday, January 15, 2017

Princess Tam Tam

I made it a point to watch Princess Tam Tam off my DVR since it's coming up tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM on TCM as part of the annual Martin Luther King Day salute to black filmmakers. In this case, the person honored is singer/actress/entertainer Josephine Baker.

Max de Mirecourt (Albert Préjean) is a celebrated French writer living not quite happily with his wife Lucie (Germaine Aussey). What makes him unhappy is that she spends so much time with high society types, whom he finds boring, and that makes him unable to write, which in turn ticks off his publisher. Matters come to a head, and he and his assistant Coton (Robert Amoux) go to Tunisia (then a French protectorate) to get away from it all.

It's in Tunisia that Max meets Alwina (Josephine Baker). She's first seen with a flock of sheep, but she doesn't quite seem to be a shepherdess, since she winds up in town stealing oranges and begging for alms. Max first sees her when she's stealing those oranges, and again after she hops on the back of his car to escape the police when she was begging illegally. Max and Coton get the idea of writing a Pygmalion-like story about trying to refine Alwina, whom Max is clearly taken with. Alwina isn't quite certain she likes western culture, but she does like Max.

Matters hit a head when news reaches Max from France that Lucie has been seeing the Maharajah of Datane (Jean Gallard) and is in all likelihood carrying on an affair with him. Max gets the idea of taking Alwina back to France, passing her off as a princess, and making that the subject of his novel. Along the way, he hopes to make Lucie jealous enough to teach her a lesson. Alwina clearly prefers Tunisia, but she loves Max enough to go to France with him.

Alwina is a success as a princess to the point that she's making all the other women jealous. But one night she doesn't want to be in high society, so she goes slumming, which is where she's seen by one of Lucie's friends, who is also slumming. Lucie and the Maharajah devise a plan to show Tam Tam for what she really is. But will the plan succeed?

Princess Tam Tam is clearly a vehicle for Josephine Baker, who milks it for all it's worth. The story is, to be honest, nothing original, what with all those Pygmalion overtones as well as a similarity to a lot of Hollywood comedies about one spouse trying to make the other jealous. But it's still well worth a watch. Baker is quite good, although she only gets two songs and two dances; from what I understand she would have been better served with material that highlighted these talents rather than straight acting. (Not that she's a bad actress.) The second dance, the musical finale, is clearly heavily influenced by Busby Berkeley and is on a par with almost anything Berkeley did from 42nd Street on.

As for the rest of the cast, the ones playing French characters all do well enough; the Maharajah seems miscast but that's probably down to the way the character is written. A good portion of the movie -- the interracial romance aspect as well as the cinematography -- come across as very different from what Hollywood was doing; maybe some of Josef von Sternberg's stuff like The Scarlett Empress could compare. The music, on the other hand, struck me as sounding very conventionally Hollywood. It's 30s style popular band music that fits in perfectly even if it's not particularly memorable. Then again, much of the instrumental popular band music in Hollywood movies from before swing took off is similarly unmemorable. This isn't a criticism of the movie, but a compliment to how well the music fits the movie.

The ending is foreshadowed if you pay close enough attention and is probably appropriate even if it seems like a bit of a cop-out. (I'm trying to avoid revealing exactly what the ending is as I don't want to spoil it.) It doesn't really detract from the rest of the movie, though.

Princess Tam Tam is available on DVD, but as with a lot of foreign films, it's a bit pricier than typical Hollywood movies.

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