Josephine Baker and Princess Tam-Tam: Visions of Race and Sexuality
In France during the jazz age, the issues of race and sexuality took on a special importance. Both European cultural and sexual norms were coming into question. The counterculture began to express fears that Europe, both culturally and racially, was becoming stagnant and in need of a revitalizing force. For many members of the avant-garde, the influx of African-Americans and 'African' culture provided them with that force. Though there were naysayers who were critical of the influx of jazz, much of French society embraced it as a new and exciting movement. It was at this time that Josephine Baker, as a member of the Revue Nègre, became a sensation in Paris; her 'Danse Sauvage' with a male partner created an eroticised vision of 'Africa' that appealed to the present needs of the French. Her position as a sexualized and exoticized 'Other' remained an important facet of her persona during the height of her career in the twenties and thirties. It is in this context that one of her films, Princess Tam Tam can be understood. The story of a writer who is able to get rid of both his writers' block and his marital troubles after he goes to Africa and is enchanted by the native woman Alwina, the film touches on many of the themes of race and sexuality that helped to propel Josephine to success and provide a foundation for the popularity of African and African-American culture during that time.
The early twentieth century enthusiasm for primitivism was brought on by attitudes towards race that viewed the 'primitive' as producing an invigorating effect on a decadent Europe, contrasting with the drive for racial purity to 'protect' European culture.
"It could be argued that the most important movements of mind in the twentieth century have been stimulated by racialist thinking, which produced on the one hand the vicious quest for racial purity of Nazi Germany and on the other an enthusiasm among whites for the nonwhite races which was a fertilizing force in much modern art... Racism and its siblings, either primitivism or exoticism, are connected. The primitivist shares the racist's belief that differences between races are meaningful and enduring... but the primitivist is enthusiastic about the characteristics of nonwhite races whereas the racist deplores them" .
Issues of sexuality and racial mixing took a central role in this dialogue. The fear that "the white races, having the artic north behind them, the vast abstraction of ice and snow, would fulfil a mystery of ice-destructive knowledge, snow-abstract annihilation" existed in the minds of the primitivists. Thus many found that it was necessary for some mixing, though not too much. According to racialist thinkers such as Gobineau, "A little racial mixing created vigor, superior hybrids, but too much produced degeneration" . The breakdown of Europe during the first Wold War also disillusioned many Parisians, who turned to non-European cultures. "The glories of European civilization had managed to produce the most destructive, bloody war in human history... One result was a new interest in Africa and blacks as a whole... African culture seemed to embody a lush, naïve sensuality and spirituality that cold, rational Europeans had lost" . It was in this atmosphere that Parisians embraced African-American performers, seeing in them a sort of regenerative ability.
From the debut of Josephine Baker and the Revue Nègre, her career was to capitalize on the racial and sexual ideologies; as a nonwhite woman, Josephine served as a focal point for male colonial fantasies. The creation of a French image of blackness in the Revue Nègre served to focus on the spontaneity and eroticism that were associated with 'Africa'. The French managers, Rolf de Maré and André Daven, were initially unhappy with the Revue and reworked its focus to fit this conception more closely. "They feared [the Revue Nègre] was noisy, with too much tap dancing and too little erotic appeal... It was noisy and inelegant, and, worst of all, it wasn't black enough. The chorus line, which was typical of black revues in Harlem nightclubs and on the Broadway stage, did not seem authentic to the Frenchman. Precision dancing, he thought, might be appropriate for German or English girls, but not for blacks, who, as everyone knew, were instinctive dancers, incapable of discipline" . Thus, the managers decided to make changes in the program, de-emphasizing the nominal star, Maud de Forest, and increasing Josephine's part, including her in a 'savage dance' at the end of the production. This change served a dual purpose; the employment of 'tribal' motifs at the expense of chorus lines and the increased emphasis on sexuality served to eroticize the performers while casting them as Africans rather than African-Americans, thus causing them to be seen as exoticized colonial subjects.
Reviews, both positive and negative, employed racial and sexual ideology in their evaluations. "People agreed it was the sexiest thing they'd ever seen on a stage )"the triumph of lubricity, a return to the manners of the childhood of man"), only disagreeing - but disagreeing violently - over whether that was good or bad" . Negative reviews such as Robert de Flers reveal fears of degeneracy; he describes the show as a "lamentable transatlantic exhibitionism which makes us revert to the ape in less time than it took to descend from it" . Others spoke of the vitality of the dance. André Levinson praised the "wild splendor and magnificent animality" of her performance:
"Certain of Miss Baker's poses, back arched, haunches protruding, arms entwined and uplifted in a phallic symbol, had the compelling potency of the finest examples of Negro sculpture. The plastic sense of a race of sculptors came to life and the frenzy of the African Eros swept over the audience. It was no longer a grotesque dancing girl that stood before them, but the black Venus that haunted Baudelaire" .
André Daven described her as "eroticism personified. The simplicity of her emotions, her savage grace, were deeply moving. She laughed, she cried, then from her supple throat came a song, crystal clear at first, then with a hoarseness that caught at the heart" .
Even as she expanded her repertoire, becoming a more well-rounded performer, themes of colonialism and eroticism reappeared. The 'savage dance' reappeared in other forms, most notably in her appearance at the Folies-Bergère in which she appeared dressed only in a skirt of bananas, dancing in a jungle setting that included a sleeping white male explorer. The purchase of the leopard Chiquita for her performance at the Casino de Paris also served to underline her exoticism. Her status as a racial or colonial 'other' was perhaps demonstrated most fully when she was selected to be the Queen of the Colonial Exposition in 1931, a decision which stirred up controversy, eventually causing her to give up the title. Josephine was initially chosen by France to represent 'the colonial woman' despite the fact that she was actually American, demonstrating that her exoticized and sexualized acts were strongly associated with the idealized notion of the colonial. It is in this spirit that Princess Tam Tam was created; its themes owe a great deal to the racial thinking of the jazz age.
Created as a vehicle by her manager and partner 'Count' Pepito Abatino, the 1935 film Princess Tam-Tam is an expression of the dialogue about race, sex, and colonialism that centered around Josephine and other African-Americans in Paris. The plot begins when a writer, Max, and his wife, Lucia, are having a domestic fight. Max is not only having trouble with his marriage, but is creatively bankrupt and is having trouble writing. He desires to leave his wife's dull society friends and "go among the savages, the real savages!" For Max, the remedy for his creative bankruptcy is through contact with the colonial 'savage'.
He and his friend Coton go to Tunisia, where they encounter the poor Tunisian girl Alwina (meaning 'small source'), who is played by Josephine Baker. Max is enchanted by her naturalness, and when she is found outside his villa, he takes her in, thinking that she would make the ideal subject for a book. He plans to train her and take her to Paris, where she will become a part of high society. As Max is in the process of training Alwina, Lucia becomes involved in a scandalous relationship with a Maharajah, who later becomes infatuated with Alwina. As soon as he reads about his wife's affair, Max decides to make Lucia jealous by passing Alwina off as the princess of Paradour.
She becomes a fixture in polite society, but is clearly unhappy. One night, she makes an excuse not to go to one of Max's social functions, and secretly joins Max's Tunisian servant, Dar, for a night on the town. This culminates in a scene where she does "a savage dance in a sailor's dive" to jazz music; significantly, the power of jazz music is linked to nd is found out by Lucia, who decides to get revenge by embarrassing her at the next party. After getting Alwina drunk, Lucia convinces her to do another dance, interrupting the Busby Berkley-esque production number that was taking place. Alwina's dancing is celebrated by the crowd. Later that evening, Lucia catches up to Max and the two end up in a passionate embrace. Alwina watches from the Maharajah's den, heartbroken. She calls to Dar as smoke billows in front of the screen.
In the next scene, Max and Coton are seen finishing up the story in the Tunisian villa. The bulk of the narrative was, it turns out, Max's story, and they have not yet left Africa. When Alwina comes in, Max tells her that she will not actually be going to Paris, but will be given the villa to live in with Dar. Max publishes the book, entitled 'Civilization', and, while Coton briefly wishes that Alwina could have been there with them, Max states that she is better off where she is. Alwina and Dar are shown living peacefully with their child in the villa. In the final scene, as Alwina is feeding various animals, the camera closes in on Max's book as a donkey eats the title page.
Alwina's ability to revitalize is largely due to her innocence and naturalness, a quality which is emphasized throughout the film. Max is charmed by these qualities, declaring "that little animal moves me. She's so naïve" . Significantly, she is frequently in the company of animals, and in an early dance, she even imitates a chicken. Alwina is shown as distrustful of the accouterments of civilization; confronted with a bed, she chooses to sleep on the floor. To the amusement of Max, her feet are so unaccustomed to shoes that she has significant difficulties when she is asked to wear them. Alwina's eating habits are irregular, so that even her stomach is considered uncivilized. Her naturalness is especially evident through her unbridled dancing. When she arrives in a club and hears African-American jazz musicians, Alwina automatically breaks into a 'savage dance', furthering the connection between Africans living in French colonies and those with American backgrounds. The naturalness of Alwina as a racial 'Other' is significant in that it is this feature that gives her the ability to inspire Max.
Alwina's naturalness is contrasted with the cold and 'civilized' Europeans. Max's initial problem is that his life among Parisian high society has left him creatively drained and unable to write. This lifelessness is further emphasized in the menagerie that Max keeps in his home; in contrast to the lively animals that are associated with Alwina, the 'animals' in Max's home are all statues. Alwina's wish to get away from high society to a place "where real people are having fun" also creates the impression that 'civilized' society is somehow artificial and sterile. Finally, just as dance reveals the uninhibitedness of Alwina, it also serves to create a picture of a restraint. The party scene contains a long dance sequence in which large numbers of chorus girls move in perfect synchronicity; this contrasted with the instinctive dancing of the nonwhite Alwina. In contrast to Alwina and Tunisia, France is presented as both full of order and lifeless.
Other characters' feelings towards Alwina express a range of sentiments towards the 'natural' that connect it with sexuality. Many, particularly Lucia and her circle, frown upon Alwina's naturalness, comparing her unfavorably with an animal. When French women meet with Alwina in Tunisia, they are upset that Max would "subject us to that savage company" and later comment that she smells like musk. In Paris, the women are also critical of her, belittling Alwina for her alleged promiscuity. After witnessing her dance for the first time, Lucia compares Alwina's behavior to a slut's; for her, Alwina's spontaneity is a sign of sexual license. In contrast, Max views Alwina's naturalness as refreshing. Comparing her to a lovely rose that was nurtured by the manure of nature, Max is enchanted with Alwina, who becomes the inspiration behind his novel. Likewise, the Maharajah is enamored with her; significantly, his infatuation is more overtly sexualized. He glares at her passionately, and looks at her as an object to 'capture', like the butterflies in his collection. Thus, Alwina's sexuality is understood in different ways by the white women and the men, both white and nonwhite.
The themes of colonialism, race, and sexuality are prevalent in the main thrust of the plot, creating a male colonialist fantasy in which the colonial woman is viewed as a revitalizing force. The ultimate end of the movie is the creation of 'Civilization' and the rekindling, albeit fictional, of Max and Lucia's relationship. Having fulfilled her purpose, Alwina is left in the colony with her male equivalent, allowing her to return to her 'civilization-free' life. Ultimately, "African flowers aren't meant for parlors" , and thus Alwina must return to her 'natural' lifestyle. While interracial relationships exist in the movie, they do not undermine the relationship between the white couple, but are only allowed to exist in a limited sphere. Contact between 'civilized' and 'uncivilized' can be stimulating, but it remains of a limited sort and is mediated by the needs and wishes of the white man rather than the colonial subject.
Princess Tam Tam provides an interesting glimpse into how African-Americans such as Josephine Baker were molded into a racial and pseudo-colonial 'Other', whose exoticism provided a liberating force. As a locus for European male colonial fantasies, Josephine Baker's sexuality as well as her exoticism and spontaneity were emphasized during much of her career. These themes came to the forefront in films such as Princess Tam Tam, in which Baker is literally cast as a French colonial subject. The racial, colonial, and sexual overtones of the film suggest an understanding of contact in terms of sexuality as well as colonial relationship. In the character of Alwina as well as the central plot, the idea of an exoticized and sexualized 'Other' who is able to invigorate a sterile Europe is presented. In this way, Princess Tam Tam outlines the idealized relationship between the European, masculine subject and the colonial, eroticized object of his desires. This relationship would provide much of the foundation of the French love of jazz and the 'African' in the early part of the twentieth century.
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