Directed by: Henri Etiévant and Mario Nalpas
Starring: Josephine Baker, Pierre Batcheff, Régina Dalthy, Regina Thomas, Georges Melchior
Siren of the Tropics (1927) is a pretty bad movie. Its plot is absurd, and its structure is as ragged as the tailoring on a $12.95 tuxedo. The story jumps from situation to situation in a manner that’s almost surrealistic. While it’s tempting to think this might be deliberate given Luis Buñuel’s name on the film as assistant director, I suspect it’s largely coincidental, especially since the intertitles appear to make an effort to bridge the narrative gaps. (The titles do not succeed, mind you, but they try.) However, it’s a fascinating bad movie, thanks to its star, the legendary Josephine Baker. I can’t honestly make a case that La Baker is a good actress (though her histrionics tend to match those of the other performers), but she’s a terrific screen presence and when she’s on-screen you can’t take your eyes off her. There’s something positively electric about the woman—even in a silent film where she’s unable to sing and her dancing is imperfectly matched to a rather perfunctory after-the-fact musical score.
The premise—a silly love quadrangle involving a libidinous godfather, his ward, her fiancé and the faithful “native” girl who falls for the fiancé—is preposterous and badly developed (and resolved), but it exists mostly to find reasons to display Baker’s talents—and her body. The film may not be good at much, but it does manage to find reasons for Papitou (Baker) to take her clothes off without much trouble. Almost as fascinating as Baker is the amazing manner in which the film can’t decide what it is. After several reels of melodrama, it turns into a kind of two-reel comedy in which stowaway Papitou is chased around a ship (ending up with her naked in a bathtub, thanks to being covered in coal and flour). It then presents the alarming spectacle of Papitou as a children’s governess (the image of Baker as a nursery maid is beyond belief) before turning into a positively dippy backstage story. You know, with all this screwiness going on, maybe Buñuel did have something to do with this after all. But whether he did or not, the film has Baker, and that’s enough to make it worthwhile.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke