For a couple of months I had a silent picture column that came out once a week on Sunday. In that column I covered iconic figures from the silent era ranging from Buster Keaton to Rudolph Valentino to D.W. Griffiths. I enjoyed delving into an era of film that I had left unexplored until that time. Due to some restrictions, I was forced to stop the column, but I still make a point of including more silent pictures in my viewing habits. Because I mentioned this column, I suppose you could guess that this is one of those silent pictures that is all moving images and overwrought music. You would be correct.
Like most silent pictures, I decided to watch Siren of the Tropics because of who is in it and the impact it had on various people’s careers. The star is Josephine Baker and because of this film and a couple of others we have some of her dances captured on film. However that is about all this film is good for. Let me cut to the chase and say this was not a good film. The storytelling was clumsy, the sets were god awful, and the insertion of her dances are always awkward transitions. I would recommend only watching it for Josephine Baker. Man is she charming. Her huge eyes flicker, her crazy athletic legs flail and she has got your attention for the rest of the film. A pity that everyone else paled in comparison.
Let me back up a bit. The film centers around a young woman, her evil godfather, and a lovely young engineer who is in love with the young woman. But twist: so is the married, much older and crazy rich godfather. He would do anything to get this young engineer away from his god-daughter so he sends the engineer to one of his islands to kill him. On the island the engineer meet Papitou (Baker) a half native who is basically a child at heart and loves to be mostly nude. (She was known for her mostly nude dances and she was African-American so it would follow that she would be a native) This Papitou saves and then falls in love with the young engineer (who is basically a walking zombie. He exudes no personality whatsoever) only to have him return to France. She follows him to Paris, gets discovered as an amazing dancer, and finds him only to be incriminated in some tryst plot that the godfather concocted. She gives up her love for the engineer and leaves to become a famous dancer which seems like a way better life than staying married to such a bland man.
The main problem with the film is that there is just not enough Baker in it. She is far from the main character in the film and I guess was only there to add color to the dull plot. But every time she is on-screen, she is doing something so entertaining that it is such a chore to go back to the main plot. In one scene where she sneaks onto a ship because she doesn’t have enough money for passage, her comic timing is impeccable. They play off her being a different color than literally everyone else in the film in such a way that I hope that was the one scene Luis Bunuel got to do (he is credited as assistant director on this picture… I can’t seem to escape him). Then when she dances once in her island home and then twice on the Paris stage (where she does her famous version of the Charleston) she lights up the room with her angular gestures and rubber legs. There is a point in one of the dances that you wonder how she ever got her legs to bend that way. If you watch these dances you can see where famous dancers that have come after her got influenced by her. She is so spectacular that you don’t care a bit what else is going on around her which doesn’t help out the structure of the movie at all.
If you were to watch this film, please don’t expect anything other than fascinating dances, beautiful clothes (on Josephine at least), and nothing else. I am warning you now only watch it if you are interested in Josephine Baker because you will get little else. Trust me. I am only looking out for your well fare.