Legendary Franco-American entertainer Josephine Baker is perhaps best identified by the “Savage Dance” that skyrocketed her to French music hall fame in the 1920s. She later gained recognition as a diversely talented and innovative performer and became one of the first female superstars of African-American heritage.
But in the early days, performers needed a gimmick to make it in showbiz, and Baker had a winning routine: She cavorted onstage as an exotic African native, barefooted and bare-breasted in a skirt made of bananas.
On Sunday, March 12, the UCSD Arts Libraries will celebrate the centennial of Baker’s birth with a screening of “Siren of the Tropics,” a silent-era film starring the iconic performer. Scott Paulson and his Teeny-Tiny Pit Orchestra will contribute live music and audience interaction to the film.
“Siren” is one of four films Baker made during her lifetime and is her only silent feature film. It was released in 1927 by a Franco-Italian production company and is considered advanced for its time in its use of color and dream sequences.
An African studies director, professor of sociology and author of “Josephine Baker in Art and Life,” Bennetta Jules-Rosette curated the film as part of the Josephine Baker Centennial Celebration.
“If you look at the history of film, European film was already taking risks at that time that weren’t being taken in American silent film,” Jules-Rosette said. “It’s now a classic, and it established and re-enforced Baker’s early image. It’s interesting how it goes through France and also portrays women in the tropics.”
As the plot unfolds, Baker makes several transitions, from free-spirited island girl to slapstick cruise ship stow-away to saintly governess to jazz dancer who becomes the toast of Paris.
“It’s kind of a cinderella story which she plays out in all of her films,” Jules-Rosette said. “She plays a stereotypical Creole woman, so it gives Baker an opportunity to do her Savage Dance. The plot is fairly simple and has a lot of slapstick comedy, but I think it holds its own. It’s very entertaining, and I’m sure that Scott is going to put an interesting score together for it.”
Baker’s other films were shown at UCSD in February to celebrate Black History Month, and “Siren” will be screened in March to celebrate Women’s History Month.
A Josephine Baker exhibit, created by Jules-Rosette, Paulson and several graduate students in African and African-American Studies, has been popular with students and faculty at UCSD and will remain in the Arts Libraries display cases in Geisel Library through April.
“In black history, Baker is often treated as an icon,” Jules-Rosette said. “She was a very successful performer, but more importantly she is remembered for her civil rights campaign. What many people don’t realize is that when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, Josephine Baker gave one right before him. In women’s history, she’s even more important because she did things that women just didn’t do in those days, like fly a plane. She was a French spy in the war. She became a sort of trailblazer.”
Baker was born into poverty in St. Louis in 1906 and left home at age 16 to perform in a traveling vaudeville show. Three years later, she traveled to Paris with the