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Zou Zou was Conceived as a vehicle for Josephine Baker, then among Europe's most popular entertainers. This was her debut talking film and a huge success in France upon its original release (and upon its1989 theatrical re-release by Kino International). It is definitely Baker's show, despite the presence of Jean Gabin, who was himself on the brink of international stardom.
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Now on to her performance. When others review Josephine's transition from vaudeville to big screen, she is often criticized. It's obvious that Josephine Baker wasn't a trained actress. But what I love about her performance, particularly in this film, is that she was genuine. You get an essence of who Josephine Baker was, even 67 years after she is long gone and has appeared in "Zou Zou". She was smiling, singing, living, and loving. She never got the man in any of her films, even if she did escape racist America for a more liberated France. In a time where it was an insult for a black woman to be depicted as beautiful, Josephine stood proudly and shaked what her mama gave her - bananas and all!
I love this film for that reason alone, for the opportunity to see Josephine live and in person in her prime. She had a lovely voice, and I didn't see how her acting was "over the top" as others say. In the scene at the end of the movie where she is walking down the street and begins running and crying after seeing her "brother" kiss her white lady friend, I could feel the despair that plagued Josephine's inner self; her pain of being a black woman during a time where she would who never get the man, no matter how beautiful she was. Her performance was genuine. I also appreciate the subtitles option for this DVD. I'm not fluent in French, but truly the words were all I needed mixed with her performance to follow what was going on. I recommend this to all true Josephine Baker fans, I feel it is the best depiction of Josephine Baker that we will get these days.
In the 1920s and 1930s Baker appeared in several popular French films. Released in 1934, ZOU ZOU is a somewhat standard melodrama. Although she is black and he is white, Zou Zou (Baker) and Jean (Jean Gabin) have been raised as brother and sister. In later years she falls in love with him, working as a laundry maid while he works as an electrician at a Paris theatre—but he is oblivious to her affection, continues to regard her as his sister, and falls in love with Zou Zou’s co-worker Claire (Yvette Lebon.) When Jean is wrongfully arrested for murder, Zou Zou becomes the star of the theatre where he once worked, and pours her money into his legal defense.
Although the cast is quite good—Gabin was a star in his own right—ZOU ZOU is Baker’s film. She was not an actress in any trained sense; even so, she registers on film as a memorable performer and a great star. Her presence is a mixture of wild emotion and complete innocence, her arms and legs seem to go on forever, she knows how to command your attention, and it is difficult to think of any other performer with a similar quality. The film itself is somewhat uneven and at times very abrupt, so it is hardly in the realm of “great classics,” but Baker makes it worth watching, and it is interesting to note the film’s distinctly European edge in terms of mild nudity and sexual implications.
At times the film is badly spliced and the photography is streaked and riddled with artifacts. Even so, these problems are not so great as to make the film unwatchable, and the DVD includes several short bonuses about Baker that add to its value. Recommended as a window onto a great star who deserves to be remembered.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer