TBT: The Josephine Baker Story (1991)

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Legendary dancer and singer Josephine Baker has shown up as a minor character in a few films and her image has been copied and referenced by countless performers. But she’s only had one full biopic, 1991’s The Josephine Baker Story, which premiered on HBO. The movie was well-received at the time, with its star Lynn Whitfield winning the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Special and Hungarian design team of Mária Hruby and Györgyi Vidák earning the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Costume Design for a Miniseries or a Special. Plus, the team of Aldo Signoretti, Ferdinando Merolla, and Jánosné Kajtár were awarded for Outstanding Achievement in Hairstyling for a Miniseries or a Special.

1927, Josephine Baker, banana dance

The real Josephine Baker in 1927, posing in her banana dance costume.

The high production values shine through, although at barely one and a half hours, the film does quite an edit on Baker’s vibrant and complicated life. The highlights are all there — her poor childhood in a deeply segregated St. Louis, MO, and how she escapes to show business, first through comedy by playing blackface on Broadway and then getting a gig that takes her to Paris, France, in 1925. That’s where she immediately shines in La Revue Nègre with the ‘Danse Sauvage,’ appearing topless and wearing a skirt of bananas. While her initial appeal depends on being an exoticized ‘other,’ by studying classical dance and adding singing to her repertoire, she becomes even more popular.  Fame brings wealth, lovers, even a cheetah (yes, really!).

The Josephine Baker Story (1991) - cheetah print

Lynn Whitfield as Josephine Baker, in ’20s Paris, wears animal print while out with her pet cheetah, Chiquita.

The Josephine Baker Story (1991) - cheetah

The fierce cat wears a diamond collar.

1920s, Josephine Baker & Chiquita

The real Josephine Baker & Chiquita.

The Josephine Baker Story (1991) - billboard photo

In the film, Josephine poses for advertisements and all those famous photos (including nudes).

The Josephine Baker Story (1991) - billboard
The Josephine Baker Story (1991) - promo feathers

So many perfect spit curls!

1920s, Josephine Baker

Totally evocative of the real Josephine.

The Josephine Baker Story (1991) - promo fur

I could barely see this glorious hat in the crappy YouTube version I watched. So glad for this promo pic.

1920s, Josephine Baker

True to the real Baker’s style.

Josephine Baker’s success in Europe is contrasted with the blatant racism she experiences when she tries to bring her act back home to America. In 1936, at the peak of her French celebrity, she performs in New York to negative reviews, as well as being insulted by having to enter a posh hotel through the kitchen and not being given a dressing room at her theater. Soon enough, she returns to France and works with the French Resistance during World War II. She also performs for the troops in North Africa, where (in the film’s timeline) she meets her fourth and final husband (a very early first marriage is skipped by the film, and many notable and/or rumored lovers are eliminated, including any women).

The Josephine Baker Story (1991) - 1936 arrival

Arriving in NYC, 1936, resplendent in red.

The Josephine Baker Story (1991) - 1936 Ziegfeld

On Broadway in the ’30s.

1939, Josephine Baker, photo by Harcourt

A photo of Josephine Baker by Harcourt, c. 1939.

The Josephine Baker Story (1991) - WWII

Great ’40s hair!

The Josephine Baker Story (1991) - WWII

She jokes that this is the only dress she grabbed leaving France ahead of Hitler.

After WWII, she revisits America with Miami and Vegas shows in 1951, where she demands the audience must not be segregated. For her civil rights efforts in the U.S., the NAACP has Sunday, May 20, 1951, declared “Josephine Baker Day.” The same year, she goes to the Stork Club in New York City and is notably snubbed by the staff, leading to a very public fight in the press. Disillusioned, Josephine Baker leaves America again. 

The Josephine Baker Story (1991) - stage

On stage in 1951 with a Cuban flair — perhaps a nod to her hugely popular show in Havana of the same period (not mentioned in the movie).

The Josephine Baker Story (1991) - speech

Wearing a Dior New Look style in her Josephine Baker Day speech — the text is partly lifted from her speech at the 1963 March on Washington, alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Josephine Baker Story (1991) - stork club

Dripping with diamonds and furs at the Stork Club.

Back in France, at her grand chateau, she and her husband adopt children from around the world in what Josephine calls “the Rainbow Tribe.” It’s her effort to show that all people can live together, and make up for the harsh childhood she experienced. But her generosity outstrips her finances, causing strife in her marriage, and her husband eventually leaves. Baker hits the road again to perform around the world and support her family, but she can’t keep the chateau going in the end.

The Josephine Baker Story (1991)

Typical of the biopic genre, the film moves from tragedy to triumph and back again, squeezing a life into a narrow format. But if all you know of Josephine Baker are that sexy dance and the iconic photos that have been copied so often, at least this movie gives her life more context for how she became famous and why this African-American woman spent most of her life in France.

 

What do you know about Josephine Baker?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

18 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    I know that she received the Legion d’Honneur for her bravery during WWII for her Resistance work. I believe her medal was actually given to her by General/President DeGaulle. She was hugely popular during the war years. Her act was seen by several prominent Nazis and she used that in her Resistance work.

    I also know she was better treated in France than her own country, which is a shame and her Rainbow Tribe children came from a love of children which she couldn’t have.

    Josephine Baker is definitely worth a couple more biopics/miniseries.

    Reply
      • Susan Pola Staples

        I saw the made for TV movie and read a biography. Her life was interesting to say the least.

        Hopefully, we’ll see more about her.

        Reply
  2. Susan D

    Thanks for all the great photos – of both the real and “reel” Josephine. Sounds like it was out of the scope of the HBO movie, but the documentary & book “Battle of Versailles” have another great image of her, in her late 60’s, owning the stage in a sheer sequined catsuit. #goals #badass

    Reply
  3. Frannie Germeshausen

    How did I miss this? I love her! She has it all – beauty, talent, compassion and heroism. I think I was too poor to have HBO in 1991.

    Reply
  4. Mary C Ryan

    I had the chance to visit her chateau several years ago and can recommend it. I learned so much about Baker that I hadn’t been aware of — notably her work during World War II. Many of her costumes are on display. In the end, it was rather sad to learn of how her generosity outstripped her resources. if anyone visits the chateau, do take in the falconry demonstration. And naturally, the 15th-century chateau is beautiful on its own merits.

    Reply
  5. Elizabeth K. Mahon

    I wrote about Josephine Baker in Scandalous Women, so I read quite a few biographies of her. I know that she also was also a spy during World War II, working for the resistance. Cush Jumbo did a one woman show Off Broadway about Josephine Baker. I agree that we need another miniseries about her, one that goes into more depth than 90 minute movie.

    Reply
  6. Donnalee

    All this background is so revealing. I simply thought of her as a performer whose work I didn’t care for, who was unfortunately treated like crap in the US due to racism, and rather a non-event other than that–it didn’t add up to a lot of reasons for genuine respect for her on my part. I’m so glad to learn there was so much more to her, so thanks for pointing it out, Trystan and commenters, so I can research more. I am old enough now to really LIKE when my view of someone gets changed for the better.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      She was complex, & of course this one biopic can’t capture all of it. But I’m glad that it serves as a jumping off point for discovering more about her :)

      Reply
  7. picasso Manu

    I visited the château des Milandes and it is a beautiful place. Unfortunately, it was also part of her downfall. The château was a money pit… And Josephine was NOT a business woman. She almost literally worked herself to death, trying to keep the place afloat.

    Reply
  8. Elisa

    I shall try to find this one. I adored The Rainbow Children she wrote with her husband and wonderfully illustrated by Piet Worm, as a child. Still do, actually. It’s about a little hen who is snubbed by the other en’s because she only have one eye, and decides to leave the henhouse to find it. The references to her own life is pretty obvious, but I didn’t know that as a child.

    Reply
  9. M.E. Lawrence

    Try to see J.B. in “Zouzou” (1934) as a Parisian laundress who stumbles into show biz, becomes a star, but doesn’t get off with the man of her dreams, her “foster brother” played by the great Jean Gabin. (France may have loved her more than the U.S., but she and Gabin still couldn’t have an on-screen affair.) Anyway, Baker is absolutely charming–something about her combination of grace and goofiness and her very pretty voice. (She’s so fit, too: an example to us all.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GminBbK89FQ

    Reply
  10. Roxana

    I understand and appreciate her motives but adopting a slew of children and putting them on show to make a political point was not the best decision.

    Reply
  11. saffireblu

    I remember seeing a brief glimpse of her in the animated ‘Anastasia’ movie, with her cheetah, when they sang ‘Paris (Par-ee) holds the Key’- & she has a line or two in the song; ‘down what we call La Rue‘.
    I also heard that her Cuba trip made her even more controversial in America- don’t quote me on it; it was a while ago that I read that.

    Would you guys consider doing a WCW on a fellow Resistance member, Nancy Wake ? NZ-born, Australian-raised- she’s got an incredible story; there was a movie starring Noni Hazelhurst (which Nancy herself cameoed in), a much better bio-pic, called ‘The White Mouse’ (her Nazi codename), which came from the biography I recently bought- & the movie, ‘Charlotte Gray’ (with Cate Blanchett as Charlotte) also had her as the inspiration, along with some other Resistance figures… actually- better idea: what about a WCW specifically on Women in the Resistance?

    Reply

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