This biopic had two very large
obstacles to overcome. First , it covered Miss Baker's entire
life, and therefore had to give incidents and characters the
"highlight reel" treatment. Second, it was filmed on the cheap,
entirely in Budapest, with about six international actors and a
bunch of Hungarians.
Despite those limitations, HBO
did its usual classy job on the movie, and turned it into a fairly
interesting picture. Although it is a straightforward biopic which
just recites the facts chronologically, Miss Baker's life was so
full and so intriguing that even a dry documentary-style
presentation is interesting. She was born to a poor fatherless
black family in East St Louis, but became the toast of Paris
before she was 30. Her life may have a half dozen good movies in
it. Nine fascinating facts:
1) She was one of the
legendary jazz-age flappers, more scandalous than most because
she did it all starting in 1925 in the liberated climate of
Gay Paree, where she could sing and dance virtually naked.
2) When Hitler invaded, she
stayed in France and worked closely with the resistance. I
have read accounts from American intelligence officers who
claimed that this was no hype. Apparently Baker's spying had
genuine value, and she was a major contributor to the allied
3) When she finally had to
leave France, she became famous for her biracial USO shows,
which were legendary in their promotion of brotherhood between
black and white soldiers.
4) After the war she got rich
and famous, and acquired a magnificent chateau.
5) She returned to the USA
the first time, before the war, in order to become the first
black woman to head the Ziegfield Follies.
6) In her second return to
the USA, she conducted a legendary feud with Walter Winchell.
This time it was after the war, in the anti-Communist
hysteria, and the ever hysterical Winchell accused Baker of
being soft on communism. The early successes and sell-outs on
her tour were poisoned by Winchell's negative reports, so Miss
Baker ended up returning to France earlier than she had
7) When she returned to
France, she and her white husband became famous for adopting
children from many different ethnic backgrounds - their
8) She managed to lose her
fortune, but then made a late-in-life comeback, and celebrated
her 50th anniversary on the Paris stage.
9) I'm not sure of the exact
number, but she was married a hell of a lot of times.
The Josephine Baker Story is an
easy watch. I'd say the only great weakness of the film is that it
attempted to cover so much material in such a short time. That is
more than cancelled out by many major positives:
- Miss Whitfield does a great
job acting and dancing, and won an Emmy for this role. (Some of
her dancing and all of her singing is doubled).
- The music consists of Jazz Age
- True to the Baker character,
Whitfield is nearly naked throughout the entire first half of
the movie, and she looks great.
- The DVD even has a widescreen
version of the film - pretty amazing for a film made for TV
before DVD was available!
- I don't need a lot more than
good music, good photography, and beautiful nudity, but the
story is interesting as well.
HBO did their
usual stand-up job on this one. Not only is this a fascinating
story well told in a balanced manner (they showed her shortcomings
as well), but the sound track, which mainly consisted of French
ballads with a little Cole Porter thrown in, was wonderful.
It also has what
may be the most beautiful female nudity I have ever seen on film.
Lynn Whitfield shows her breasts and her buns through the first
half of the film, and not only does she have a beautiful body, but
the exotic lighting and sets make the exposure very special.