Josephine Baker – Beyond “Bronze Venus”

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Josephine Baker 1920’s

Josephine Baker is most celebrated as the “Bronze Venus” and her infamous “Banana Dance” in Paris c. 1927. However, the sum of her life is so much more! I was blown away by her boldness and sexual freedom, but it wasn’t until I saw the 1991 HBO movie starring Lynn Whitfield as Josephine Baker that I started doing research on her life. Whitfield won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Special—becoming the first Black actress to win the award in this category which seems apropos since Josephine Baker was The Lady of firsts.

 

Lynn Whitfield - Josephine Baker Story 1991

I’ve always been intrigued by Baker’s provocative reputation but had no idea of her involvement in the fight for justice, racial equality, and the civil-rights movement.

Born  Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, (June 3, 1906 – April 12, 1975) she was an American-born French dancer, singer, and actress who came to be known in various circles as the “Black Pearl,” “Bronze Venus” and even the “Creole Goddess”. Her parents were Carrie McDonald and Vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson. Growing up poor she started working early cleaning homes and babysitting for wealthy white families.

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Baker dropped out of school at the age of 13 and lived as a street child in the slums of St. Louis. Her street-corner dancing attracted attention from the Dixie Steppers which lead to her opportunity to appear in the groundbreaking and hugely successful Broadway revue Shuffle Along (1921). She performed as the last dancer in the chorus line, a position where, traditionally, the dancer performed in a comic manner, as if she were unable to remember the dance, until the encore, at which point she would perform it not only correctly but with additional complexity. Baker’s act set in motion the career which would make her an international star.

 

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Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston, 1926

 

Josephine traveled to Paris, France, for a new venture, and opened in “La Revue Nègre” on October 2, 1925, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Her erotic dancing and performing in next to nothing made her a sensation in Paris. The bohemian culture of interwar Paris embraced Baker’s skin color, allowing her to catapult to stardom. At the Folies Bergère, she performed the Danse Sauvage, wearing a costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas – voila! – a star is born.

 

 

Josephine Baker became the most successful and highest paid American entertainer working in France and the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture. Baker starred in three films which found success only in Europe: the silent film Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam Tam (1935). She also starred in Fausse Alerte in 1940.

However, despite her acclaim in Europe, upon returning to New York in 1936  to star in the Ziegfeld Follies, she walked right back into good ole American racism. Audiences rejected the idea that a black woman could be so sophisticated and she was replaced by stripper Gypsy Rose Lee later in the run. Time magazine referred to her as a “Negro wench”. She returned to Europe heartbroken.

 

Josephine Baker and the French Resistance of World War II

Josephine returned to Paris in 1937, married a Jewish Frenchman, Jean Lion, and became a French citizen. In September 1939, when France declared war on Germany she was recruited by Deuxième Bureau, French military intelligence, as an “honorable correspondent”. Baker collected what information she could about German troop locations from officials she met at parties. She was awarded the Legion of Honor and given a Medal of Resistance for her work during World War II. She was also the first American woman to receive the Croix du Guerre, a notable French military honor.

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Josephine Baker Legion of Honor

 

 Josephine Baker and the Civil Rights Movement

Though based in France, Baker fought for American civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. When she arrived in New York with her fourth husband French composer and conductor Jo Bouillon, they were refused reservations at 36 hotels because she was black. In 1951 when the famous New York Stork Club refused to serve Baker because she was black, she wrote letters to President Truman and enlisted the aid of the NAACP which focused a spotlight on the issues of inequality and racism in popular establishments.

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(Stork Club Controversy)

Josephine Baker was one of the few female speakers at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, introducing “Negro Women Fighters for Freedom”, including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Congressman John Lewis. The NAACP, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, named May 20th Josephine Baker Day in her honor.

 

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Josephine Baker in French uniform March on Washington 1963

 

“The Rainbow Tribe”

Long before Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s multicultural family, there was Josephine Baker and her “Rainbow Tribe”. Josephine wanted to prove that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.” Baker raised two daughters, French-born Marianne and Moroccan-born Stellina, and ten sons; Korean-born Jeannot (or Janot), Japanese-born Akio, Colombian-born Luis, Finnish-born Jari (now Jarry), French-born Jean-Claude and Noël, Israeli-born Moïse, Algerian-born Brahim, Ivorian-born Koffi, and Venezuelan-born Mara.

 

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Josephine Baker and “The Rainbow Tribe”

 

On April 12, 1975, we lost Josephine after she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, she was 68 years old. She performed right up to her death, starring in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris, Joséphine à Bobino 1975, celebrating her 50 years in show business. The opening night audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, (best known for recording the theme song to the James Bond film Goldfinger (1964), Diana Ross, and Liza Minnelli.

20,000 people lined the streets of Paris to watch her funeral procession. She received a 21 gun salute, making her the first Black American female to be buried with military honors in France. Josephine Baker leaves behind a legacy of accomplishments including breaking color barriers and fighting for justice and equality around the world. I thank her for channeling her celebrity into championing the rights of all.

 

A celebration of Josephine’s Life and Legacy

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“You Can’t Take it With You” 1938

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I enjoy classic television just like classic films so I’m hooked on a tv station called METV. Perry Mason with Raymond Burr is one of my favorites so I usually catch an episode daily. I love the convoluted storylines and the less than plausible show ending of the murderer jumping up in court and hysterically coping to the charge; a full confession no less.

I say all this because an episode the other day featured the scenario of the rich father trying to eliminate his son’s less than a suitable new bride; “There’s $50,000 in the safe for you to fly to Paris and get a divorce.” That’s quite the offer.

Anyhoo, that got me thinking about the brilliant, “You Can’t Take it With You” the 1938 American romantic comedy film directed by Frank Capra, and starring Jean ArthurLionel BarrymoreJames Stewart and Edward Arnold.

 

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Cast with Director Frank Capra

 

Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hartthe film is about a man (Jimmy Stewart) from a family of rich snobs who becomes engaged to a woman (Jean Arthur) who speaks her mind and is from a good-natured but decidedly eccentric family.

The film received two Academy Awards from seven nominations: Best Picture and Best Director for Frank Capra. An iconic director, this was Capra’s third Oscar for Best Director in just five years, following It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). It was also the highest-grossing picture of the year.

I love Jean Arthur’s character (Alice) because she is a strong woman who knows who she is and isn’t afraid to tell Jimmy Stewart (Tony) that his family can go to the blazes because they aren’t better than hers; as a matter of fact, her family understands what Jimmy’s doesn’t, that money isn’t everything and you can’t take it with you. Friends and family are what gives your life worth.

 

Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur

 

Alice, sensing that her engagement to Tony will not be well received by his parents informs Tony that if their engagement is to go forward, he must invite his parents to the house to meet her family. I’m not sure what Tony was trying to prove but, he gives his parents the wrong date so the house is in disarray with the usual family “madness” in full view. (I said they were eccentric.)

 

Just another Tuesday night at the Sycamore house.

For me, the lesson of the movie is to live life to the fullest and cherish your family and friends. Don’t worry about being judged by others, they’re probably just jealous of how happy you are and how miserable they feel.

 

In the words of “Auntie Mame” from the 1958 movie.

The City in the Sky 🎆 Metropolis (1927)

 

Metropolis

 

As a film student at The University of Michigan, I was exposed to the masters of cinema – Chaplin, Murnau, Kubrick, Lang, etc. There, we were challenged to critique and look beyond the surface to the underlying themes. “Metropolis” is supreme in incorporating intriguing layers of sub-texture and sub-plots.

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Moloch Machine

Austrian director Fritz Lang’s German Expressionistic masterpiece helped to develop the science-fiction genre, with innovative imagery from cinematographer Karl Freund, art design by Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, and Karl Vollbrecht and set design by Edgar Ulmer.(set designer for The Phantom of the Opera) It was the last of Lang’s silent films. (Filmsite Movie Review)

 

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Friedrich Christian AntonFritzLang (December 5, 1890 – August 2, 1976)

“Metropolis” was not just some sci-fi flick from the silent era, it’s a visually-compelling allegory set in the dystopic, 21st-century city of Metropolis and represents a brilliant critique of the repercussions of man vs. machine and the brutality of the never-ending class struggle.

Establishing the tone of the film, this statement is presented following the opening credits.

THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN HEAD AND HANDS MUST BE THE HEART!

 

“Metropolis” took over 2 years to complete at ten times the budget for the usual Hollywood production of the time and influenced visuals associated with classic films such as; Chaplin’s war against the machines in Modern Times (1936), the mechanical hand of Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, (1964), or the resemblance between the Maria robot and the droid C-3PO in George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) trilogy of films, and scenes of Los Angeles in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) to name just a few.

This symbolic tale was written by Lang’s wife Thea Von Harbou (from her own novel). Her vision detailed a self-indulgent, futuristic, industrial world built of skyscrapers and bridges incorporating the Art Deco style of the 20s for the 2026 city of Metropolis.

An ultra elite, 1% privileged class of powerful industrialists is juxtaposed with a subterranean environment of the nameless, oppressed and exploited drone-like slave labor class.

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City of Metropolis

Made in Germany during the Weimar Period, Metropolis is set in a futuristic urban dystopia and follows the attempts of Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the wealthy son of the city’s ruler, and Maria (Brigitte Helm), a poor worker, to overcome the vast gulf separating the classes of their city.

Filming took place in 1925 at a cost of approximately five million Reichsmarks. The art direction draws influence from Bauhaus, Cubist, and Futurist design. (Wikipedia)

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Fritz Lang directing the workers

As with all great films, “Metropolis” was influenced by the historical events occurring during its time. Centered around the developing Industrial Revolution and depressed economic times, the film also incorporates the rise of fascism in a pre-Hitler Weimar Republic Germany following World War I.

Another influence of the movie’s themes was the rise of the American labor movement and unions during the 1920s due to oppressive working conditions. “Metropolis”, like the Progressive, investigative journalists of the day, took on corrupt politicians and the establishment in an effort to make people aware of the contrast of poverty with the upper-crust classes of the opulent Roaring 20s.

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I’m a steadfast believer that understanding history is empowering. “Metropolis” tackles the rise of immigration into the US and exploitation of workers at the beginning of the 20th century along with Capitalists exploiting labor. It deals with the conversation of doing what’s right versus greed and the power of modern science.

The creation of the evil android Maria (Bridgitte Helm) was an abuse of science but that same knowledge powered the city in the sky and could have been used to enrich the lives of the subterranean slaves.

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Describing these themes and comparisons in “Metropolis” is like writing a piece for The Nation magazine today. The similarities are frightening like George Orwell’s “1984” or H.G. Well’s “The Time Machine”. It’s dismaying to revisit a film I critiqued back in the ’70s, that was made in the ’20s continues to unfold in the year 2019; only 7 years away from the time of the 2026 Art Deco Metropolis city in the sky.

 

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Does art imitate life or life imitate art? I’m not sure, but in our “reality” tv driven news programming, a low information population, and the “I don’t believe in science” facts, kinda feels like we’re living in the dystopian world of “Metropolis”.

Lest we forget.

THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN HEAD AND HANDS MUST BE THE HEART!

This is a restored version of “Metropolis”

If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend this viewing experience. But, lasting 2 1/2 hours, prepare to settle in with an extra large bag of popcorn.

 

Don’t Be So Mean, Grinch!

“Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot,
But the Grinch, who lived just north of Whoville, did not.
The Grinch hated Christmas — the whole Christmas season.
Oh, please don’t ask why no one quite knows the reason.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right.
But I think that the most likely reason of all
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.”

 

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

 

Theodor Seuss Geisel aka Dr. Seuss is one of the most significant authors in American literature. His classic book, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” has been a lifelong favorite. Known as a children’s author, Dr. Seuss’ cadence and rhyming style (anapestic tetrameter) are both renown and his signature. I believe his gift lies in his ability to convey his philosophy of life in a playful, endearing way. Most of us grew up reading Dr. Seuss and escaping into the wonderful worlds he shared. His other bestselling books bring back precious memories: Green Eggs and Ham, The Cat in the Hat, The Lorax, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, and Horton Hears a Who!


How the Grinch Dr. Seuss

 

On December 18, 1966 “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” premiered as a television special and has continued to entertain and touch my life and the lives of countless children both young and old. It relates the tale of the Christmas plot of the mean ole Mr. Grinch to steal the joy of celebration from the residents of Whoville; it’s Seuss’ spiritual lesson for the true meaning of Christmas.

 

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Print ad of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! 1966

Narrated by the legendary Boris Karloff – also the voice of The Grinch – we are introduced to the world of Whoville and that nasty wasty Grinch.

 

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Boris Karloff and The Grinch

You’re a foul one, Mr. Grinch.
You’re a nasty, wasty skunk.
Your heart is full of unwashed socks, your soul is full of gunk.
Mr. Grinch!
[spoken] The three words that best describe you are as follows and I quote:
[sung] “Stink! Stank! Stunk!”

 

In this version of the story, we don’t really know why The Grinch hates Christmas and the residents of Whoville. Just that his heart is 2 sizes too small. However in the Jim Carrey movie version of Dr. Seuss “How the Grinch Stole Christmas, “we see the flashback of The Grinch as a child and how because he looks different: green and hairy as an eight-year-old he is taunted and teased by his classmates.

For his crush, he makes a Christmas present and tries to shave his face but ends up with toilet paper stuck all over. Everyone laughs at him – including his crush – so he storms out the room climbing up to his mountain exile. Not seen for years, he becomes an urban legend. Flashing forward to The Grinch and his now adult classmates it isn’t hard to understand why Whoville isn’t his favorite town and therefore the Whos love of Christmas has become a thorn in his side.

 

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So, The Grinch gets this inspired idea after seeing his dog Max get snow on his face that sort of looks like a beard. The plan becomes to dress up as Santa, sneak into Whoville and rip off all the houses of presents, toys and even a piece of cheese from a mouse. So low down. Hence “stink, stank, stunk!”

 

How the Grinch Santa outfit

Poor Max wasn’t really down with the plan but was forced to play his part as a reindeer.

 

Enter my favorite resident of Whoville, Cindy Lou Who. I’ve loved her all my life. Her innocence and open heart is a testament to – as John Lennon once wrote: “All you need is love.”

 

Ah, but not even the innocence of Cindy Lou could discourage The Grinch from following thru with his wicked plan.

 

How the Grinch stealing presents

However, The Grinch would come to realize that Whoville is no ordinary town. Even without presents, toys or roast beast, Christmas would still come.

 

How the Grinch Who singing

 

 

 

 

This timeless message of appreciating what you have in friends and family is a gift often lost in this world of envy and greed. Matthew 16:26 “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” Let’s remember the true meaning of Christmas not only during the holidays but every day of the year.

 

Merry Christmas!

Forrest Gump Gratitude 🏃

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“Forrest Gump” (1994)

“Run Forrest, Run!”

Every time I think of the movie “Forrest Gump”, that’s the first quote I hear. Then, “Life’s like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”

 

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Quotes galore plus Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise) and Bubba (Mykelti Williamson). Love this movie!

Forrest Gump’s (Tom Hanks) life is a testimony to gratitude. He understands his challenges but is not hesitant to live his life to the fullest, including telling his childhood love, Jenny (Robin Wright) how he feels about her.

He gets it. Life gives you what you get, so don’t whine, go for it and make the most of your journey. Thank God for his mother, (Sally Field), she didn’t listen to what the”experts” had to say. She did whatever she had to do to provide Forrest with the foundation that he could do anything. With his braces, he had “magic” legs. Turn every so-called obstacle into an advantage. Once again, attitude is everything!

 

 

Forrest is a true inspiration and proof that with support and love we can overcome adversity. Love and compassion make the difference.

Mama, Jenny, Bubba, and Lieutenant Dan. Forrest loved and was deeply loved by those whose lives he touched.

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Trading Places in Gratitude 😎

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“Trading Places” (1983)

“Trading Places” (1983) is a tour de force example of Gratitude meets “walk a mile in my shoes!” Dan Aykroyd is (Louis Winthorpe III) the typical “privileged” ivy leaguer with a twist. He’s not as “top drawer” as he thinks and his life is truly in the hands of the callous Duke brothers – Mortimer ((Don Ameche) and Randolph (Ralph Bellamy).

 

His perfect world is turned upside down by the $1 bet by the brothers to settle the debate of nature vs nurture. Because we’ve got nothing better to do, let’s strip Louis of everything he knows and see if he’ll sink or float.

 

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Randolph and Mortimer Duke

 

What better “brother” switch than with (Billy Ray Valentine) Eddie Murphy, the wily con man who sees the brothers straight up for what they are – numbers runners.

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“Billy Ray”

The parable wouldn’t be complete without the lovely damsel in distress (but in this case with a plan for her own escape). One of my favorite actresses, Jamie Lee Curtis plays “Ophelia”, the classy hooker with a heart of gold.

 

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Jamie Lee Curtis – “Ophelia”

 

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Denholm Elliott – “Coleman”

Louis’s butler/valet, “Coleman” (Denholm Elliott) is hilarious trying to juggle the Duke brothers’ sick plan.

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Dan Aykroyd – “Louis”

Louis’s abrupt experiment in poverty forces him to get his nose out of the air and think twice about judging people based solely on their socio/economic situation.

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After a stint in jail, being reduced to stuffing a whole salmon into his Santa suit (don’t ask, you have to see) and attempting to take his own life, he realizes how shallow his life has been. By coming together with Billy Ray, Coleman and Ophelia he finds out that it’s friends and the love of a good woman that really counts.

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An incredibly important life and Gratitude lesson!

 

However, if you can get rich with your friends and give payback to those who’ve done you wrong (Dukes) go for it! 😎

 

“Looking good Billy Ray!”