The Josephine Baker Story (1991) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

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.


Lynn Whitfield is topless many times in this film.

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 cause.

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 intended.

7)  When she returned to France, she and her white husband became famous for adopting children from many different ethnic backgrounds - their "rainbow experiment".

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:

  • It's colorful.
  • 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 standards.
  • 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 invented!
  • I don't need a lot more than good music, good photography, and beautiful nudity, but the story is interesting as well.

Tuna says:

I found everything Scoop said to be true.
It is way too much life for one film, but it isn't boring. How could it be? This was one life that merited a biopic, and I would go to see a six hour expanded version. I used to say that the hardest thing in the world to do would be to come while running. I would now say that making a boring biopic about Josephine Baker would have been even ... um ... harder.

Josephine lived in a boxcar with a single mother in St. Louis, and was nearly killed as a child in race riots. She learned that "nobody hates a cute, funny black kid, and made a living as a minstrel show dancer and comedienne. When she was offered a chance to work in Paris, she jumped at it. She found that, not only was black not a bad thing there, but that it was the flavor of the month. She decided she had found her home. Her career soared due to an especially racy banana dance, where she bared her breasts and nearly everything else in a wild jungle-themed frenzy.

She returned to the US for a tour, but found that she went from full citizen and star in France to "nigger" the moment she got off the boat in America

During WWII, she worked for the French resistance until her health wouldn't allow it, then started a USO tour to improve race relations. On her next return to the US, she became a racial activist, but got on the wrong side of the powerful broadcaster and columnist Walter Winchell, who crucified her, calling her a communist, and getting her American Visa revoked. Back in France, she proceeded to fill the castle she owned with orphan children, which she called her "rainbow tribe." Her inability to say no to a child eventually caused her bankruptcy. She died on the second night of a gala retrospective of her life.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

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.

The Critics Vote

  • Maltin says "average"

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.3 
  • With their dollars ... made for HBO
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. Hats off to HBO as usual. It's a very pleasant musical biopic, although you just wish they could have either made it a three-part series or concentrated on a few things instead of spreading a two hour movie out to her entire life. She just did too many interesting things to cover in such a short time. (They barely mentioned her spying, for example)

Return to the Movie House home page