Sunday, May 09, 2021

TCM Classic ’21: Princess Tam Tam

Her story is like a French version of Princess Caraboo, with her masquerading as a phony royal from Tunisia. Actually, she was played by Josephine Baker, an American, so that rather makes her a citizen of the world. There are a lot of less than pristine prints out there, but fortunately a fresh restoration of Edmond T. Greville’s Princess Tam Tam (which we haven’t seen) airs this afternoon as part of the 2021 TCM Classic Film Festival.

Max de Mirecourt’s wastrel wife Lucie is so openly flirting with the rich and vapid men of Paris (particularly the Maharajah of Datane), he must exile himself to Tunisia to write the next novel he owes his publisher without her distractions. Naturally, he brings along his ghostwriter Coton, to do the real work. Before you can say “exotic othering” or another woke buzzword, de Mirecourt is following the misadventures of Alwina, a high-spirited homeless shepherdess.

Much to the surprise of Coton and their Muslim manservant Dar, de Mirecourt takes quite a shine to Alwina. In fact, he decides she could be doubly useful to him, inspiring his next novel and making his galivanting wife jealous, when he brings her to Paris, posing as an African princess. The film takes a turn into
Pygmalion territory when de Mirecourt and Coton start prepping her to fool Parisian high society. Of course, she starts to fall for him and he develops real affection for her, but he still has feelings for his wife as well.

Due to its elements of interracial romance,
Princess Tam Tam was never approved by the Hays Office, so it would be rather ironic if the hyper-sensitive started objecting to its playfully innocent depiction of Alwina. Frankly, the entire farcical premise is just a pretext to get Baker into slinky evening gowns and showcase her in an extravagant Busby Berkeley-style musical number. The big song-and-dance spectacular also features the Comedian Harmonists, the German harmony singers, who were persecuted and eventually banned in their native Germany because three members were Jewish—so it would be a real shame if this film were canceled now.

Really, it is just a frothy romp, but there is no doubt Baker still commands the spotlight. She also shows a flair for physical comedy and even some stunt work. Jean Galland also makes the Maharajah the wisest and second most sympathetic character in the film (even though his skin was admittedly awkwardly darkened for the role). Frankly, the native French characters are all basically idle idiots.

Keep in mind, it would be ten years before Baker made another film (not counting
Moulin Rouge, which incorporated footage from Tam Tam). During that time, she served as an operative for the French Resistance, so show some respect. Baker is an icon, so all of her screen work should be preserved. Yes, Princess Tam Tam is somewhat dated, but it still has its charms. Worth checking out in its newly restored glory, it airs this afternoon (5/9) as part of the TCM Fest (on TCM).