Film: Siren of the Tropics (La sirène des tropiques)
Director: Mario Nalpas, Henri Étiévant
Performers: Josephine Baker, Pierre Batcheff, Régina Dalthy
Breed featured: German (?) Shepherd
Production information: La Centrale Cinématographique, 1927 (France)
Josephine Baker nearly explodes off the screen in her feature-length film debut. Full of vigor, beauty, and passion, it’s little wonder that she instantly captivated European audiences while simultaneously alienating American viewers in her rejected homeland who were too deeply entrenched in segregationist rhetoric to appreciate her kinetic artistry. The entwining of racial politics and constructed primitivism is a bit problematic in this colonial backdrop of the French Antilles islands, where the beginning of the film is set. For the purposes of this blog, I’ll just focus on the way that Baker’s character, Papitou, expresses her “natural” animal mystique.
In her opening scene, Papitou witnesses a group of neighborhood children throw a poor cat down a well. She leaps to the rescue and saves the kitten, who’s luckily no worse for the wear. At home, she towels the cat off while her shepherd awkwardly tries to mouth it dry. But with just a bit of gentle, easy chiding, Papitou is able to reconcile cat and dog — a testament to her natural ability to not only tame the beasts around her, but to create harmony between fabled enemies of old.
The dog wasn’t important enough to get his own screen credits or even a name in the story, but he creates a strong visual impression of her primitive roots — one which she chooses to leave behind when she follows her love interest back to Paris. As she slips away, the last (and only) person she bids farewell to is her dog; he expresses a brief, lingering sentiment and pathos as he claws against the door, calling out one last time for his mistress.
Historically speaking, I’m not sure how common shepherd dogs were in the French Antilles — or even if this dog is up to par with contemporary standards of “pure” “German” Shepherds. But it seems that his placement has little or nothing to do with German national identity. Rather, Papitou’s dog is a remnant of the colonial presence that haunts the region, and serves as a metonymic stand-in for the prick-eared, lean and wild-looking village dogs that are typical in so many regions.
However, this dog appears just refined enough that the illusion is penetrated. As if Josephine Baker’s glamor and radiance wasn’t enough to expose the film for its own constructedness! Which brings me to my second point about why I found this anonymous dog’s bit part so unusual and worth highlighting… Even as the image of the GSD was insistently masculinized and militarized by its more prominent appearances in film (Rin Tin Tin), in war, and in text (the GSD was said to only obey the will of women “with reservations”, according to breed founder Max von Stephanitz as cited in Aaron Skabelund, “Breeding Racism: The Imperial Battlefields of the ‘German’ Shepherd Dog,” Society and Animals 16 (2008) p. 360), leave it up to French filmmakers to totally disregard what this type of dog should mean according to Germans. A little bit like Josephine Baker herself, displacement in a foreign context gave this dog the freedom to signify with greater range.