Wednesday 21 January 2015

The Fireman of the Folies Bergère (1928)

Star: Josephine Baker

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

One of the usual reasons I give people for seeking out precodes is to watch things in black and white that they probably wouldn't dream happened before the counterculture revolution. This film, made to promote the infamous Parisian cabaret, the Folies Bergère, isn't a precode because French movies weren't subject to Hollywood rules, but it's another great example of something that seems all the more strange because it's in black and white. IMDb lists the picture, under its French title of Le pompier des Folies Bergères, as a 1930 release, but it probably predates that by a couple of years. It's available today in a Flicker Alley DVD box set entitled Saved from the Flames: 54 Rare and Restored Films 1896-1944 and they suggest that it was probably made to promote Josephine Baker's Vents de Folies revue at the famous venue in 1927-28. Certainly she's the only recognisable face (or body) in this film, which runs without credits and, as Flicker Alley describe it, is 'strangely undocumented'.

Why am I reviewing it under my Weird Wednesdays banner? Well, because it's hardly your average 1928 silent movie, for a start, but given that I'm reviewing so many short films this month, I thought I'd create a feature length set of five weird short films about sex; this one leapt quickly to mind to open it up. Just like the notorious Folies Bergère itself, it's full of naked women, plus one drunken, lecherous, overacting fireman of the sort who would have felt at home at Keystone fifteen years earlier. We don't know who he is but he's clearly enjoying himself and who would blame him, given the context. We're almost as taken aback as he is when the first pair of naked breasts appear in front of him, contorted in a fisheye lens, like the film wants to emulate the style of Luis Buñuel. He's drunk you see, initially on the beauty of what the first copy of the film I saw called 'nacked ballerinas' and the Saved from the Flames release translates as the 'naked dancing girls of the Folies-Bergere', but then on alcohol. They made him thirsty, you see.

And from here, it gets progressively odder. Initially he merely begins to imagine the various ladies in the bar around him without their clothes, clearly a healthy pursuit for a drunken firefighter, especially one so recently surrounded by them on stage at the Folies Bergère. In their notes before the short, Flicker Alley quote the revue's manager, Paul Derval. 'Ah, the naked women,' he said. 'If I ever tried to get rid of them, I might as well close the place down.' Initially we're just surprised to see boobs in a silent (non-porn) film, but then more show up on miniature dancers who cavort in a ring on the drink he spilled on his table. Of course, Georges Méliès was known for this sort of trickery thirty years earlier, so the effects weren't new, but our soused fireman tries to grab for them, as if he could take them home in his pocket, a subversive thought for 1928 and one I haven't seen repeated until Felicia Day's activities in The Legend of Neil. We don't stay in the bar, because our hero is clearly eager for more, so we head off to the Paris Métro.
It's here that he meets Josephine Baker, an American dancer who had to make her name in France as she refused to perform for segregated audiences back home. She quickly became a star, long before her acts in support of the French Resistance during World War II, which won her the croix de guerre, and she was a dynamo as the lead in 1934's Zouzou, arguably the first major feature film to star a black woman. Ernest Hemingway called her 'the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.' This is six years earlier though, as she was consolidating her success at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, where she danced mostly nude in La Revue Nègre, by performing the Danse sauvage at the Folies Bergère in a skimpy outfit of bananas. Given how risqué her outfits were, or what often passed for outfits, it's strange to find that she's the only woman in this film who doesn't strip off for the camera; she merely loses a long dress to dance around in a bra and grass skirt. Our fireman doesn't care. He's hooked.

It's not merely that this silent movie features many unclothed young ladies that makes it weird; it's also whence some of them appear. Thus far, they've all been women who simply become naked women to an inebriated pair of fireman's eyes. But when a fire engine pulls up in front of him, he imagines the crew of fully outfitted men as women wearing only firemen's helmets. Clearly this obsession is going to lead our fireman, more and more reminiscent of Uncle Fester as the film runs on, into serious trouble. My favourite moment though arrives on the bus he hops onto. We're already imagining the cute little thing next to him in the altogether, because she's giggling a little and holding a hatbox on her lap, but it's the priest on the other side who strips first, changing sex as he does so! Of course, our drunkard finds his way back to the station in the end for the inevitable finalé with exercising firemen turning into... yes, you guessed it, nude women doing squats for the camera. Ah, the French.

It never ceases to amaze me how different cultures see things differently. Baker left the United States, her home country, because they wouldn't let her perform in front of white people. Yet, in France, they allowed her to dance almost naked on stage, turned her into a sensation and eventually an icon. They even made films like this, which is really an advert for the cabaret of the title, merely one far more honest than could have been made in the States. We might be used to late night radio commercials for local strip clubs, but would that have happened in 1928? Unthinkable. And with visuals? No way. And featuring naked dancers to show how there would be naked dancers at the revue? Inconceivable! Ironically, given how we would clearly describe this as 'ahead of its time', it also arrived at the biggest moment of change in film history, the advent of sound. Talkies were the rage, but this film remained silent, perhaps because nobody could imagine how to give the anonymous overblown slapstick comedy fireman a voice.

The Fireman of the Folies Bergère can be viewed for free on YouTube.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

In january 1928, there was a comedy played in Eldorado Theater whose title was "Le Pompier du Moulin-Rouge" (by Vercourt and Bever)