Anna May Wong in Piccadilly (1929)


(director: E. A. Dupont; screenwriter: Arnold Bennett; cinematographer: Werner Brandes; editor: J.W. McConaughy; music: Neil Brand; cast: Anna May Wong (Shosho), Gilda Gray (Mabel Greenfield), Jameson Thomas (Valentine Wilmot), Cyril Richard (Victor Smiles), Hannah Jones (Bessie), King Ho Chang (Jim), Charles Laughton (A Nightclub Diner); Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: E. A. Dupont; Milestone; 1929-silent-UK)

“One of the overlooked great classic silent films.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Celebrated German silent-film director E. A. Dupont (“Variety”-1925/”Moulin Rouge”-1928), a former film critic, comes to the film by way of Hollywood, to make this lavish Brit silent at a time just before the talkies (the pic was released at the same time talkies appeared). The film was helped by English writer Arnold Bennett, who turned in the fluid screenplay.

Piccadilly is a dazzling visual spectacle and a somewhat lesser suspenseful backstage melodrama. It affirmed the film’s third billed lead, Anna May Wong, to cult star celebrity status. The sensual stylized performance (arguably Wong’s finest role in a film) by the exotically beautiful third-generation Chinese-American, gave full advantage to her sexual charms and charisma. Miss Wong was blocked in Hollywood by racism and fled to Europe to make her mark in films, where the racism was less harsh. Cinematographer Werner Brandes and set designer Alfred Junge, compatriots of Dupont, create an artistic German Expressionistic look and coat London with a colorful sense of modernity in its West End haunts and a sinister visualization when filming in the back streets of the poor Limehouse district, where the Chinese reside.

The film opens to the colorful dance team of Mabel (Gilda Gray, known for popularizing the “shimmy dance”) and Vic (Cyril Richard) being the latest rage in the West End, as they appear to packed crowds in the palatial Piccadilly Club. Vic has the hots for Mabel but the aging dancer coldly rebuffs his advances and his plea to join him on Broadway for her meal-ticket, the much older and wealthier club owner Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas). Charles Laughton appears in his first film in a bit part as a disgruntled gluttonous diner complaining about a dirty dish. This gets the owner’s attention and he goes into the scullery and finds the dishwashers distracted by watching an erotically serpentine tabletop dance by coworker Shosho (Anna May Wong), and Valentine fires her but not before he gives her a private audition in his office. The owner takes care of his other problem the same night, as he fires the conceited Victor for making moves on his lady friend.

When Mabel can’t bring in the crowds alone, the slippery Valentine hires Shosho to be the featured dancer and instructs her to put on an exotic novelty Chinese act. Shosho brings him to her Chinese neighborhood and insists on wearing an expensive generic Asian dress she has specially chosen and that Jim (King Ho Chang, a London Chinese restaurant owner), who is her secret boyfriend, be her musical accompanist on a Chinese stringed instrument. The ambitious Shosho is an overnight smash and Valentine offers her a contract, which Jim is asked to retrieve from Valentine’s office. Jim discovers on Valentine’s desk the lucky piece clay figurine Buddha mascot he gave Shosho, which he believes will bring her bad luck because it’s lost (actually, it’s her loss of innocence that occurs).

Jim, a slightly built Chinese man, gets emasculated by the tall, willowy dancer and the powerful white people he now mingles with, as he gets pushed aside as if he were invisible and Shosho successfully seduces Valentine. This enrages the jealous Mabel, who goes to the Limehouse district to confront the adament Shosho with Valentine’s gun and tells her to leave her white man alone. The film comes to a tragic conclusion that evokes a memorable haunting mood, as the dishwasher’s rise to the top is only short-lived.

The amber-tinted print is an excellent restoration of this all but forgotten silent–it allows us to see one of the overlooked great classic silent films–a film that still seems modern.