Piccadilly

UK (1929) Dir. E.A Dupont

Fame and fortune – is it really worth risking everything over? And why does the rise to the top always bring out the worst in people? It’s a story for the ages, one artists will never tire of telling, and people never tire of hearing.

London nightclub Piccadilly, owned by impresario Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas), is the capital’s hottest venue in town thanks to its star attraction, the dancing duo of Mabel Greenfield (Gilda Gray) and Victor Smiles (Cyril Ritchard). Mabel is in a relationship with Wilmot whilst Victor is in love with Mabel. When he gets a job offer to work in the US, Victor asks Mabel to join him but she refuses and he leaves alone.

Meanwhile, when a dirty plate upsets a customer (Charles Laughton), Wilmot goes to the scullery to investigate and sees Shosho (Anna May Wong) dancing for her colleagues. He fires her but impressed by her dancing, and offers her a spot as a dancer instead, which, after driving a hard bargain, Shosho accepts. An instant hit, Piccadilly’s flagging fortunes are revived, but Mabel is finding it hard to contain her jealousy.

Hollywood’s loss was Britain’s gain in the late 1920’s, thanks to their racist attitude and censorious Hays Code. Not only did they drive away the first female Asian sensation Anna May Wong by limiting her to stereotype roles, they also stifled the creativity of German director E.A Dupont, causing both to seek the freer landscapes of Europe.

Piccadilly is by no means a deliberate rebuttal to Hollywood by Wong or Dupont but a fortuitous in showing the rest of the world what they were missing when the shackles of ignorance and bigotry are off. Written by Arnold Bennett, it could have been set anywhere with a single race cast, but we’d never have this early example of progressive social commentary, complete with controversial interracial kiss, sadly edited here just as it was for the US release.

Originally a silent film but reissued as a part-talkie with a five minute sound prologue, Dupont delivers a rather slow tale of jealousy, manipulation, and tragedy; it is not until 45 minutes in Shosho makes her dancing debut, but this careful approach serves mostly to establish the egregious characters of Wilmot and Mabel. Typical tropes maybe, there is no schadenfreude to be found when Mabel is finally usurped by a mere dishwasher.

Shosho may have torn tights and a slender, boyish frame, but her exotic Asian features offer Wilmot something Mabel’s Caucasian look do – at least we assume this is the attraction since we don’t see the private dance audition in his office. Shosho insists her boyfriend Jim (King Ho Chang) plays the music and together they have Wilmot fork out £80 for a slinky outfit for Shosho to wear.

In her shiny metallic skimpy outfit and huge headpiece that looks like the futuristic attire in a low budget sci-fi flick, Shosho makes her debut at the Piccadilly. Subtly shimmying and seductively swaying her hips while glitter balls reflect fragments of light around her, Shosho enchants the audience with every rhythmic move of her hands, her narrow eyes peering out from behind her cumbersome headgear.

Piccadilly’s new star attraction is offered a big paying contract that gets her out of the slums of Limehouse, but as wide-eyed and innocent as she looks Shosho wants more. To get it that means wooing Wilmot, and as her coquettish teasing of Wilmot bears fruit, Mabel is becoming wise to Shosho’s plan and aims to do something about it.

The term film noir had yet to be invented but like Joe May’s Asphalt, also from 1929, traces of its stylish aesthetic are found in Piccadilly’s presentation if not in the plotting. A scene when Shosho reads the rave reviews in the newspaper and gets ideas of grandeur shows her bathed in shadows from the parted blinds on the window, a noir visual staple, as is the ominous silhouette of an unknown observer later in the film.

Also quite revolutionary was the camera work, in which Dupont often eschews cutaways, instead keeping the same shot going and moving the camera between actors, so when somebody picks something up or hands somebody something, the camera follows their movements. This is used again to shoot the crowd at the Piccadilly, capturing them in one continuous shot with whip pan movements between sections of the layout.

Despite Mabel being the aggrieved party, Shosho becomes the film’s femme fatale, her Asiatic appearance perfectly suits the dangerous aspect of her character whilst remaining enigmatic and alluring, allowing her to convey so much with little effort and maximum ambiguity. And the beauty of it is that there isn’t a hint of stereotyping, caricature, or causal racism in Shosho’s ethnicity whatsoever, an automatic plus.

Hollywood would never have had a Chinese born lead making Anna May Wong’s casting a breath of fresh air and a masterstroke, even though she gets third billing yet Laughton (seen for less than five minutes) is credited just beneath her. It has been lauded as Wong’s greatest role and it is hard to argue; she makes the most of it, effortlessly bringing a unique peccante flavour to the leading lady role most actresses only wish they could.

Also worth noting is a scene where Shosho takes Wilmot to a local dive to drop a huge hint of the life she must escape from, in which a black patron is thrown out for dancing with a white girl. The girl fires back with an almighty rant (not supported by intertitles) that puts the bigot in his place and earns applause from the other patrons. In 1929!

Piccadilly was the last silent film for both Wong and Dupont and a hell of way to end this era of cinema. I don’t know whether it could be remade today without dwelling on the interracial aspect, so enjoy this stirring, progressive, overlooked classic as it is, for what it is.