In this silent film, the dancers at a London nightclub get wrapped up in jealousy and murder.
E. A. Dupont
Wong was born Wong Liu Tsong (her name means "Frosted Yellow Willows") in Los Angeles, where her parents ran a laundry. Fascinated by films from an early age, she began acting at 14. A small role in Douglas Fairbanks' The Thief of Bagdad (1924) led to stardom, but fed up with the stereotypical "exotic Oriental" roles, Wong went to Europe in 1928, hoping for better parts. After making two films in Germany, she was cast in Piccadilly by Dupont, who had been working in Britain since 1926.
Dupont, a film critic turned screenwriter and director, had demonstrated a brilliant visual flair with the German film Variete (1925), and had been signed to a contract by Universal. But his stint in Hollywood was unsuccessful, and he returned to Europe. Like Variete, and his earlier British film, Moulin Rouge (1928), Piccadilly demonstrated Dupont's mastery of camera movement and lighting. From the opening scenes, shot in art director Alfred Junge's enormous and complex nightclub set, through noirish scenes of London streets and alleys, Dupont's direction and Werner Brandes's fluid camerawork are stunning.
Although overshadowed by Wong, Gilda Gray gave a strong performance as the aging dancer threatened by her younger, more glamorous rival. The character must have hit uncomfortably close to home. Although she was only a few years older than Wong, Gray had been living hard for more than a decade. Born in Poland (her real name was Marianna Michalska), she emigrated to the U.S. with her family as a child. By the time she was 15, she was a wife and mother, and was singing in her father-in-law's Milwaukee saloon. That's where Gray claimed she invented a dance she called the "shimmy" in 1916. The sexy dance was a sensation, and she left husband, family, and old name behind, and made her way to New York, eventually becoming a star of the Ziegfeld Follies. Signed to a contract at Paramount, Gray made only a handful of films. The part of Mabel in Piccadilly would be her last starring role. In 1929, Gray lost her fortune in the stock market crash, and in 1931 she suffered a heart attack. Her career never recovered from these blows. She died in 1959.
Three future stars also had small or bit parts in Piccadilly. Cyril Ritchard, later an award-winning Captain Hook in the Broadway musical Peter Pan, plays Gray's dance partner. Charles Laughton makes a memorable film debut as a nightclub patron who complains about a dirty dish, setting in motion the club owner's first meeting with Shosho. And Ray Milland can be glimpsed as another nightclub patron.
Piccadilly received excellent reviews, most of them praising Wong's performance. But more and more films were being made with sound, and a few months after Piccadilly's premiere, a version with a sound prologue and synchronized score was released. Even so, Piccadilly was not widely seen. It disappeared for more than 70 years, until the British Film Institute restored it in 2003.
Wong became the toast of London, and starred in a play with a young Laurence Olivier, and another film in Germany, before returning to the U.S. in late 1930. For the next several years, Wong made films in Europe as well as the U.S., but she never again had a role as good as the one in Piccadilly. Her last film appearance was as Lana Turner's maid in Portrait in Black (1960). Dupont followed Piccadilly with his first talkie, Atlantic (1929), made in both English and German versions. He returned to Hollywood in 1932, but made mostly "b" pictures. Unable to get work after being fired from a film in 1939 for slapping one of the Dead End Kids who had made fun of his accent, Dupont returned to journalism, then worked at a series of jobs, making only an occasional film or television program until his death in 1956.
Director: E.A. Dupont
Producer: E.A. Dupont
Screenplay: Arnold Bennett
Cinematography: Werner Brandes
Editor: J.W. McConaughty
Art Direction: Alfred Junge
Cast: Gilda Gray (Mabel Greenfield), Jameson Thomas (Valentine Wilmot), Anna May Wong (Shosho), Cyril Ritchard (Victor Smiles), King Ho Chang (Jim), Hannah Jones (Bessie), Charles Laughton (Night Club Patron).
by Margarita Landazuri
Piccadilly, which has now arrived on DVD, is the movie that perhaps best shows off the talent and beauty of Anna May Wong (Shanghai Express, Daughter of Shanghai), the Chinese-American actress who often lost Asian roles in Hollywood to heavily made-up whites or saw the scope of roles she did land limited by prejudice. In A.E. Dupont's English production, made during Wong's extended late-1920s European foray, she gets to play an active, sensual, smart character, and she's the best thing about the movie. But one of the reasons she's the best thing in it is that Piccadilly is just a middling, albeit above-average tale that at times seems like a blander version of Dupont's similar yet more intense Variety (1925). Falling all over each other to canonize Wong's elegance, those critics and academics have downplayed the overall quality of Piccadilly in favor of the movie's historical significance in relation to Wong's career and Hollywood's racial history. Historical significance certainly elevates Piccadilly's reputation, but overemphasizing it only makes for disappointment for those who come to it expecting a silent classic and get a merely decent story marked by lavish sets, occasionally clumsy camerawork and Wong's star turn.
Like Variety before it, Piccadilly chronicles a show business love triangle that ends in a crime of passion. Here, it's between London nightclub owner Wilmot (Jameson Thomas), his star dancing attraction Mabel (Gilda Gray) and Shosho (Wong), the young Chinese dancer with whom he replaces her onstage and off. Shosho starts the movie as a lowly dishwasher at the club and quickly advances to stardom, but she's no naive wallflower who embraces the good life with wide eyes. She's a diva, and her dance-floor shimmying and backroom maneuvering fuel the plot. She seduces Wilmot, not the other way around, and she also pushes aside her loyal Chinese friend Jim (King Ho Chang) in pursuing the older man. Mabel and Jim both end up pretty steamed at her for it.
Wong's ethnic dance at her nightclub debut and the seduction scene in which she draws Wilmot to her bed are highlights of Piccadilly, but the drama of its love triangle suffers because the person getting two-timed, Mabel, is so peripheral to the emotional action. Dupont doesn't have much interest in her, but by failing to put the burn in her passion, Piccadilly seems more about the glossy surfaces of its sets and costumes than the beating hearts of its characters. Part of the blame for that on the DVD has to go to Neil Brand's new score, which feels one-note, and fails to drop its casual jazz-age airs when the drama intensifies. Another obstacle to getting involved in the story is Dupont's puzzling choice of semi-regularly swinging the camera back and forth between two conversing characters, rather than cutting back and forth between them and mixing in some two-shots (he even does this once when characters are at opposite ends of a room). Judging from the production design, Piccadilly was hardly a cash-strapped rush job, so it's hard to explain Dupont's disconcerting choice. Variety, the only other Dupont film from this period that I've seen, includes no such shots.
Although Piccadilly allows Wang to give a more uninhibited performance than Hollywood ever did, in a role more formidable than anything Hollywood offered her, it would be wrong to call it a totally enlightened movie. Although Arnold Bennett's script confronts racism in a Runyonesque sequence in London's Limehouse district, where a white woman is kicked out of a pub for dancing with a black man (hinting at the public disdain Wilmot and Shosho might draw), there's also a sense that Piccadilly is a cautionary tale, and that after the third-act crime of passion and subsequent inquest we're meant to think rich white man Wilmot regrets ever getting involved with Chinese people (and, by implication, white viewers should keep his experience in mind). A talkie prologue included as a DVD bonus, which was tacked onto the "sound" version of the movie (which added sound effects and music to the existing silent version) only accentuates that notion, with Wilmot now a country publican who practically says as much to an inquisitive customer before launching into the tale of his former days as a Piccadilly club owner.
The Piccadilly DVD is also a scrapbook of sorts, but usually the focus is on Wong and not the movie. There are excerpts from five books about her (a DVD-ROM text feature), a photo gallery and video excerpts from a film festival panel discussion about Wong that is literally unwatchable because of poor audio (couldn't someone have patched into the soundboard instead of inadequately recording sound with the camcorder's remote mike?). As with the movie, much of the extras are interesting, but the amount of micro-analysis and superlatives recently heaped on Piccadilly doesn't always feel merited.
For more information about Piccadilly, visit Milestone Films. To order Piccadilly, go to TCM Shopping.
by Paul Sherman