Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Piccadilly (1929)

Piccadilly is a 1929 British silent melodrama directed by Ewald André Dupont and is perhaps best known as one of the most acclaimed movies made by its star, Anna May Wong. Arnold Bennett, a major literary figure in Britain at the time, wrote the story.

German-born Dupont started his film career as a screenwriter and later director in Germany. He relocated briefly to the United States and then again to Britain where he enjoyed considerable success in the late 1920s. He then tried Hollywood again, with very little success. Moulin Rouge (1928) and Piccadilly, both made in Britain, represented the peak of his career. Piccadilly was a very expensive production and it shows.

Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas) runs the fashionable Piccadilly Club. His headliners are Vic (Cyril Ritchard) and Mabel (Gilda Gray). Mabel is Wilmot’s mistress but Vic has been increasingly overt in his attempts to steal Mabel away from him. The exasperated Wilmot gives Vic his marching orders.

Unfortunately Mabel on her own is not enough to draw in the customers. The Piccadilly Club is struggling and Wilmot is desperate. Then he remembers seeing pretty Chinese scullery maid Shosho (Anna May Wong) dancing in the scullery. He gets her to dance for him and he decides on a colossal gamble. He will attempt to turn Shosho into London’s newest dancing star. Mabel is amused. She is sure that the customers will laugh at Shosho. But they don’t. Her exotic and sensual Chinese dance is a sensation. To be honest she’s not the world’s greatest dancer but she is most definitely sexy. Shosho is soon the toast of London.

Mabel is somewhat jealous of Shoho’s success but the big problem is that Mabel thinks Shosho is trying to steal Wilmot from her. And that is indeed exactly what Shosho is trying to do. Mabel is very upset to say the least. Se reacts the way you would expect a woman to react when faced by a much younger romantic rival.

An added complication is a Chinese boy named Jim. The exact nature of his relationship with Shosho is obscure but he certainly acts as if Shosho belongs to him. He is clearly very jealous.

These romantic and sexual dramas end with a gunshot. We then get a courtroom scene in which various accounts of the events leading up to that gunshot are presented by different witnesses.

It’s pure romantic melodrama but there’s nothing wrong with that. The plot starts to drift a bit towards the end and the climactic courtroom scene is a dreary anticlimax. Courtroom scenes are incredibly difficult to pull off successfully and since by their very nature they’re intensely dialogue-driven they can fall very flat in silent movies.

The acting on the whole is extremely good without any of the exaggerated and histrionic gestures which people often associate with silent films.

Which brings us to Anna May Wong. I’ve seen a few of her talkies and I’ve been underwhelmed by her performances. She did certainly have several things going for her. The camera loved her. She had a definite screen presence. She could be amazingly glamorous and rather sexy. But I’ve always felt that there was something missing. Her performances are just a bit lifeless and her line delivery in talkies is a bit flat.

Seeing her in Piccadilly was a revelation. She really is excellent here. She seemed to be a much much better actress in silent films. She seems more confident than in her talkies and she’s much more lively and vivacious. And she really understood the art of silent film acting.

Shosho is intriguingly ambiguous. We’re not really sure how she actually feels about Wilmot. Does she love him or is she a bit of a schemer?

This movie does try to grapple with racial issues, sometimes clumsily, sometimes more subtly. The plot is however driven mostly by plain old-fashioned sexual jealousy.

This is a very stylish and visually arresting movie. The sets and costumes are lavish. Dupont’s framing of shots is consistently interesting without ever seeming gimmicky or intrusive.

Intriguingly the poster promises us topless dancing from Anna May Wong but we never get to see any. Perhaps some scenes were cut. Perhaps the poster artist just got over-excited. Perhaps British International Pictures figured that the poster would boost the box office.

The BFI’s DVD release looks lovely and best of all they’ve found a print that preserves the original tinting. Not everyone likes tinting but I love it and it’s one of the distinctive things that add to the charm of silent cinema. Apparently it’s accompanied by a newly commissioned score but I can’t comment of the score because I didn’t listen to it. I strongly disapprove of modern scores for silent movies and when I’m unlucky enough to encounter one I always turn the volume down to zero.

Piccadilly is a pretty good movie, it has style and it boasts a very fine performance by Anna May Wong. Highly recommended.

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