Monday, August 6, 2012

Piccadilly (1929) - Stunningly Modern for a film from the Silent Era

Original Film Poster Piccadilly 1929
"Piccadilly" (1929).

Either you like silent films, or you don't. There's no middle ground. If you don't, time to move on to something else. If you do, I urge you to give "Piccadilly" (1929) a chance.

Anna May Wong at the nightclub Piccadilly 1929
Anna May Wong doing a little dance in "Piccadilly."

"Piccadilly," written by , is notable for several reasons, but let's cut right to the chase. Anna May Wong, officially billed below Gilda Gray in a real travesty, absolutely owns this picture. This is one of the best showcases of anyone, period, not just in a silent film or for an Asian performer.

Anna May Wong hugging someone Piccadilly 1929
Yes, Anna May Wong was the original dragon lady in "Piccadilly."

Overall, "Piccadilly" is an excellent film drama that any fan of silents absolutely must see. Right from the title sequence, with its original parade of city buses to announce the credits, we can see that we are in for something completely different, and we get it.

Anna May Wong seated Piccadilly 1929
Anna May Wong looking seductive in "Piccadilly."

Anna May Wong stars as Shosho, an Asian kitchen worker who likes to dance when she's supposed to be working. Looking for something original to replace the delightful but outworn dance act of Mabel (Gilda Gray)and Victor (Cyril Ritchard), upscale club boss Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas) decides to take a chance on her as his main act. This opens a doorway to the Asian world of 1920s London and shows very definitely that they (and other minorities) are plain folks like everybody else, with their own passions and predilections and faults.

Anna May Wong looking Pensive Piccadilly 1929
Anna May Wong deep in thought in "Piccadilly."

For me, the real star of the show (besides Wong, who dazzles throughout) is the direction. E.A. DuPont uses so many techniques that later became commonplace that this doesn't look like a silent-era film at all. Tracking shots, 360 degree pans, lingering shots of inanimate objects, it's all there, making me wonder several times if this wasn't actually a film from the late 1930s or even much later. The fish-out-of-water theme also is quite advanced. My personal favorite scene is when Wilmot first enters a darkened Chinese restaurant in order to buy Shosho her (incredibly revealing) Asian costume, and we follow him from the street, through the restaurant, into the back rooms. Very moody, and gives a feel for the time and place that I find lacking in Hollywood efforts of the same vintage.

Anna May Wong Piccadilly 1929
Anna May Wong knew how to wear a headdress in "Piccadilly."

The romantic triangle at the heart of the story is engaging and believable. Mabel, who is romantically involved with Wilmot, doesn't take kindly to Shosho muscling in on both her professional and personal lives. Shosho, though, is no wallflower. When she is first shown putting her hand on Wilmot's, it is quite affecting. Later, when Mable confronts Shosho, it gets a bit melodramatic, but everything still looks quite realistic. The title cards brilliantly captured words that needed to be said, without excess or redundancy. The ending is a twist that you likely won't see coming.

Dance scene Piccadilly 1929
In another year, the Depression began, but things are gay in "Piccadilly"....

Unfortunately, due to the times, there was no kissing allowed for Ms. Wong. They were going to insert such a scene, but it was cut at the last minute. I don't know what they were afraid of, some of the taboos of the past make no sense - and didn't then, either. But she doesn't have to kiss anyone to make a statement about her seductiveness.

Wong Topless Piccadilly 1929
Pre-Code cinema could be quite raw, such as in "Piccadilly."

There is an especially intriguing scene that likely will stay with you long after you see the film, and that is when Shosho and Wilmot go out in public to a bar and witness a woman choosing to dance with a Black man. This gets him unjustly kicked out of the bar. The scene underlines the risqué nature of Shosho's and Wilmot's own affair, and contributes to the film's moody atmosphere. It shows the limits of racial tolerance of the day and illustrates how close to the edge Shosho and Wilmot themselves are treading.

Wong seducing her target Piccadilly 1929
Anna May Wong was called a dragon lady in "Piccadilly."

Charles Laughton, a rising young stage star at the time, is around early on in a scene as an unhappy diner who sets the plot in motion. In fact, the film is worth seeing for that bit alone. But stay for the entire May Wong tour de force, you will enjoy it.

Wong seducing her target Piccadilly 1929


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