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DVD SAVANT

Piccadilly


Piccadilly
Milestone / Image
1929 / B&W & Tinted / 1:37 flat full frame / 92 109 min. / Street Date March 1, 2005 / 29.99
Starring Gilda Gray, Anna May Wong, Jameson Thomas, Charles Laughton, Cyril Ritchard, King Ho-Chang, Hannah Jones
Cinematography Werner Brandes
Art Direction Alfred Junge
Original Music (new score) Neil Brand
Written by Arnold Bennett
Produced and Directed by Ewald André Dupont

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Piccadilly is a fascinating silent filmed just before the British film industry made the changeover to sound. German director E.A. Dupont did for a posh London nightclub what he did for the circus in his classic Variety, an amazing film famous for Emil Jannings washing a woman's back, and dizzying subjective camera shots taken from a flying trapeze.

This time around the drama isn't as engrossing but the setting and leading player are. Dupont makes us feel the glitz of a huge restaurant club dominated by a fancy floor show. Third-billed on the cast but outshining everything around her is American expatriate actress Anna May Wong, a mesmerizing talent presently at the center of an art-film rediscovery.

Milestone's copy of Piccadilly is a restored version that adds 17 minutes to its length and presents the film in its original color tints.

Synopsis:

Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas), owner of the swank Piccadilly Club, fires obnoxious dancer Victor Smiles (Cyril Ritchard) for bothering his star attraction and lover, Mabel Greenfield (Gilda Gray). Victor claims that he was holding up Mabel's end of the act as well as his own, and exits. Meanwhile, a smudged plate rejected by a snooty diner(Charles Laughton) leads Valentine to his own kitchen scullery, where he finds dishwasher Shosho (Anna May Wong) dancing atop a table. He fires her, but in a flash of inspiration has her audition her dance for him. The vain and insecure Mabel worries about this and is upset when her star fades while Shosho's new Chinese act becomes a sensation written up in all the papers. When Shosho and Valentine become lovers, Mabel becomes insanely jealous. But Shosho's male companion Jim (King Ho Chang) is upset and jealous as well ...

When the talkies came in, many film critics lamented the fall in quality of movies. Technical problems and the dialogue-first, visuals-second attitude of new directors from the theater effectively killed off a visual system of storytelling that crossed language barriers and communicated feelings through creative camerawork. Watching a King Vidor or Josef Von Sternberg film of the time proves that silent movies weren't just comedies with the cameras locked down, and the work of Europeans like G.W. Pabst, Paul Leni (The Cat and the Canary) and E.A. Dupont can be an absorbing emotional experience the equal of anything made since.  1

Piccadilly hasn't much of a plot. A killing in show business serves as the third-act hook, much the same as in Variety. But watching the movie is everything. The camera's angles are picked for dramatic effect, not simply because a certain position displays the actors best. It prowls through the various parts of the nightclub - the dance floor, the kitchen, the scullery - and each has a distinctive look. The lead actresses are carefully shot to enhance their characters. Gilda Gray gives off a soft, warm allure while Anna May Wong exerts an almost hypnotic control over the screen through careful angles that make it look as if she's hiding something in that perfect cat-like face.

When Hollywood discovered low-key lighting again, they acted as if dark shadows and visual atmospherics were a new invention. There are plenty of shots in Piccadilly that cameramen Woody Bredell or John Alton would admire. One shot of a beautiful patron seated near the dance floor lights her entire face until a man steps into her key light: Then her face is darkened except for a specifc light across her eyes. It's a subtle choice that has an effect.

Piccadilly is really a show for exotic star-watching. Anna May Wong shares with Josephine Baker the situation of an American actress who had to go to Europe to find an atmosphere where race wasn't such an oppressive factor. The essays on the movie stress Anna May Wong as the iconographic missing link between Brigitte Helm and Louise Brooks (of Pabst's Pandora's Box, the most legendary of these films) and the later Marlene Dietrich. All of these women were conflicted love objects, mesmerizingly beautiful creatures that embodied erotic fantasies. They flourished in stories about women trapped in situations created by the desires of men. Anna May Wong has third billing in Piccadilly and probably less screen time than the adequate but unexciting Gilda Gray, but the movie is entirely hers. When she isn't on screen we're thinking about her, and even though the plot is predictable, her character Shosho is not. In fact, she's more mysterious than any of her contemporaries.

Part of the mystery is the Chinese factor. Dupont sketches a Limehouse world where Chinese talk with Cockney accents, in intertitle dialogue, at any rate. Shosho is no shrinking violet but a force to be reckoned with. Her exact relationship with her helper/valet/bodyguard Jim isn't made explicit except that we know he's crazy about her and may have been her lover in the past. In the present he seems resigned to be her servant.

There's also a surprising sexual confusion angle - I haven't seen many English films from the period but I doubt there are many where the female dancing star has her boyfriend model a dancing costume she wants to buy. It would seem more a function of servitude than any sexual oddness on Jim's part, except that he's later proven to be completely unbalanced in other ways.

In America, Wong could only play bit parts as China Doll princesses or servants. Piccadilly not only exalts her as a sex symbol, it uses the stereotyped "inscrutability" of Asians as a function of her appeal. Many of Shosho's gestures and reactions have a guarded or cryptic quality until we realize that it's all caution and distrust, and to some degree a desire to show her emotions only indirectly. Ms. Wong gets just enough screen time (and careful handling from Dupont) to express a very complicated character. As with Louise Brooks, her beauty encourages us to watch her face carefully for emotional reactions. Shosho turns out to be after the same things her Anglo rival is - fame, attention, a man - it's just that she has to be much more careful.

Piccadilly's sexy cover illustration doesn't reflect anything seen in the movie, but Shosho's "Chinese" dance is a stunner that equals Dupont's earlier performance set-pieces in Variety. Unlike many an American showbiz picture we don't need to read rave headlines in the morning papers to know that she has been a smash hit. Just with Louise Brooks' Lulu, Shosho ends up a casualty of the roaring twenties, a love object that will be consumed by the jealousy and desire of those around her. Piccadilly's murder story isn't all that compelling, but the thematic specifics are. Unlike Lulu, Shosho doesn't carry the onus of an imposed feminine sin. She's not a vampire, intentional or otherwise.

Along with an expressive set design that seems to promise sexual secrets at the top of every stair and behind every doorway, Piccadilly makes a big deal out of liquor in the nightclub. Prohibition audiences must have wished they could afford European vacations when they saw happy people drinking with the kind of abandon shown here. With seventeen minutes missing from the original American release print, perhaps the drinking was the only interesting content still remaining. Seen intact, Piccadilly may be a minor thriller, but it's a mini-classic of its own.

It's impossible to miss Charles Laughton as an Alfred Hitchcock-like patron unhappy over a dirty plate. He's just there for a little bit; this is said to be his first movie. Mabel's conceited dance partner is played by Cyril Ritchard, most famous as Captain Hook in the TV play of Peter Pan 31 years later. He'd also play a lecherous artist in the same year's Blackmail, an early talkie directed by Alfred Hitchcock.


The film-savvy people at Milestone proudly present Piccadilly as a major find. The British Film Institute's restoration is remarkable, from the original titles written on double-decker busses to the specific tints used throughout the film. There may be some debate over the transfer, as it appears to be some kind of PAL to NTSC conversion that mixes and matches fields and frames so that some video frames have ghost images. I don't know why, but I saw this only in extreme slow motion; the original (not the new disc) release of "M" did the same thing, and almost every movement in the picture had a distracting double-printed look to it. When I run Piccadilly at full speed, I see nothing bad at all.

The new score makes for a good backing throughout the movie, with the only possible complaint being that when Shosho comes on to dance for her big number, the orchestration does not change; it's not special enough. Composer Neil Brand contributes a thorough 20 minute interview doc on the rescoring of the film.

There's an unexpected variety to the other extras. We see an original prologue, a foolish talkie setup meant to prepare audiences for the coming of sound. In it the club owner is now an innkeeper in the country and tells a visitor that he'd like to tell the story of how he quit the nightclub racket ... The stiff and creaky one-take scene shows exactly what the movies lost in the first years of talkies.

There's also a taped symposium at a film festival discussion of Anna May Wong, with several authors and Nancy Kwan on the panel. The audio with it is not the best. A DVD-Rom extra has five good essays on the actress as well. There are also galleries of stills and promotion artwork. Author Karen Leong contributes an introduction to the film, and liner notes by Zhang Zhen provide an excellent background on the poor relationship between Chinatown and Hollywood that drove Ms. Wong overseas. Decency laws of the time forbade on-screen kissing between Chinese and Anglos.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Piccadilly rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: 5 minute original talkie prologue; docu on composer; stills galleries; original press kit; Video Excerpts of film panel on Anna May Wong; DVDRom extra: 5 Authors in Search of Anna May Wong
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 1, 2005


Footnotes:

1. No kidding. My wife walked through the room as Piccadilly was playing and said, "Where's the sound?" The movie looks too modern to be a silent.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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