Anna May Wong was a film star who was featured in both silent and talking films. Though she had a lot of screen presence and could look achingly beautiful, because of her oriental heritage she usually ended up in movies with an Asian theme. One of the few films that didn't fit this mold was her last silent film, the British 1929 movie Picadilly. Often cited as her finest work, Milestone has released a new 110-minute restoration of this film that incorporates several scenes that have been missing for decades. This is a fine looking DVD that also has a good number of extras included.
Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas) runs the Piccadilly club and restaurant, one of London's most popular nightclubs. The star attraction, and the pair who made the club so popular, is the dancing team of Victor Smiles (Cyrill Ritchard) and Mabel Greenfield (Gilda Gray.) When Victor leaves the club to try his luck in America though, reservations drop off dramatically.
Valentine knows he needs to try something different to get the crowds returning, and when he sees a dishwasher in the scullery, Shosho (Anna May Wong), dancing he gets an idea. He hires her to dance at the Piccadilly, and the exotic woman is an instant hit. With the tables filled again, everything seems to be going well. Mabel, however, finds out that she's losing not only her position as star of the Piccadilly, but also her lover, Valentine, whose taken a shine to Shosho. Shosho's boyfriend Jim (King Ho-Chan) is also jealous of how much time Shosho and Valentine are spending together.
For a drama that was made in the teens, this film holds up surprisingly well. Many dramas of the time degraded to melodrama with clearly delineate good and evil characters. Not so with this film. The motivations behind some of the actions are ambiguous and you're not sure if some characters are manipulating others or not. Much of that has to do with Wong and her strong screen presence (she was billed second after Gilda Gray) and the subtle way she plays her role. She plays Shosho in a very low keyed manner, her true feelings are always a question. What is her relationship with Jim? Are they lovers or just friends? She treats him badly at times, making him dress in women's clothes and demanding that he run errands for her, but at other times she seems very kind and caring to him. Is Shosho actually falling for Valentine, or is she just using him to advance her career? These types of questions, some that are left unanswered, gives this film a very modern feel, and separates it from the majority of dramas made in the 1910's.
Another interesting aspect of this movie is that it didn't have to feature an Asian. Though they do play up Anna's race, having her do an oriental style dance and live in Chinatown, that wasn't the focus of the film. The film would also have worked with a Caucasian from the wrong side of the tracks. The only roles for most orientals at this time was playing the yellow menace or an exotic femme fatal. (An many of those roles were played by whites in heavy makeup.) It is to this film's credit that they didn't make a bigger deal about Anna's race.
This film didn't play out the way I thought it would. The film starts out with a love triangle between Mabel, Valentine, and Victor, but that is abruptly dissolved when Victor leaves about twenty minutes into the film. The end was also surprising in a couple of ways and the turn the narrative takes at the end shocked me a bit.
A fine film that shows how alluring Anna May Wong could be, and what a fine actress she was. Also be sure to watch for a young Charles Laughton who has a wonderful bit part as a diner upset by a dirty plate.
The musical soundtrack composed by Neil Brand is simply outstanding. One of the best contemporary scores to a silent film that I've heard. Set in a popular club during the Jazz Age, Brand eschewed a typical score and created a Jazzy soundtrack that brings the movie to life. Though purists may dislike the non-typical approach, I thought it worked very well. The fast paced tone of the Mabel and Victors dance number at the beginning works as well as the haunting and melodic tune that accompanies Jim's realization that Shosho has eyes for Valentine. The only complaint I have is that I didn't think the music to accompany Shosho's first dance, where she is dressed in a fancy Chinese outfit, was Oriental sounding. Aside from that, there were several very nice touches to the soundtrack, including letting the ensemble fall silent when people are clapping at the end of the first dance number in the club, and at the end of a several dramatic scenes. A unique and well preformed soundtrack.
The full frame video quality is excellent. The image is clear and crisp, with a wonderful amount of detail. The contrast is likewise very good. The image is sepia toned, with the outside shots being tinted blue and flashbacks being designated by being strictly black and white. The tinting scheme for this restoration was copied from an original print of the film. While there are a couple of spots and scratches, this film looks as good as it must have during it's first run. A top notch restoration.
Milestone has filled this disc with a lot of great extras. The bonus section starts off with a five minute Prologue to Piccadilly. This is a talking introduction to the movie that was filmed in late 1929 for release to the few theaters that had sound set ups back then. It not only introduces the film, but also wraps up some loose ends that the film left dangling. I'm really glad that Milestone was able to track this down and include it.
Composer Neil Brand has a 20 minute audio monolog concerning the soundtrack he came up with for the movie. (They use a section of the film for video.) I found his comments on his approach to the score enlightening, as will anyone who is interested in silent movie soundtracks.
Dangerous to Know: The Career and Legacy of Anna May Wong is a 22-minute discussion of the star's life and works. In 2004 a panel was held in San Francisco's Castro Theater and this is video from that panel. This was a nice extra to include, but the audio wasn't taken off the mixing board or amp, but recorded from a mic in the theater. This picks up the echo from the theater which muddles the panelists voice. Listening to this piece a chore, and subtitles would have helped this out a lot.
There is also a trio of photo galleries: a nearly two minute reel of Anna May Wong pictures, over six minutes worth of publicity photos and stills from the movie, and the original press kit which runs about a minute in length. The text contained in the press kit was too small to read on the screen, which was unfortunate.
If you have a DVD-Rom drive, you can also access a couple of more extras that are really worth checking out. The first is Milestone's press kit for the film, with biographies of the writer, director, and main actors. This was detailed, and interesting. The second DVD-Rom feature is Five Authors in search of Anna May Wong excepts from five works on Wong and her place in cinematic history. These are very good selections, and enhance the overall quality of the disc.
A essay by film historian Zhang Zhen is included as an insert.
Milestone is quickly becoming my favorite publisher for silent films.
They have put out several high quality silent films in the past couple
of years, and I always look forward to their next release. They have
done an outstanding job with Piccadilly. The DVD features
a beautiful restoration, copious extras, and a unique and eminently enjoyable
soundtrack. One top of that, the film itself is very good, showcasing
Anna May Wong at the pinnacle of here career. Highly Recommended.