Piccadilly, a fascinating 1929 British pre-talkie, is playing for the first time in America in 75 years. Who remembers it at all? Though directed by Germany's E.A. Dupont, renowned for the expressionist classic, Variety (1925), this backstage melodrama isn't referred to anywhere that I can discover in film history texts.
So cheers to those at the British Film Institute who deemed it worthwhile to restore Piccadilly in a lovely, shiny tinted print. Screened first at the 2003 New York Film Festival, and with an added musical soundtrack, Piccadilly is now finding its way across the USA, making fans everywhere.
The first reels of the film are only moderately interesting, setting up a romantic rivalry between a top-hatted cabaret dancer, Victor Smiles (Cyril Ritchard, a skinny Astaire type though without hoofing talent), and a slick, world-weary club owner, Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas, effective behind his perfect mustache). Their object of desire is Smiles's hot-blooded dance partner, Mabel Greenfield (Gilda Gray, a young-Dietrich butterball). Piccadilly does what it can as a non-talkie musical. Club patrons dance, an orchestra feigns playing to the vintage-sound soundtrack, and the team of Victor and Mabel kick up their heels, but don't sing. The story? Wilmot fires Victor for putting paws on the unwilling Mabel. The spurned Victor says he's taking his act to the USA. Cheerio, Victor.
Here's how Piccadilly heats up: A customer at Wilmot's nightspot (a Charles Laughton cameo) complains of a dirty plate. Wilmot heads into the bowels of his club to find the culprit. Soon, he's in Chinatown, among Asian scullery employees; and one of them, a young woman named Shosho, opts, instead of washing dishes, to dance on a table.
It's the incredible actress Anna May Wong, sprung loose in all her primal sexuality. Piccadilly shivers at Wong's extraordinary torn-stockings entrance into the movie; as she sashays her loins about, it predates Brando's Stanley Kowalski with his ripped undershirt.
Bringing back Piccadilly is, above all, to celebrate Wong, the first Asian-American film star. Born in 1905 in LA, daughter of a Chinese launderer, she, a brazen teenager, veered to show business, over the objections of her traditionalist father. At 17, she starred in The Toll of the Sea (1922), the first two-colored Technicolor film, in which she played the Madame Butterfly-like Lotus Flower, who rescues an American from the sea, has his illegitimate child, and other masochistic complications.
Surprise: regular Americans thought her inscrutable. In 1926, Wong wrote, "A lot of people when they first meet me are surprised that I speak and write English without difficulty. But why shouldn't I? I was born right here in Los Angeles." Surprise: Wong found her parts confining and stereotyped. Asian suffering and more suffering. After 1928, she looked to England and Germany for roles. "I think I left Hollywood," she later recalled, "because... I was killed in virtually every picture in which I appeared."
In 1931, Wong was back in LA, contracted to Paramount. In 1932, she made perhaps her coolest film, Josef Von Sternberg's Shanghai Express, in which she rode the rails with sultry Marlene Dietrich. And this is the great rumor about the never-married Wong: that she and Marlene had a tryst. Neat! There were more stereotyped roles, though sometimes fun ones, such as the dastardly daughter of the evil Fu Manchu in Daughter of the Dragon (1931) and the mistress of an LA gangster in Dangerous to Know (1938). The 1940s were downhill, as Wong got only small roles in "B" and "C" movies.
In 1951, she became the first Asian-American featured in a TV series, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong. In cinema? She finished as Lana Turner's Chinese maid in Portrait in Black (1960), among the least of 54 film roles. In 1961, Wong died at 56 of complications caused by alcoholism.
And back in Piccadilly? Promoted from the kitchen to being a star solo performer, Wong's Shosho does this slow, slinky, and refreshingly amateur dance which brings the club denizens to their feet. Also, she sweeps away her boss, Wilmot, who suddenly has eyes only for his China girl from the slum Limehouse district. And Mabel? Madly jealous of Shosho, she's a loser in show-biz, a loser in love.
Piccadilly ends with a murder trial, and with a "surprise" killer in the tiresome way of a musty Victorian crime novel. But so what? The movie has given us ample screen time with the marvelous Anna May Wong.