By Ray Young
A Film by Ewald André Dupont
Produced and directed by E.A. Dupont. Screenplay by Arnold Bennett. Cinematography by Werner Brandes. Edited by J.W. McConaughty. Art direction by Alfred Junge. Assistant director, Edmond T. Gréville. Original music score by Neil Brand. Starring Gilda Gray, Jameson Thomas, Anna May Wong, Cyril Richard, Charles Laughton. Restored by the British Film Institute. Originally released in 1929. Black-and-white and color tinted, 108 minutes.
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I’m not sure how long it will last, but a cult for the little known Hollywood actress Anna May Wong has been mounting, especially after last year’s restoration and revival of Piccadilly
, an equally forgotten melodrama made in England in 1929. Despite having passed away in 1961, she’s taken her place as the latest in a procession of ostensibly victimized silent-era sirens, hot on the high heels of Louise Brooks and Josephine Baker, feted by an impassioned movement bordering on camp. Factions of the media have played her up—in articles with cutesy titles along the lines of ‘Wong is right’—as an Asian icon, an artist denied respect owing to American bigotry, her dreamy sensuality reportedly stifled and spurned by myopic studio heads. When Richard Corliss writes a comprehensive dedication for Time
magazine (click here
), however, it’s normally a sign that the crest of the wave has broken.
If Milestone Films’ new DVD edition of Piccadilly
will do anything to fan the flames of Wong fever remains to be seen. I doubt if the current trend among internet bloggers for Asian cinema reaches to old actresses. Nevertheless, she’s a compelling screen presence, gliding in under the radar and effortlessly stealing Piccadilly
from the top-billed Gilda Gray. Famous at the time as a flapper and a Ziegfeld girl whose dance routines bordered on striptease, Gray and her character are cruelly undermined by the scenario, deliberately made to appear thorny and bovine. It’s a convenient ploy to shift our attention to Wong, playing a lowly dishwasher named Shosho who works in a swank London nightclub, performing ethereal shimmies for the hired help during her coffee break.
The nightlife setting moves from upscale decadence to the lower-class squalor of Shosho’s Limehouse digs, Arnold Bennett’s screenplay juxtaposing the mutually corrupt lifestyles with a deliberate lack of regard for the outside world. The British club owner played by Jameson Thomas is faced with the dilemma of replacing his older declining star Caucasian dancer (and lover) with the young Chinese discovery from the scullery. Forged after her late night ‘audition’ in Thomas’s private office, Shosho’s contract demands send him to the back alleys of Chinatown to buy authentic dancing costumes, landing him in a situation where roles are reversed and the power shifts to her secretive cronies.
Carrying over the dank pessimism of expressionism, German director E.A. Dupont extends the stifling vacuum of that cheerless movement to a sunless England fixed somewhere between Caligari and noir.
(Homage is paid to the legendary Doctor via a stern, bespectacled courtroom judge.) Chiefly known for Varieté
(1925), which also dealt with sex, lust and influence within a showbiz triangle, Dupont faded from the public eye as subsequent films revealed a lackadaisical, wandering spirit. I don’t know if it still stands, but Varieté
was once a staple in university film classes (I saw it three or four times during one semester in the 70’s), and suggested an auteur who seemed genuinely intrigued by character ego and self-centeredness.
When he gets Wong out on the nightclub’s dance floor, Dupont does very little to enhance a rather limited, sluggish bit of choreography. As Shosho’s introduction to London society and a bridge for her descent into Western decadence, it becomes a pageant of neutered eroticism. A moment begging for the measured, gleeful vulgarity of Josef von Sternberg, Dupont’s succession of cuts inadvertently calls attention to the ineffectual footwork (Wong is often framed from above the waist) and fabricates enthusiasm through audience reaction shots. For an earlier number between Gray and her male partner, that sequence is peppered with some mesmerizing camerawork, a clever scheme to invent excitement. Whatever Dupont’s reasons for toning down her number, the gut reaction is that either Wong or Shosho wasn’t a terribly versatile hoofer, and apparently a flatfooted one at that.
In her DVD liner notes, Zhang Zhen describes the actress as “a sea sponge absorbing every inch of space and every second of onscreen time at her disposal and then exfoliating into a luxuriant flower with a life of her own,” and rashly interprets the moment when Shosho signs Wong’s real name in Chinese as a mark of her co-authorship of the film. Together with the disc’s bonus video of a recent panel discussion held in San Francisco, Zhen sharing the dais with movie star Nancy Kwan and two scholars, Wong is celebrated as a cause célèbre of Asian advancement within white pop culture.
A pastiche of mostly b-pictures and potboilers, kitschy titles ranging from Daughter of the Dragon
and Chinatown Charlie
to Ali Baba Nights
and Limehouse Blues
, there isn’t all that much in Wong’s oeuvre to justify any gushing tributes to aesthetic brilliance. But her very appearance on screen indicated a significant move away from white actors made up in ‘yellow face,’ such as Caucasian Richard Barthelmess and his fake slanted eyes in Broken Blossoms
, a D.W. Griffith weepy that once carried the alternate moniker The Chink and the Child
. As a star vehicle, Piccadilly
is undoubtedly her best work, though Sternberg eventually used Wong in Shanghai Express
where she’s woefully eclipsed by the man’s flagrant obsession with Marlene Dietrich.
Anna May Wong as Shosho
Lavishing sociopolitical interpretations shouldn’t overshadow Piccadilly
’s artistic and technical qualities, nor should one’s eye be fixed squarely on Wong, though she is beautiful and alluring. Given our generation of freestyle computer effects, accelerated editing and unpredictable camerawork, contemporary audiences may be too conditioned, jaded and numbed to appreciate the tricks and tools of expressionism, if not the silent cinema itself—an indifference which likely accounts for the current hoopla for the star instead of the movie. Piccadilly
was shot silent during the first wave of sound, an awkward transition when the early masters and their visual élan were frozen in subservience to the microphone. You can see what they were up against as the DVD provides a five-minute sound introduction of Jameson Thomas initiating a flashback to the silent footage. As he and another actor and the camera remain fixed for the primitive, immobile recording equipment, it’s a motionless picture of people talking.
But from its first silent frames, Piccadilly
is alive with visual bravado, opening with credits delivered on double-decker busses gliding past flashing neon signs. It’s London through the eyes of Dupont and cinematographer Werner Brandes, their Germanic influence so transparent that the place could pass for Berlin. Manic swish pans, long shots transforming rooms into small cities, moments of deceit mirrored by restrictive shadows, 360-degree pans blending dozens of faces into a blurred microcosm of debauchery—these effects were revolutionary half a decade earlier when F.W. Murnau and Karl Freund employed them in The Last Laugh
, and were probably considered passé by 1929 as Dupont and Piccadilly
were widely ignored. Seen fresh seventy-five years later, however, the film sizzles, rendering a vicious yet seductive cul-de-sac of greed, inflamed egos and sexual manipulation. Its recognition of interracial sex was taboo stuff back in the day, forcing Dupont to cut away from a kiss between Shosho and her boss. But the moments leading up to it simmer with an expert awareness of foreplay.
Restored by the British Film Institute and accompanied by a rousing musical score by Neil Brand, the work holds up splendidly. Mature, smart and stimulating, it’s a reminder of the overall quality that was taken for granted during the final breath of cinema’s first great epoch.