PICCADILLY Puts a Spotlight on Anna May Wong

The 1929 silent British film about goings-on in a nightclub is out from Kino Lorber

Still from PICCADILLY, courtesy TMDB.

Anna May Wong is now celebrated for her groundbreaking career in silent film, but during her lifetime she faced obstacles due to racism within the industry and the anti-miscegenation laws enforced at the time. After being neglected by studios in Hollywood, the actress went abroad. British-made Piccadilly (1929) gives her a starring role and offers modern viewers a glimpse of her immense talents, ignored by Hollywood.

Wong plays kitchen worker Shosho, who distracts her fellow dishwashers by dancing in the scullery of the Piccadilly nightclub. After a rowdy customer (a young, mustachioed Charles Laughton in a quick appearance) complains about his dirty plate, nightclub owner Valentine (Jameson Thomas) finds Shosho mid dance and becomes captivated. But he’s already in a relationship with his current act Mabel (Gilda Gray), whose performances are losing their luster and fashion is just out of style.

Piccadilly is a melodrama based around this love triangle and its disastrous consequences. Mabel serves as a distinct contrast to Shosho, like the older style being replaced by the new (especially when Shosho is hired to replace her as the floor act). It’s too bad Gray has such a limited vocabulary of movement; she crosses her hand to her shoulder and sighs so many times that I found it distracting.

Wong is on another level and utterly captivating in her role. There’s a particular vibrancy to her face and performance. We understand why Valentine is infatuated with Shosho because the camera entices the viewer to feel the same. Wong gives her character a teasing quality. She even mimics Mabel’s forlorn pose at one point, as a way of claiming the upper hand.

The staging of shots in the film shows consideration and thought. Patterns of light and shadow interplay in scene after scene. The camera tracks the dance numbers well, pulling the audience into the movement. From the jaunty opening title sequence to the “life goes on” close, Picadilly retains a sense of humor through it all.

The Kino Lorber Blu-ray release includes:

  • the HD restoration/remaster of the film by the BFI National Archive
  • the prologue with audio made for the 1929 sound version, which doesn’t include Wong and turns the film into a long flashback sequence
  • a feature with composer Neil Brand on his score for this remastered Piccadilly. He speaks of using “jazz as a language,” composing for a film that includes dance numbers, reflecting the journeys of the women characters through music, and his use of flute in Shosho’s themes.
  • a 2004 panel on Wong, moderated by B. Ruby Rich, from the San Francisco International Asian-American Film Fest. Besides Rich, there are other notable names on the panel but the audio quality is so cruddy I couldn’t make it very far through the video.
  • commentary track from film historian Farran Smith Nehme

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