Like Josephine Baker and Louise Brooks, Anna May Wong was an American woman who had to cross the Atlantic to find her greatest roles. In Piccadilly, Wong seems to be sporting Brooks’s bangs and Baker’s sinuous hips, but her knowing look—wary, sultry, and intense—is all her own. Her entrance is a knockout: in the bowels of a London nightclub, amid the steamy chaos of the scullery, she is dancing on top of a table for the amusement of her fellow dishwashers. Peering up at her, the camera lingers on her stunningly long and shapely legs, clad in stockings “laddered,” as the British say, almost to shreds. Her swaying hips are all the more mischievous and provocative because it is obvious that this Chinese scullery girl is mimicking and mocking the nightclub’s blonde star dancer.
Still in her early twenties but already a veteran of more than thirty films, Los Angeles-born Anna May Wong left America in 1928, fed up with typecasting as a dragon lady and with the ingrained racism that made it impossible for her to share a love scene with a white actor. In Germany and Britain she got starring roles that made her into the kind of icon Louise Brooks became in G.W. Pabst’s films—sexy, complex, modern, tragic—but her ethnicity still formed a barrier to romantic happy endings. Piccadilly, her first British film, is surprisingly forthright, if somewhat ambivalent, in its treatment of interracial relationships. Midway through, the protagonists go slumming in a seedy, smoky dive. Amid the tough-looking couples jostling on the dance floor, a black man in a battered top hat starts dancing with a white woman, and for a few moments they look perfectly happy, kicking up their heels together. Then the bar’s owner throws them both out, and the crowd spews contempt on them as they go. Wong’s character, Shosho, watches silently. By now she has risen from dishwashing to become a popular sensation for her nightclub performances, but her hard, hurt expression shows that she understands exactly what this humiliating scene means for her romantic pursuit of her English boss, Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas).
Dance is not harmless entertainment: it is dangerous, seductive, rule-breaking. Mabel, Shosho’s rival both professionally and personally, is played by Gilda Gray. Born Marianna Michalska in Poland, Gray was raised in the United States and earned a place in history as the popularizer of the scandalous shimmy, so-called because the dancer “shakes her chemise.” A plump, fluffy blonde decked in spangles and ostrich feathers, Mabel is a perfect foil for Shosho, and Gray’s mannered, emotional performance sets off Wong’s subtle expressiveness and dignified naturalism. Tall and slim, in a black beret and striped polo shirt, Shosho is neat and dark and shiny as a loaded revolver.
Piccadilly is a prime example of the internationalism that flourished during the silent era, when accents and languages were irrelevant. The Chinese-American Wong and Polish-American Gray are integrated into a British cast that includes Cyril Ritchard, best known for playing Captain Hook to Mary Martin’s Peter Pan, and Charles Laughton in one of his earliest appearances, stealing his one scene as a nightclub patron far more interested in his dinner than in Mabel’s shimmy. The screenplay was written by Arnold Bennett, the best-selling Edwardian novelist whom Virginia Woolf, in her 1924 essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” turned into a derided symbol of pre-modernist conventionality. Bennett was unabashedly commercial, but his best work, like his novel The Old Wives’ Tale, was acutely sensitive to the way historical and social developments—class and money, fashions and material culture—imprint themselves on the lives of ordinary men and women. Visually, Piccadilly is accented by a largely German creative team. Director Ewald André Dupont was an émigré from the influential Berlin studio Ufa, where he was admired for innovative expressionist camerawork and stories (he was also a screenwriter) about crime and the sordid side of show business. After an unsuccessful foray to Hollywood, Dupont signed in 1928 with the recently formed British International Pictures, a company best known for producing Alfred Hitchcock’s earliest films. Piccadilly, Dupont’s second English film, was BIP’s most expensive and ambitious production to date.
The jazzy burst of urban nightlife that opens the movie has the flavor of Weimar-era strassefilme, or “street films,” in which the glitter and glamour of the modern city merged with the squalor and despair of urban poverty. Piccadilly follows this pattern, moving between the fashionable, luxurious nightclub of the title and the drab alleys and tenements of Limehouse, the waterfront neighborhood where Shosho lives. In the nightclub, the camera darts and glides dizzily through whoopee-making crowds; rapid editing imparts a nervous, jittering energy. Electric signs blink and dazzle, couples foxtrot under sweeping art deco stairways, the ladies’ cloakroom is a swirling mosaic of twenties fashions. Dupont and German cinematographer Werner Brandes fill the movie with throwaway moments of visual excitement, as when the turning of a glass doorknob scatters light in a strobe effect, echoing the lighting of the nightclub’s floor show.
Rooms and costumes tell us more about people than the sparing intertitles. Art direction was by Alfred Junge, another German émigré who later became an important figure in the British film industry. He collaborated with Hitchcock in the 1930s and was production designer for the most visually striking British films of the forties: the masterpieces of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, including A Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus. The witty opening credits for Piccadilly, appearing on the sides of London omnibuses, show a humorous flair worthy of Hitchcock or The Archers. Here, Junge creates settings that are at once pungently real—you can all but smell the sweaty, bustling kitchen and the cheap chop suey joints—and fancifully expressive, culminating in the apartment Shosho moves into after her success: a Chinese fantasy of wall-hangings, beaded drapes, ornate daggers, and shimmering goldfish.
This gorgeous but clichéd decor underlines something disturbing about Shosho’s character, the way she seems more and more to be deliberately inhabiting the persona of an Oriental temptress. From the working girl in a beret and ripped stockings, whose sassy attitude makes us root for her, she becomes a couture-draped diva who callously tosses aside her Chinese boyfriend Joe (King Ho Chang) to pursue a rich white man. But the film is far more complicated and subtle in its treatment, not only of Shosho, but of all its characters—including the jealous, desperate Joe and Mabel.
Piccadilly is a noirish take on the classic “rise and fall” saga, laying bare the dark side of ambition and success. Shosho remains deeply ambiguous: if she becomes hard and cruel, is this because the film harbors racist sentiments, or because she has to confront a racist world? Anna May Wong was angry and disappointed when an onscreen kiss with her costar Jameson Thomas was excised—the abrupt cut as they start to embrace feels like a panicked denial. The film’s understated ending matches the wit of its opening, but with a surprisingly cynical wallop. This downbeat mood was sadly prophetic for several of the players. E.A. Dupont’s career began to founder with the coming of sound; he eventually returned to Hollywood where he directed some B pictures, including his own script for one of the most bizarrely offbeat noir films ever made, The Scarf (1951). Anna May Wong also went back to America in the 1930s, where she, too, was largely relegated to B movies and stereotyped roles—even her best known, as Hui Fei in von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, is the distillation of inscrutable Oriental glamour. But her place in the pantheon of movie stars is not defined by her ethnicity; she is, in any language and in the best possible sense, a fatal woman.
Presented at A Day of Silents 2015 with live music by Donald Sosin