Friday, 3 January 2014

Limehouse blues… Piccadilly (1929)

In the late 1980’s youngsters in dodgy Prince of Wales cheque suits would spend long hours in the Soho Brasserie or the French House before piling into basement acid jazz clubs on Frith Street. Sometimes we’d head over to the Café de Paris on Coventry Street for more salubrious clubbing: typical 80’s flash...Detroit techno in the smartest venue in the west end.

Since then the Café has closed and now been revived, “at the forefront of the cabaret and burlesque revival…” according to their website. I’m sure it is and, back in the day… much before my day, this was very much the venue’s main purpose.

Mabel and Victor hit the floor...
Watching Ewald André Dupont’s extraordinary Piccadilly, I was surprised to find the twin stair-cased ballroom at the heart of things as Mabel and Victor descend for their opening dance and later as Shosho stops the show. Dupont picked his venue well but then he had previous, directing Whitechapel in 1920 concernong the backstage drama at a theatre in the East End. He also knew where to find the drama in theatre having directed the outstanding circus thriller Varieté (1925) in his native Germany.

Here he also found an outstanding star who, in an oft-noted, Brooksian way… seems to stare out at the viewer as if the past 85 years hadn’t happened…

Anna May Wong
Piccadilly was an original screenplay by Arnold Bennett, the noted British novelist who once observed that “good taste is better than bad taste, but bad taste is better than no taste.” The resultant film was a highpoint for native silent film with the director bringing Germanic sensibilities to his London locations.

The cinematography of Werner Brandes captures the West End thrills as well as the murky otherness of Limehouse; London’s original China Town with crowded streets squeezed in between Whitechapel and East End docks on the North-side of the river Thames.

Cyril Ritchard and Gilda Gray
His camera swoops through the opening sequences as we see the Piccadilly Club’s star attractions, Victor and Mabel descending the Café de Paris steps to wow the audience with their quick stepping. Victor is played by Cyril Ritchard (the artist/murderee in Blackmail) and Mabel by Gilda Gray (a Polish actress who popularised a dance called The Shimmy…); they’re an almost couple with suave club owner, Valentine (Jameson Thomas) the object of Mabel’s increasingly-adoring eye.

Things come to ahead after a disgruntled diner – Charles Laughton oozing class in the cameo – complains of a dirty plate. Valentine tracks down the source of the imperfection as he finds his kitchen distracted by a dancing Chinese girl Shosho - played Anna May Wong (黃柳霜). He orders her removal but not before clocking the moves… there’s something there. Later he auditions the girl in his room… we aren’t shown the sequence but Shosho leaves him with her lucky charm…

Jameson Thomas
Meanwhile Victor’s pushing his claims on Mabel and trying to force Valentine’s hand by offering to quit but the latter already has his number and has drafted a letter firing him after another show in which he was inappropriately attentive to his co-star. Game over and slapped down, Victor leaves and Mabs pins her colours to the main man.

Yet Mabel isn’t able to hold the star billing alone and soon Valentine is looking for someone to pull in the punters. It’s Shosho’s big chance and she plays her cards well, insisting on choosing her own costume from a seller in Limehouse rather than the fake theatricals from Soho. Victor finds himself being out-manoeuvred and one feels this is a tribute to young ingenuity rather than any racially-stereotyped cunning. But, ultimately, the elephant in the ballroom is the race issue… does Piccadilly deal well with its cultural issues and could any film from the period stand up to modern scrutiny on these grounds?

As Shosho woos Valentine her friend Jim (King Hou Chang) takes it on the chin as she insists on his accompanying her dance thereby insuring that his face will be rubbed further as her success becomes apparent and she develops her relationship with the club owner.

Shosho’s dance is a sensation and the sequence is superb as the camera roams around the ballroom catching the response from the crowd as the glitter ball slowly turns…

Mabel sense her game is up and pleads with Victor but he is commercially and emotionally banking on Shosho. He takes her out and there’s a revealing scene in which a young girl dances with a black man in an East End pub… the man is ejected for daring to dance with a white girl but, to her credit she argues her case long and loud: clearly the voice of Bennett and Dupont.

Shosho duly notes the situation and both she and Victor know they must be discrete. But, as these two grow closer, Jim and Mabel look to have their own – final - say in things…

Rejected... Gilda Gray and King Hou Chang
Piccadilly is stylishly made and still packs a visceral punch made all the more powerful by a feeling of authenticity: the East End may have been shot on sets but the atmosphere and sentiment is realistic.

This is underpinned by Wong’s superb, naturalistic, style and you can only imagine the impact if she was the only Asian actress you were used to seeing? Shoshu is not some manipulative and inscrutable “other” but a player, every bit as much as Victor, Val and Mabel: that’s showbiz and bankability, looks, talent and drive are the ultimate equalisers... as is love. Shoshu's relationship with Valentine is relatively un-sensationalised, we don't quite see them kiss but we know they do...

I may be viewing matters through modern eyes and the story may have been a good deal more shocking in 1929, but Shoshu seizes her chance and gets to control her own act from the get-go.

Jameson Thomas is excellent as the dashing alpha male Valentine, kicking out Victor for unprofessionalism, pawing his girl (at the time…) and generally challenging his authority: he rules all but his heart with a rod of iron. 

King Hou Chang deserves mention as Jim whose loyalty is stretched to the limit by Shoshu’s ambition whilst Hannah Jones also throws in light relief as Bessie, Shosho's friend and the distractible supervisor of the part-time plongeurs.

I watched the BFI DVD which comes with a swinging new score from Neil Brand who picks themes from later period jazz to suitably illuminate this proto-noir  – the rhythms of the dance are unchanging from the twenties through to the eighties and beyond.

It’s available direct or from MovieMail and other responsible retailers.

No comments:

Post a Comment