Thursday, 17 June 2021

A passion play... Piccadilly (1929), BFI Blu-ray out 21st June

“Just imagine the whole place being upset by one little Chinese girl in the scullery?”

Piccadilly may need one of those advisory warnings Talking Pictures use when dealing with materials that reflect “the prevailing attitudes of the time” but the film did enable Anna May Wong to be the one thing she wasn’t really allowed to be in her native America – a romantic lead. Gilda Gray may well have top billing here but there’s no doubt who your sympathies are meant to be with, in the love-tangle at the heart of this story.

Director E A Dupont, had already made two films on the theme of infidelity and waxing entertainment careers with Varieté (1925), based in the circus and music halls of Berlin, in his native Germany and Moulin Rouge (1928), another BIP title set in a saucy Parisian demi-monde still many decades away from the existence of Kylie’s Absinthe Fairy. This film, whilst preoccupied with London’s West End, also spends a good deal of time in East End where it turns out that whilst you can’t take Limehouse out of May Wong’s Shosho, it’s also hard to take her out of the area’s  pervasive misery.

Anna May Wong

Art director Alfred Junge, who worked with everyone from Paul Leni to Michael Powell, faithfully captured the atmosphere of both and, slightly disappointingly for me and other 80’s clubbers, recreated the interior of the Café de Paris, between Eros and Leicester Square, which I had always assumed was the location for the filming, in Elstree Studios. It was worth it though, as this allowed the remarkable camera mobility we see in the film as the dancers whirl around and audience reacts to the visceral movements and swirling passions of the cabaret…

This disc comes with an odd five-minute Prologue to Piccadilly, in which Jameson Thomas’s character form the film, Valentine, talks briefly to a former customer (John Longden) with dark regret in his heart in front of his humble rural ale house. This was intended for US audiences at a time when most films had sound… oddly, we’re not surprised to find that Valentine’s “sound world” lacks the style and excitement of his silent glories…

“Can you picture things? Then close your eyes and I’ll tell you a strange story about Piccadilly…”

Café de Paris on set, complete with famous twin staircases

And so, we begin… and there are many strange aspects to this particular story. In her excellent booklet essay, the BFI’s Bryony Dixon explains that it is hard to say which was the more shocking for contemporary audiences: the drugs or interracial relationships. For his part Jameson Thomas, speaking about the cutting of the kiss between his character and Shosho, in a 1931 interview in US fan magazine Movie Classic, felt that ‘in England we have less prejudice against scenes of interracial romance than in America. In France still less, and in Germany none at all. But we are still careful to handle such scenes tactfully.’

It’s hard for casual viewers to contextualise the daring of the love story in these enlightened times perhaps and also because Anna May Wong, in a Brooksian way, seems to stare out at the viewer as if the past 92 years hadn’t happened. When I first saw the film, it was also the first time I’d watched her but now with several viewings and a number of other films under my belt, her talent is as clear in terms of its quality as much as its compromise by American film makers.

Jameson Thomas

Piccadilly was an original screenplay by Arnold Bennett, a British novelist of social concerns and 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 albeit one that was made with international funding, cast and crew. The director bringing Germanic sensibilities to his London locations as, in fairness, did Mr Hitchcock, and whilst arty-farty Close-up may have felt it owed little to the location, I’d disagree as there’s a lot of “London” in the film.


Werner Brandes' camera may have been almost entirely on-set but he 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 in Blackmail) and Mabel by Gilda Gray (a Polish actress, big in the US and who popularised a dance called The Shimmy). Victor wants to take their partnership into a more romantically choreographed direction but suave club owner, Valentine (Jameson Thomas), is the object of Mabel’s genuinely adoring eye.

Things come to a head after a disgruntled diner, Charles Laughton, temporarily stealing the show as a corpulent complainer with a dirty plate. Valentine tracks down the source of the imperfection as he finds his scullery distracted by a dancing Chinese girl Shosho - played Anna May Wong. He orders her removal but not before clocking the moves… there’s something there. Later he auditions her in his room and, whilst we aren’t shown the sequence, Shosho leaves him with her lucky charm. An unseen transaction has taken place.

Victor forces Valentine’s hand by harassing Mabel one time too many and then offering to quit only for the club owner to fire him first. Game over and literally slapped down, Victor leaves and Mabs pins her colours to the main man yet she isn’t able to hold the star billing alone and soon Valentine is looking for someone to pull in the punters.

The Shosho show in Soho

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 outmanoeuvred by a woman finally realising her potential and power. As Shosho woos Valentine her loyal friend Jim (King Hou Chang) takes it on the chin as she insists on his accompanying her at the club. Shosho’s dance is, of course, 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 senses that her game is up and pleads with Victor but he is commercially and emotionally banking on Shosho.

There’s a fascinating and very deliberate sequence where Valentine takes Shosho out to an East End pub in which a young girl dances with a black man. The man is ejected for daring to dance with a white girl but, to her credit she – an uncredited Ellen Pollock - argues her case long and loud. It’s a startling moment outside of the show business milieux and the most pointed reference to the race issue in the whole film; the voice of Bennett and Dupont?

Shosho duly notes the situation and both she and Victor know they must be discrete, so much is unspoken and we come very close to seeing them kiss only for concerns about the American market forcing a timely cut.  As these two grow closer though, Mabel and Jim can’t let go… it’s a passion play as much as anything else.

Gilda Grey may have been the big name but the film’s success is founded on Wong’s crisp naturalism and you can only imagine the impact if she was the only Asian actress you were used to seeing? Shosho is a rounded character as well,  not some manipulative and inscrutable “other” but a player, every bit as much as Victor, Val and Mabel. That’s show business  and looks, talent and drive are the ultimate equalisers... as is love.


Gilda Gray

Jameson Thomas is grand as the dashing alpha male Valentine, ruling all but his heart with a rod of commercial iron. I also see  more in Gilda Gray’s performance with each viewing and she gives Mabel a vulnerability that is inversely proportioned to Shosho’s burgeoning self-awareness.

King Hou Chang deserves special mention too for frequent scene stealing; he was a non-professional and yet his portrayal of the conflicted Jim is pitch perfect as his love and loyalty are stretched to the limit by Shosho’s ambition. Hannah Jones also throws in sure-footed light relief as Bessie, Shosho's friend and the distractible supervisor of the part-time plongeurs. 

I watched the new BFI Blu-ray which comes with a swinging rendition of his original 2003 score – only his third - from Neil Brand which is played by talented jazz ensemble including the composer himself on piano, Henry Lowther on trumpet, Stan Sulzmann playing saxes and flute, Rowland Sutherland, flute, Alec Dankworth on bass, Paul Clarvis, percussion and Jeremy Price, literally, blowing his own trombone. Sulzmann and Sutherland’s flutes get some of the best lines, often cutting expressively through the jazzed interplay to signal a nuanced change on tone and atmosphere.

King Hou Chang

Neil picks themes from contemporary and later period jazz to suitably illuminate this proto-noir, following the rhythms of the dance as well as character and story develop. Those flutes are essential for delicately adding Shosho’s musical presence but the aural ethnicity is restrained even in a score that, occasionally, can feel insistent. Every silent film and accompaniment have a different balance in terms of narrative pacing and musical energy and here compositional invention wins out given the absolute respect for the source material.

Mr Brand explains himself in more detail in one of the set’s excellent video essays along with an appraisal of the film from Bryony Dixon and a documentary on the career of Anna May Wong from film historian Jasper Sharp who is currently writing a book on the actress too. There’s also Cosmopolitan London (1924), part of the Wonderful London series, which takes a luck at multiculturism as it was with accompaniment from John Sweeney. 

As usual, this is essential viewing and reading from the BFI and you can order it now from their online shop.


No comments:

Post a Comment