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Piccadilly (1929)


Main image of Piccadilly (1929)
35mm, black and white (tinted), silent, 9756 feet
DirectorE.A. Dupont
Production CompanyBritish International Pictures
ScriptArnold Bennett
PhotographyWerner Brandes

Cast: Anna May Wong (Shosho); Jameson Thomas (Valentine Wilmot); Gilda Gray (Mabel Greenfield); King Ho-Chang (Jim); Cyril Ritchard (Victor Smiles); Hannah Jones (Bessie); Charles Laughton (Continental Visitor)

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The Piccadilly nightclub is in danger of decline when manager Valentine sacks his star attraction. But his discovery of talented Chinese dancer Shosho begins a chain of events leading to tragedy.

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A film noir before the term was in use, Piccadilly (d. E.A. Dupont, 1929) is one of the true greats of British silent films, on a par with the best work of Anthony Asquith or Alfred Hitchcock in the period.

In essence a simple tale of ambition, desire and jealousy, what marks Piccadilly out is the astonishing confidence of its direction. Dupont was a recent arrival from Germany, who had made just one previous film in Britain, the elegant Moulin Rouge (1928), and Piccadilly is notable for qualities not typically associated with British silent films: opulence, passion and a surprisingly direct approach to issues of race - one remarkable scene has a white woman expelled from a bar for dancing with a black man, mirroring the social taboo of the film's central relationship. Dupont was subsequently associated with the shortlived vogue for multi-language films, and Piccadilly has a similarly international bent - its lead actresses are Chinese-American and Polish-American; its leading men are British and Chinese; its cinematographer and designer are, like its director, German.

For all its style and grace, the film's strongest suit is Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. Wong appeared in four other British films, and is best known today as support to Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (US, d. Josef von Sternberg, 1932), but she was arguably never better used than here.

As Shosho, the scullery maid who becomes a dance sensation and an object of desire for impresario Valentine (Jameson Thomas), she displays the cold ambition and manipulative sexuality of the classic femme fatale, while revealing - just occasionally - the vulnerability of a young girl. Shosho's exoticism gives her an alarming sexual power over the men who watch her dance - "I danced once before in Limehouse but there was trouble, men, knives...", she tells the transfixed Valentine, in a title which prefigures the narrative's tragic end. To Wong's frustration, Shosho and Valentine's kiss was cut to appease the US censor.

With her slight, boyish figure, Wong is a modernist icon in the mode of Louise Brooks, whose hairstyle she emulates. Naturally, Piccadilly's publicity made much of Wong's exotic beauty: one contemporary poster - for the film's Austrian release - carries an illustration of the star dancing topless. It would have been unthinkable to portray a white actress in this way and, needless to say, no such image appears in the film.

Mark Duguid

*This film is available on BFI DVD.

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Video Clips
1. Mabel and Shosho (4:30)
2. The dress (4:02)
3. The morning papers (2:45)
4. Bar-room disturbance (3:09)
5. Seduction (3:17)
Dupont, E.A. (1891-1956)
Junge, Alfred (1886-1964)
Laughton, Charles (1899-1962)
Thomas, Jameson (1888-1939)
Wong, Anna May (1905-1961)
British-Chinese Cinema