Piccadilly (1929). 109 minutes. Directed by E. A. Dupont. Starring Gilda Gray (as Mabel Greenfield), Anna May Wong (as Shosho), Jameson Thomas (as Valentine Wilmot), King Hou Chang (as Jim), Hannah Jones (as Bessie), Cyril Ritchard (as Victor Smiles), and Charles Laughton (as nightclub diner).
Piccadilly is an impressive silent film. From its dazzling camera work, to its invigorating jazz-era atmosphere, to its use of stunning lead actress Anna May Wong, the movie infuses its scenes with beauty and a keen artistic sensibility. Piccadilly provides Wong—a Chinese American actress who left the United States for more meaningful parts in Europe—with a role of substance, and her work as the nightclub dancer Shosho overshadows the performances of her colleagues, including dancer Gilda Gray, who was at one point a well-known Ziegfeld girl. In the end, the movie, while perhaps less clichéd than Wong’s American projects, still relies on stereotypes to get its points across and concludes Shosho’s narrative in what feels like an unnecessarily tragic turn of events. But Piccadilly is gorgeous from beginning to end, the racial and sexual tensions are intriguing, and Wong’s performance here is one of her best.
In the film, Valentine Wilmot runs Piccadilly Circus, a jazzy English nightclub that prominently features the dancing act of Mabel Greenfield and Victor Smiles. One evening a prominent customer complains about dirt on his plate, and when Valentine goes to the scullery to complain, he finds the Chinese dishwasher Shosho dancing on a table. He proceeds to fire her. Meanwhile, Victor is rebuffed romantically by Mabel, who is having an affair with Valentine. Victor quits the act. Later that night, intrigued by Shosho and concerned that the public’s interest in Mabel’s act is fading, Valentine asks Shosho to dance for him in his office and decides to hire her as a performer. She demands that he buy an expensive Chinese costume for her and that he hire her acquaintance Jim to accompany her as she dances.
On Shosho’s opening night, she transfixes the men in the audience, greatly overshadowing Mabel’s performance. Mabel is distraught by the attention Shosho is receiving both publicly and from Valentine. After a night’s work, Valentine takes Shosho out for a drink, then accompanies her home. Mabel follows them. When Shosho is alone in her apartment, Mabel enters and appears to threaten her with a gun. The next day Shosho is found dead. A trial ensues, during which it is established that it was actually Jim, Shosho’s secret lover, who murdered her out of jealousy. He commits suicide near her remains. As the newsstands promulgate the court’s findings, we see men walking with sandwich boards advertising a new nightclub act nearby.
Far from declining as an art form as the silent era came to a close in the late 1920s, silent film actually peaked creatively in it last days. Piccadilly was made at the tail end of this period, and the scenes that take place in the musical performance space at the Piccadilly Circus nightclub are great examples of how late-era silent movies transcended the limitations of their technology. Although we cannot hear the band playing, the club emerges as a lively venue—busy with people chattering, waiters serving, and musicians performing. As a result, these scenes, however silent, take on a certain volume. In one particularly memorable sequence, the camera swirls around among the clusters of dining, drinking spectators as the band plays, enabling us to get caught up in the spirit of the rhythmic sway of the musical activity even though we cannot hear it.
Shots such as those underscore the extent to which Piccadilly is a work of art, in part due to its accomplished cinematography. The camera often does something wonderful and unexpected, such as the moment when Shosho opens her eyes and the camera assumes the position of her blinking line of sight. Then there is the stunning, horrifying sequence where Jim attacks Shosho in her apartment, and the two travel behind painted screens. We see their shapes as they struggle, impressions of his violence. Piccadilly harnesses the full potential of the film medium to tell its story through visual details, using elements such as point of view and shadow to deepen our familiarity with characters and heighten dramatic tension.
It is interesting then that in spite of the spirited nature of the camera work generally and the compelling atmosphere of the club specifically, the dance performances are surprisingly underwhelming—appealing, but not obviously the rightful catalysts of the events that unfold. Although Anna May Wong is most certainly a captivating actress, and she and performer Gilda Gray are very beautiful, neither one of them uses particularly complicated choreography when they dance. I say this knowing full well that Gray was the Ziegfeld girl who introduced audiences to the dance known as the shimmy in the 1910s. That achievement aside, both Gray and Wong use a lot of simple side-to-side movement, and while Shosho’s claim that her performances have caused knife fights and necessitated police interference in the past is provocative, her dancing is more mysterious when we are hearing about it rather than seeing it.
Both dancers wear costumes that speak more to their personalities and strategies than their choreography does, and what they wear also ties into an implicit sexual revolution that takes place within the club. On the one hand, Mabel tends to wear flamboyant outfits with lots of feathers and fur. Her costumes are more reminiscent of a Ziegfeld girl’s pageant attire than a jazz nightclub dancer’s clothing—formal, dramatic, and designed to be admired from afar. Shosho’s costuming, on the other hand, is notable for how much skin it reveals and the way it invites us to take a closer look at her body. The ensemble that she wears for her initial performance consists of a large headdress with a lamé top and micro-skirt set. The effect of this costume, coupled with four large Chinese-inspired candle pieces that stand near her on the floor, is to make her seem foreign and unusual to the London audience—both as a person wearing a theatrical idea of Asian attire that marks her as originating from another geography and culture, and also as a person from another sexual world. Shosho understands the universal advantage of showing flesh and suggesting otherness on stage, and she capitalizes on both her sex appeal and her ethnicity to ensure her act is a success, entwining them in a dance that hints at the related, performative nature of both sexuality and race.
Her decision to dance in an erotic costume does not merely showcase her physical appearance; it also reveals that she is intelligent and shrewd. We see her choosing and negotiating her performance elements with care and decisiveness, suggesting that she has an innate sense of what works well in show business. The danger that her thoughtfully planned act, with its revealing clothes and innovative staging, poses to the other performers is not lost on Mabel. She quickly notices how readily Shosho oozes sex in her midriff-bearing outfit, something that Mabel in her more traditional flounces and feathers cannot compete with; but Mabel also notices the way that Shosho captivates men off of the dance floor, sans metallic costume. The new dancer has a powerful presence and an acuity that cannot be easily dismissed.
Although, as noted, Gilda Gray (who played Mabel) was a star in her own right, nevertheless Anna May Wong is the real star of Piccadilly. Her character is the center of the film, the person everyone is talking about. Wong, like Shosho, is more than merely a beautiful-looking woman, and she manages to infuse her character with charisma and intelligence by using subtle facial expressions and precise physical movements. The director allows the camera to linger on her deliciously at times: there are so many lovely moments where she conveys a great deal by adjusting herself just slightly—I think of a scene in her apartment where she slowly brings an arm up so that her long, full sleeve drapes in front of her. And then there is the scene where she uses gradual, sustained movement to gently close a door behind her so that she can address Valentine privately, shutting out Jim in the process.
On the whole, Wong as an actress was made for ambitious movies that had strong visuals and were heavy on style, and she deserved roles that were better than the ones she was normally offered. Although during her time in the United States, she normally played sinister Chinese characters that were rife with stereotypes, her British films, like Piccadilly, afforded her more challenging work. Still, Piccadilly does rely on a fair amount of sterotyping to tell its story. Shosho exhibits sneakiness and duplicity by keeping her mysterious romantic relationship with Jim, whom she appears to be living with, a secret from Valentine, and the movie lacks trustworthy Chinese characters. Additionally, Shosho’s ethnic identity is used both by the club and by the film at large to frame her as an outsider with an indeterminate interiority, an inscrutability that speaks both to her complexity and also unfortunately to a certain amount of clichéd foreign unknowableness.
But the movie does intriguingly offer us a mixed-race relationship in the form of Shosho and Valentine’s budding romance, and for a while it gives that romance a chance to flourish. We even get hints at the complex social reality of their pursuit of this relationship. For example, there is an interesting sequence near the end of the movie where Valentine takes Shosho out on a kind of date after one of her performances. At a bar, they mix with a variety of London denizens, including a black man who begins to dance with a white woman. The owner of the bar breaks up the couple, saying that mixed race dancing is not allowed in his establishment. When we cut back to Valentine and Shosho, Shosho has her back to the camera and her high fur collar turned up, perhaps in an attempt to disguise herself and her racial identity. The two quickly leave.
The white woman who was illicitly dancing tells off the owner of the bar, then exits and proceeds to relate the story of her triumph to a group of passersby. Her momentary celebration of her assertiveness is something that Valentine and Shosho choose not to share in or comment on, perhaps because they do not desire to draw attention to themselves. Through the black and white dancers, the film appears to be trying to offer compassionate characters who strive to overcome racial oppression. But this is a broader struggle that Shosho and Valentine also do not appear to participate in. Their romance is less about political liberation and the overturning of social norms, more about raw human attraction and the power of erotic intrigue.
To the film’s credit, the director shot a scene in which the two leads kissed on camera. However, sentiments about miscegenation in England were strong enough that the scene was removed in post-production. Instead of breaking new ground by including the kiss, the film gives a fatal, punishing finish to Shosho’s story and thus the story of her affair with Valentine. This was a typical move for films about interracial romance during this period; D. W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) is an earlier but representative example of an interracial relationship that similarly ends in tragedy, as if no other ending can be imagined for individuals who fall in love with people from other cultures. It is unfortunate that Piccadilly does not grant Shosho the opportunity to live, dance, and experience romance sans the discouraging melodrama.
Wong would successfully make the transition to sound-era films and notably acted in Shanghai Express (1932) with Marlene Dietrich, which was the biggest box-office draw of its year; and the amusing but more obscure Elstree Calling (1930), which features her in a metallic bikini that pays homage to her Piccadilly dance ensemble. But as Wong’s career has been reevaluated in recent years, it is Piccadilly that has come to be seen as one of the cornerstones of her film legacy, and it rightfully earns this reputation in spite of the weaknesses I have mentioned. Although it was to be her last silent picture, Piccadilly demonstrates how well-suited she was to the world of film before sound. Her performance—including her muted glances, stylish appearance, and seductive interaction with the camera—is evocative of the poetic storytelling the late silents are known for and remains one of the movie’s greatest attractions.
As a final note, fans of British dance bands will be interested to know that Piccadilly was filmed at the famed London nightclub Café de Paris, and Debroy Somers’s band is featured prominently as the house band. Be aware that the 2004 restoration of the movie uses a jazz soundtrack that is not from the dance band era. It is more American in style, and the music seems to draw inspiration from an odd mixture of Miles Davis and Isaac Hayes.