The star attraction of the Piccadilly Club is the dancing team of Mabel and Vic. Victor is infatuated with Mabel, but she rejects his advances, since she is in love with Valentine Wilmot, the club’s owner. One night, as Mabel and Vic perform their act, there is a disruption caused by a customer who is unhappy about a dirty plate. When Wilmot goes back to the kitchen to investigate, he finds several employees in the scullery watching Shosho, one of the dishwashers, dancing on a table. That night, Wilmot fires both Shosho and Victor. But the club’s sagging fortunes soon lead him to re-evaluate Shosho’s talent.
“She was Anna May Wong, and in dozens of films in the 1920’s and 1930’s, she confronted the stifling stereotypes of Asians (then invariably referred to as “Orientals”) on the movie screen. Wong’s struggle against race hatred was a complex one; her roles were less a battle against prejudice than a dance with it–and Piccadilly is perhaps the most intricate of those tangos.
Born Wong Liu Tsong in Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 1901, Wong was fascinated with the screen, hanging about early film shoots so much that she became well-known to film crews. She made a startling appearance in a tiny part in one of first color films–1922’s The Toll of the Sea–at the age of 12. More successes in memorable small parts followed, such as that of a Mongolian spy in Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Baghdad in 1924, and by the middle of the decade, Anna May Wong, along with Sessue Hayakawa, had come to exemplify the attraction-repulsion filmmakers (and American audiences) had for the East. Wong frequently played characters whose loveliness initially compelled men toward them, but whose treachery propelled them away, often toward a demure white heroine. Wong’s talents – she was one of the most mesmerizing of silent screen faces, and one of the ablest of actors in the sound cinema – helped fuel a huge cycle of Orientalist films, such as the eerie Lon Chaney vehicle Mr. Wu, and a clutch of more prosaic films whose titles betray Wong’s presence, including Streets of Shanghai, The Chinese Parrot, and Chinatown Charlie. Her roles were often written as thanklessly one-dimensional parts, a collection of Asiatic fatales, dutiful Chinese daughters, and childlike servants, but Wong’s strategy was to get inside these characters, and recreate them as entrancing and sympathetic figures, not on the basis of her “exotic” Chinese ethnicity, but through the sheer force of her abilities as a performer to deepen and broaden the limited range of characters she was allowed to play. In a period in which whites frequently played Asian characters (Montana-born Myrna Loy frequently played Black Widow-type “temptresses,” and the stereotyped Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan was played by Swedish actor Warner Oland), Wong stubbornly sought to invest Asian characters with uniqueness, and with a mystery borne not of race, but of the complexities of individual human psychology.
But by 1929, Wong had become frustrated with the American cinema’s steadfast racism, and went to England to make Piccadilly with celebrated German director E.A. Dupont. Dupont was famed for such films as 1925’s Variety, works which explored the interiors of convoluted psyches, and the exteriors of decadent societies. Dupont’s camera was as fluid as his films’ moral stances, and Wong leapt at the chance to escape the Victorian attitudes toward race of the American cinema.
The combination of the talents of Dupont and Wong, as this masterfully reconstructed print shows, brought extraordinary results. Here, Wong plays Shosho, a dishwasher in an outré nightclub, who soon becomes the obsession of the club’s owner. In Piccadilly, Wong bursts the seams of stereotyping, waving Shosho’s exoticism as a proud banner. Like another American in European films, Josephine Baker, Wong challenges us with the implications of stereotype, insisting on our attention in every scene she appears in. Although fellow American Gilda Gray was the nominal star of Piccadilly, to say that Anna May Wong steals the film is an understatement: Wong’s is a Brink’s heist of a performance. Her sword dance scene is one of the highlights of late silent cinema. Wong’s Shosho is an integral part of Dupont’s vision of marvelous excess; she seems to be part of Alfred Junge’s surreal art direction for the film come to life, and yet, she maintains a sparkling sex appeal and a vast psychological depth that is Wong’s alone. Dupont’s camera offers Wong several long dreamy close-ups, transforming her into a Jazz Age siren like Louise Brooks or Clara Bow.
Anna May Wong’s performance in Piccadilly was hailed throughout Europe as one of the year’s very best. Wong’s reception in England was liberating. Her screen fame there was such that she appeared not only in another film, The Flame of Love, but also made a cameo appearance in the lavish revue film, Elstree Calling, as “herself.” The live stage in England called, as well; she appeared in Circle of Chalk with a young Laurence Olivier. Feted everywhere she went, Wong became every bit the toast of the real Piccadilly. Certain that her triumph in England would accord her new respect from American producers, Wong returned to the U.S.
But Hollywood producers hadn’t gotten a reputation for thickheadedness for nothing. With very rare exceptions (Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express was one of them), Wong’s post Piccadilly career picked up where she’d left off in 1928. She returned to make three more films in England in 1934, but further success in Europe still did not open Hollywood’s eyes. By the mid 1940’s, Anna May Wong had essentially retired from the screen. After her death in 1961, she was largely forgotten, until film historians began excavating Hollywood films of the 1920’s and 1930’s for previously slighted portrayals by ethnic performers. Those efforts have turned up Piccadilly, now exquisitely restored by the British Film Institute. Finally, after all these years, Wong’s struggle for respect has been won. In an age that recognizes cinematic pioneering in the portrayal of minorities, Anna May Wong has emerged, belatedly, as an honored ancestor.”
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
From BFI DVD
Extras – Introduction to the music – Neil Brand
Prologue to the sound version of Piccadilly
1.67GB | 1 h 49 min | 768×576 | mkv