Directed by E.A. Dupont, Piccadilly (1929) stars Anna May Wong as Sosho, a beautiful young woman who works as a dishwasher at the Piccadilly nightclub in London. Piccadilly is run by Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas), a man as keen on making his business a success as he is seducing his leading lady. He’s fallen for his star talent Mabel (Gilda Gray), a dancer who, along with her dancing partner Vic (Cyril Ritchard), entertains Valentine’s eager crowd. Mabel is caught in a love triangle between Valentine and Vic. Valentine gets rid of the competition by firing the dancer and making Mabel dance solo. But now that Mabel is no longer forbidden fruit, Valentine completely loses interest. He turns his attention to Sosho (Wong). He spots her dancing on a table in the dishwashing room and fires her for goofing off. However, he soon re-hires her as an exotic dancer. Sosho comes to realize that the power dynamic in their working relationship has shifted. She’s in control. Sosho takes great care to seduce Valentine, to get him to spend money on an elaborate costume for her and to hire her boyfriend Jim (King Hou Chang) as a musician. Mabel, however, is not about to let another woman steal her spotlight and steal her man. A new and even messier love triangle emerges and quickly starts to spiral out of control.
Piccadilly was released at a pivotal point in Anna May Wong’s career and the film industry as a whole. Wong was frustrated with the lack of opportunities in Hollywood and by the time she had been cast in Piccadilly she was exclusively making films in the UK and Germany. Anti-miscegenation laws in the US prevented her as an Asian-American actresses from getting leading lady roles. In this British production, while she’s not top billed, she is a central figure and carries on an affair with a white man.
As talking pictures became increasingly more popular, silent films like Piccadilly were on their way out. There was a lot of pressure in the industry to retrofit silent films with talking sequences in order to capitalize on the craze. They added a five minute all-talking prologue to Piccadilly which sets up the movie as a flashback. It features Jameson Thomas as Valentine Wilmot, now running a beer shack after the scandal ruined his career. His conversation with a customer sets up the story to follow. It’s incredibly boring and stilted and adds nothing to the story. Lucky for us, Piccadilly is still shown to modern viewers in its original form with the talkie add-on as an bonus feature.
Piccadilly was successful enough to serve as a springboard for Anna May Wong to return to her Hollywood roots. It helped her get a contract with Paramount studios which lead to her best-known role opposite Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932). Wong is so dynamic in
I enjoy Piccadilly mostly for Anna May Wong’s performance. She’s so dynamic and enchanting in this film. I’m intrigued by how her character Sosho recognizes her worth and her power because this mirrors Anna May Wong in real life. She knew she had what it takes to make it as an actress and really leveraged that as best she could even though she lost out on so many opportunities because she was Chinese-American.
The dance numbers in this aren’t great. Gilda Gray’s dance numbers really show that she wasn’t much of a dancer. Wong’s dance number is meant to be exotic. The dancing here is not an athletic feat. It’s supposed to titillate and tantalize. Wong draws attention to her body by swaying her hips and using seductive arm movements.
Piccadilly was released last month by Kino Lorber in collaboration with The Milestone Company and the BFI. This Blu-ray includes a beautifully restored and remastered print from the BFI. I love how the restoration really enhances the sepia tones and the blue tint used throughout the film. My only complaint about this edition is the musical score which doesn’t really seem to suit the film, especially when it comes to the dance sequences.
Extras on this disc include the talkie introduction, a documentary on the making of the score, a panel discussion at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival about Anna May Wong. I enjoyed listening to the audio commentary by film historian and critic Farran Smith Nehme who offers a lot of biographical information on the different players involved in Piccadilly.