Judge Mike Pinsky announces that the new hotness for 2005, Anna May Wong, would have turned 100 this year if she were alive. Enjoy the first Chinese-American movie star in her prime in this 1929 silent classic.
"Just imagine the whole place being upset by one little Chinese girl in
Welcome to the Piccadilly Club, where London's elite comes to wine, dine, and dance. Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas) may look unflappable, but he runs the club like his own magic kingdom. Everything must be perfect, from the manners of the staff to the dance steps of his star performer, Mabel Greenfield (Gilda Gray). Just like the Piccadilly, Valentine made Mabel, and their love only seems a natural consequence of their professional obligations. Valentine wants his world to be perfect.
So when a dirty dish sends Valentine down to the scullery to fire the imperfect, immigrant maid responsible, he finds himself drawn into the seedier, more passionate side of the jazz age. He meets Shosho (Anna May Wong), a clever, talented dancer who seduces Valentine almost as an afterthought. But Shosho finds she is quickly overwhelmed by stardom and the demands it brings. If she does not figure out how to play this game soon, success may destroy her.
Piccadilly begins with a card announcing that the film has been passed by the British Board of Censorship. The idea of approval is intriguing here. This film, the certificate suggests, is proper, correct. But the story is about the improper. Set among the jazz clubs of London, Piccadilly is about the hedonistic world between wars. The horrors of the Great War and the flu epidemic are over, and England is celebrating as only a country that has survived the apocalypse—and sees the next apocalypse looming in Europe—can. The people drink too much, dance too much, love too much.
Still, they are British, and so they must act refined and proper. Miss Mabel is the diva of the music hall. The tuxedoed elite of the Piccadilly worship her, none more than Victor (Cyril Ritchard), her lovestruck dance partner. Although he is light on his feet during the show, he is really jealous over Mabel's relationship with Valentine Wilmot, the debonair owner of the club and the man who made her career. It looks like we might be in store for a love triangle among the dapper and dashing.
Then, only minutes into the picture, Victor is jettisoned from the story and we head off on a curious tangent. A customer (Charles Laughton in his screen debut) complains about a dirty plate. The camera follows Valentine backstage, where proper people never go. We see the rough workers who operate the kitchen. Then we go a step further, into the scullery, where the lowest level of London society lurks. Among these immigrants, these strange foreigners, Valentine notices a strange figure: a willowy gamine dancing to entertain the staff. She is alluring without effort.
At first, Valentine seems content simply to fire Shosho for incompetence. But when he meets her, her effortless charisma leads him to hire her as a dancer. Does he realize that this will make the aging Mabel jealous? Does he realize how dangerous it is for a rich white man to wander into the Limehouse district in search of a poor Chinese girl?
At first glance, the thought that Shosho might supplant proper and adoring Mabel as the toast of London might be read as a fear of the intrusion of Asian culture into the West, commensurate with the "Yellow Peril" villains of pulp novels. There was a sinister allure attributed to the "mysterious East" in these stories. This fits perfectly with the sinister allure attributed to women in popular culture of the time. Woman as other; Asian as other; poor as other. Shosho becomes the alien invader.
But Shosho is an innocent victim of neither manipulative capitalists nor the corrupting influence of foreign sexuality. Where E.A. Dupont's Piccadilly stands out from its time is in its ability to embrace the outsider position. Even Shosho's arrogant rejection of the desperate Mabel late in the film, when the two women have reached their apotheosis, is born out of her need to survive in a world that would erase her. And this is also the story of Anna May Wong. The Chinese-American actress toiled away in Hollywood for years, trapped in background roles that never took advantage of her powerful screen presence. Like Paul Robeson or Josephine Baker, Wong found Europe more receptive. Although she is third-billed in Piccadilly, this British production by German director E.A. Dupont is widely considered the finest showcase of her talent. What is meant as a secondary role, the ingénue who comes between lovers Valentine and Mabel, turns into a scene-stealing performance. From the moment she comes on screen, you know that this is Anna May Wong's show.
It is difficult in this film to divorce Shosho as a performance from Anna May Wong as an actress. In a sense, Wong is both immersing herself in a role here and consciously crafting Shosho as a representative image of all Chinese women. In this way, Shosho bursts forth from the screen and takes over the film. While it might seem a stretch for film critics to read politics into some films (and I know I have tried your patience as readers more than once on this account), it is impossible to discuss Piccadilly without considering its sociological subtext. It is there because Anna May Wong fought to put it there. The filmmakers around her might have thought, "Here is a pretty Chinese girl. She would be perfect as a slave or a maid." Anna May Wong was thinking, "How can I be a Chinese woman on a movie screen?"
The key moment comes when Valentine visits Shosho in Limehouse. He is out of place, a foreigner here. Surrounded by people who are clearly not white—and are not deferring to his authority—he tells Shosho to try on an embarrassingly baroque costume he wants her to wear when she performs at the club. She refuses, making Jim (King Ho-Chang), her infatuated cousin, put it on instead. Later, when her show at the Piccadilly is a hit, she reads back the glowing review for Jim, literally rubbing it in his face, then peeking in to kiss him. It is as if she has just discovered her sexual power, and it is intoxicating. Her sweet smile betrays only the joy of personal fulfillment, without haughtiness.
Does Shosho really understand her power over men? Only enough to use it to her advantage, but never too much to become the villain of the film. A weak screenplay would have used Shosho as a femme fatale, warning us of the power of foreign women. Writer Arnold Bennett rarely stoops to melodrama or goes the expected route. Only an awkwardly structured final act threatens to collapse the film, but otherwise, the focus here is on strong character interaction rather than forced plot twists. Mabel, who could easily have been turned into a hysteric, is handled sympathetically. Even Valentine Wilmot is no cardboard master-of-the-house. Dupont's direction is remarkably fluid and crisply edited, surprisingly modern in some scenes. In one shot, just a throwaway, he mounts his camera on the inside of a door, so when the door opens, our eye follows Valentine as he enters the room. Dupont knows when to cut to close-ups of hands or faces to communicate mood and intention. And he knows how to frame Wong so that her raw sensuality shines winningly through.
Considering how little dialogue Wong is allowed (after all, Asian women must be quiet and mysterious), it is fitting that the actress knows exactly how to use her eyes and mouth to convey her increasing sense of power. Shosho realizes how to play the men in her life off one another with only a small glance. We empathize with Shosho, a woman whose class and race make her powerless in both Chinese and British society. We also sympathize, if somewhat less so, with the erosion of Mabel's sexual potency, a woman whose age is just beginning to show. But Anna May Wong steals the show with a sexual allure that is neither innocent nor sinister. Sexuality, as you can see in her eyes, is an afterthought.
Wong herself had a life no less tumultuous than that of Shosho. A fine overview of her career written on the DVD insert by film scholar Zhang Zhen suggests that Wong's quiet rebellion against both Chinese tradition (women as objects) and Hollywood racism (Asians and women as objects) found her caught between two cultures that both love her and view her with suspicion. That she managed to find in director Dupont an artist who understood how to translate that tension to the screen is the stroke of luck from which marvelous works of art like Piccadilly are born.
Piccadilly was long considered one of those silent classics whose full glory was lost to decay. The British Film Institute managed to reconstruct a 109-minute print recently, and this print, the centerpiece of Milestone's excellent DVD release, has sparked a major revival for Anna May Wong. Richard Corliss wrote a strong essay for Time, academic panels were convened, and Wong was credited as a pioneer for Asian-American women in popular culture.
Milestone has included excerpts from an informative panel discussion called "Dangerous to Know: The Career and Legacy of Anna May Wong," during which several Asian-American women (including actress Nancy Kwan) and one white male biographer discuss the impact of Wong. While the sound is badly recorded (subtitles would really help here), the panelists are unpretentious and the insights sharp. Wong worked hard to consciously project on screen what her biographer calls her "Chineseness," and viewers can easily see how Piccadilly is a real cultural breakthrough in this light.
Other features on the DVD include a leisurely prologue for the sound version of the film released simultaneously in 1929 (presumably to those theaters with the new technology). There is also an audio interview with composer Neil Brand, discussing his strategies for developing an original score for this restored version of the film. There is no word on whether Piccadilly had a score during its 1929 release. Brand's music, incorporating jazz, British period music, and touches of noir, is an interesting choice, although he sometimes incorporates too many anachronistic musical motifs (World War II big band style, for example) that might confuse audiences as to when this film is set. Still, I think going with a jazz score, rather than the traditional orchestra or organ people expect for silent films, was the right choice here.
A photo gallery highlights some striking portraits of Wong. Look at how often photographers tried to overwhelm her presence with garish costumes or accessories—and how she invariably showed through. There is also a collection of photos from the film and a copy of the press kit. If you have a DVD-ROM, you can also access Milestone's press kit and a set of excellent biographical analyses of Wong and her career, including some solid assessment of Piccadilly, all in PDF format. Unlike most DVD-ROM content, these essays are well worth a look.
The only thing missing here that I wish Milestone had included might be a selection of clips from some of Wong's other films. While the European-made Piccadilly was easily the high point of her cinema career, boasting a powerful role that Hollywood could not bring itself to offer her, it might help viewers to understand the differences between this film and her Hollywood life if we had some direct comparisons. It is a minor quibble, which I only suggest because of the disc's focus on the film as a showcase for Wong and her place in cinema.
Piccadilly is another winner from the Milestone Collection, which has proven to be one of the leaders in preserving significant landmarks of cinema history. The film is a great example of the potential of silent cinema to turn the human body into pure signage: Anna May Wong transcends her character to become the embodiment of the Asian Woman on screen. Perhaps Anthony Chan might overstate a bit in his essay (on the DVD-ROM portion of the disc) that Wong is "the fulfillment of every European male's wet dream," but if a teasing phrase like this makes you go buy a copy of this movie, I'm glad to do my part in pandering.
To those who need no pandering, be sure that Piccadilly is a fascinating and accessible movie presented on a disc that accentuates its historic and cultural significance. If only we had a few more Anna May Wongs out there in those rough and racist years, American cinema might be very different today.
Although the laws of European society of 1929 might prevent Anna May Wong from prevailing at earlier tribunals, this court sets aside any previous injunctions against her. Piccadilly is released and all prior charges expunged. Court is adjourned.
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